Sea travel has always posed formidable challenges—especially for Jews. Keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and venturing into a sea of people who aren’t Jewish isn’t easy for the strictly observant. The challenges are compounded on cruises, where numerous questions come up.
If most of the passengers are Jewish and the staff is not, is it permissible to cruise on Shabbat? If the ship docks on Shabbat, can you disembark? How do you light candles when you are forbidden to light a flame? How do you negotiate the electronic locks on your cabin doors? But most importantly, how do you keep kosher and still feel like you’re on a luxury vacation? Let’s face it—food is a big part of the cruise experience, but for the kosher, it can pose challenges.
In 2017 Royal Caribbean International first contacted Rabbi Dovid Weberman and his wife Esther, to explore the options for observant travelers who want to enjoy the all-inclusive cruise experience from the Haifa port. Then came Covid and cruises stopped, and missiles from Gaza in 2021 stymied the program again. When cruises resumed in 2022, Rabbi Weberman was there, and somehow the word got out. According to Dalia Stelzer, a travel consultant from the United States, the popular Fresh Kosher program has been selling out as soon as a new date is introduced, mostly by simple word of mouth.
Before Fresh Kosher, and on other cruise lines, kosher consumers were not getting the full cruise experience. Rabbi Weberman explained that while many traditional cruises offer frozen kosher meals, kosher cruisers would take it upon themselves to visit the kitchens to see if they could have salads, which needed to be prepared on a separate kitchen area. They watched other diners enjoying sumptuous arrays of food and wine selections while they picked at their limited frozen offerings.
Last year, according to Esther Weberman, the Fresh Kosher program provided buffet-style dining in the main dining room. One cruiser described the kosher spread as lavish, with ice sculptures, intricately carved watermelons and amazing food. However, it became confusing and difficult to monitor who was participating in the kosher program in the massive mixed dining room.
Now, for a price, kosher diners can have the full experience.
For $20 per person per day on Haifa cruises and $70 per day on cruises originating in the United States, sumptuous fresh meals are served. For the Haifa cruise this year, Fresh Kosher took over two specialty restaurants, making them exclusively kosher. Breakfast and lunch are hot and cold buffets and dinner is plated with choices of appetizers and entrees. In the United States, a small dining room offers buffets for all three meals.
“With gratuities, the $70 per person cost comes to $83 per person per day,” said Stelzer. “On an 11-night cruise that’s a total of over $900 dollars, a lot extra to pay, but still significantly less than a cruise through a private tour operator and worth the value to many guests to get three fresh kosher meals a day. Even with the surcharge, I have sold over $1 million on Royal Caribbean International cruises,” she added.
There are only 350 to 400 Fresh Kosher appointments allotted to each cruise, so the kosher program sells out quickly, many months before the actual cruise is sold out, according to Stelzer.
There are also options for cooking kosher frozen fish—salmon, perch or tilapia in foil in the kosher Park Café (pizza bar) ovens, which is what one Jerusalem-based couple did when they found out they had ordered kosher meals, but not Fresh Kosher. They said the food was tasty. Although they were initially disappointed, the cruise exceeded their expectations. But next time, they want in on the Fresh Kosher program.
Cornering the kosher cruise market with a fleetwide project to reach out to kosher passengers is another smart move for the already successful organization. Royal Caribbean International has a tendency to jump on trends, like switching its ship-based internet service to SpaceX’s Starlink service, and announcing its mammoth new 1,200-foot vessel Icon of the Seas, which will be launched shortly. According to June 2023 market share data, Royal Caribbean International, parent company to Celebrity, Silversea and Azamara, is number two in terms of market share, behind Carnival’s number 1.
Royal Caribbean International is expected to serve over 8 million passengers by the end of 2023, according to its CEO Jason Liberty. As of February 2022, the Miami-based company operated 64 ships. By comparison, Norwegian Cruise Lines had only about half the passenger load.
Sharon Gratt Leeds, U.S.-based travel agent who specializes in cruises, agrees that Royal Caribbean really has the market for the kosher traveler. “The three U.S. dates for August 2023 sold out. Of the three more in January, two Caribbean cruises from Orlando, on the Wonder of the Seas and another on Anthem of the Seas departing Bayonne, one has already sold out for Fresh Kosher. The price is great compared to going to a resort. You get three meals per day, entertainment—and it’s all included.”
When asked about Norwegian Cruise lines, Leeds said that while the ships are comparable, the food is not. Her customers aren’t interested in frozen meals.
Another option from Haifa is Mano, a privately-owned, completely kosher cruise line that serves the Israeli market. Mano also operates a 2,000-passenger ship that visits Greece and the Mediterranean. Onshore tour excursions are given in Hebrew.
Fresh Kosher is offered on Rhapsody of the Seas’ cruises to Greece, and in 2024 Jewel of the Seas will sail from Haifa. Six Fresh Kosher Haifa dates have been announced for 2024, from August 16 through October 13. Travel agents expect more Fresh Kosher dates to open soon in the United States as well. One Fresh Kosher Trip to Alaska cruised this year from Seattle. Stelzer suggests to be sure to use a travel agent who really knows the kosher market. Only after you book the cruise can you add on the Fresh Kosher option if available.
When Rabbi Weberman contracted to be the official Royal Caribbean rabbi and kosher certifier for the cruise line, he hired and trained a 14-member crew of his own “translators” to help guests feel more comfortable.
“The role of the rabbi is to take care of everyone,” Weberman explained. “It’s a chaplaincy program. For the program to work the common denominator is family. Every person involved is part of one big family.”
The rabbi boards the ship a month before the first cruise is set to sail. He interviews translators, first by Zoom and later in person, and hires the most service-oriented ones.
“Training is a large part of the compliance,” he explained. “Waiters, guest services, inventory staff, all must be trained to identify Hebrew certification on labels. Labels and specification sheets are examined to create farm-to-fork traceability of all products being used. Chefs are trained on how to facilitate kosher and non-kosher in mixed environments. Menus are modified to accommodate kosher substitutions, and chefs are taught to cook traditional Shabbat foods.”
Of course, the chefs add their own culinary flair to the traditional cuisine, under the kosher guidelines. The kitchens themselves aren’t made kosher until one day before the cruise.
Esther, his wife is on call to supervise Izumi, famed chef Travis Kamiyama’s Japanese specialty restaurant, which currently operates on 26 Royal Caribbean International ships worldwide. With separate cooking stations and various counters, Izumi on the Rhapsody of the Seas out of Haifa has a small kosher menu to offer guests an interesting specialty option and a taste of Japan. As a specialty restaurant there is an additional charge at Izumi for all diners, kosher and non-kosher. Kosher guests are seated separately on the second level of the restaurant.
Rabbi Weberman’s interest in the food business is genetic, he joked. His great grandfather had a kosher deli and was a shochet (ritual slaughterer) on Rivington Street in New York. Raised in the Chabad neighborhood of Crown Heights, Weberman recalls asking the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) whether, as a teen, he should go to learn at camp or opt to work in the camp kitchen. The Rebbe answered him, “Feeding Jewish students is a very important job.”
That was when he began learning to be a mashigiach (kosher certifier).
He later went on to develop a company producing specialty pastas and kugels. He also catered for Kosherica, a cruise program introduced by tour operators who rent out a portion of ships to offer a complete package of kosher food and entertainment. They eventually assumed their own catering. So when Royal Caribbean approached him, he knew he was up for the job.
He designates one of his post-army translators to oversee religious services and help recruit Torah readers and cantors. Services are included on the Royal Caribbean app schedule, although the venue is not fixed and doesn’t offer a traditional synagogue with a women’s section, rather an unused lounge space or conference room. While it isn’t a formal program, the passengers and staff make it work, and the quorum is met each day for all three services. Others are trained to work in the kitchen and at the restaurants, and to answer questions.
Because candles cannot be lit aboard ship, electric candles are set out on a table outside one of the restaurants in conjunction with an opinion that in such cases, this is the permissible manner of lighting candles on Friday night. (There is no such option for Havdala, though.) Non-Jewish staff is trained enough to be very helpful over Shabbat, for instance to open electronic cabin doors without being asked. Guests are guided to permissible coffee and hot water urns and advised of the doors and self-flushing toilets that must be avoided on Shabbat.
Esther has even accompanied women in need of a mikvah to secluded places during shore excursions so they can take a dip. She helps clear up misconceptions about kashrut, both on the ship and for shore excursions.
“We treat everyone—officers, staff, crew members and of course our customers, with courtesy and understanding,” said Rabbi Weberman. “Questions come up, and we’re here. If Jewish cruisers just want to relax, that’s great. We don’t pressure. We just want to make it easy for people on and off the ship. Our translators reach out to every passenger—Jewish and non-Jewish.”
Esther, a former teacher, is an expert in working with youngsters on the trip, ensuring the Jewish ones get kosher snacks in the Adventure Ocean kids facility. She is the resident expert in bar kashrut. She trains the bartenders so they can advise guests of which cocktails are permissible, and if they get stumped, she is a quick phone call away.
For the kosher cruisers, this means maximum participation. Dinner is a served meal with choices of appetizers and entrees. The popcorn given away outside the theatre? Kosher, with non-dairy butter for all to enjoy. The all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream by the pool? Deliciously kosher. Starbucks drinks? Certified kosher. Even bar drinks, except for the ones with fruit punch, are kosher and available to guests. If you aren’t sure, just ask. A nice kosher wine list is available as well.
Mitch Mandel, a resident of Karnei Shomron, has experience cruising on different lines, and recently returned from a Rhapsody of the Seas Fresh Kosher cruise with his wife and two children.
“Why should we be second-class citizens? It was a blast! Everything was to our expectations, and even more so. It was a very enjoyable experience and great value for the money,” he said.
When you’re on a cruise ship with 2,500 other customers, competing for resources like a spot in the pool or a plate at the buffet, the atmosphere can get unpleasant. Mandel pointed out that Royal Caribbean International attracts a refined and diverse crowd of customers as compared to some of his other experiences.
“The crowd on Royal Caribbean is much more global,” he added. “The rush for food and the lines on other cruise lines were out of control. Bottom line, Royal Caribbean is an American cruise line, and it is run like one.”
According to Rabbi Weberman, the service the staff extends to customers makes the entire experience feel first-class. Cruiser Shelley Kohr, who was never a fan of frozen meals, said that Fresh Kosher made her recent seven-day cruise to Greece one of the best vacations she ever had. “It surpassed our expectations,” she said. “It’s surprising other cruise lines don’t offer this as the kosher market is so large. We hope to book another Royal Caribbean cruise with the Fresh Kosher program next summer to Alaska for our 40th anniversary.”