Ask two Jews what a "Jewish cruise" means to them, and -- as the saying goes -- you'll get three answers. You might envision a cruise themed on Jewish culture with visits to synagogues and historical places in ports of call, while someone else imagines strictly kosher cuisine and onboard rabbis. And if you look, you can find all of the above, plus many other Jewish-themed cruises.
We run through the major types of Jewish cruises and kosher cruises, including where you can find them and what you need to know to see if they're a good fit for your travel needs.
Most cruise lines offer passengers the opportunity to order kosher food in advance of their cruise, but you'll be eating pre-prepared, not freshly prepared, dishes with minimal choice. Some high-end lines, such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, can offer kosher meats cooked a la minute; however, the ships have no separate galleys, so preparation is not strictly kosher.
For a truly Glatt kosher experience onboard, you'll need to book a charter cruise helmed by Kosherica or Golden Tours, the only companies to offer a kosher cruise experience to Orthodox standards.
Kosherica runs a number of sailings a year with groups of 100 to 800 people onboard. The company brings on its own rabbinic team and often its own chefs, as well as ingredients, dishes, cutlery and cookware. It also takes over an entire onboard galley, or part of one, to prepare fresh food in a strictly kosher environment.
In addition, a Kosherica cruise will feature religious services three times a day, lectures by noted Jewish clergy and scholars and occasionally entertainment by Jewish performers. In marquee ports, the company will plan a Jewish interest shore excursion, complete with lunch at a kosher restaurant.
Golden Tours offers a smaller selection of sailings, generally with Holland America Line or Norwegian Cruise Line. These Glatt kosher cruises also offer their groups a separate dining room, as well as traditional Shabbat meals. Also available in all Golden Tours kosher cruises are synagogues with daily and Shabbat service; a Sefer Torah; Kiddush, and Shabbat elevators.
Among a few other options, Kosherica and Golden Tours offer kosher cruises to Alaska, the Caribbean, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, generally aboard Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Dawn, Noordam, or Amadeus Nova.
If you're interested in exploring your Jewish roots abroad, several river cruise lines offer specific Jewish Heritage themed sailings.
Uniworld currently offers three Jewish Heritage cruises as part of its Jewish Heritage Program, which showcases Jewish communities, culture and history. These Jewish-themed cruises visit Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Ships offering these itineraries include River Empress, S.S. Beatrice and River Duchess.
Note that Uniworld’s and Avalon’s river cruises do not provide kosher food or rabbis onboard.
For fully kosher river cruises, Kosher Riverboat Cruises is the only company that charters entire ships. These cruises offer Glatt kosher cuisine, Shabbat service, Jewish and secular shore excursions, lectures and onboard historians. Itineraries include the Rhone, Panama and Costa Rica, the Douro, Northern Italy, and even Vietnam and Cambodia.
If you are traveling during a major Jewish holiday, such as Hanukkah or Passover, you will likely find some onboard programming, with events varying by cruise line.
For Hanukkah, cruise lines will typically offer menorah lightings each night, and festive foods like latkes; some lines will bring a rabbi onboard to lead the candle-lighting.
While there’s currently no specific Passover cruise available, many lines will engage a rabbi and host a kosher-style seder on Passover. Passengers can often order kosher for Passover meals (often pre-prepared, not cooked fresh), but need to do so months in advance. On these regular cruises, don't expect Passover observance to be as strict as you might keep at home, or matzo to be available in all dining venues.
Cruising is notorious for catering to couples and families more than solo cruisers, but Jewish singles can find companionship, roommates and even love through organizations like Amazing Journeys that host Jewish singles cruises.
A Jewish singles cruise usually targets a specific age range (such as 25 to 45, or 40s, 50s and 60s) and offers a choice of pricing for solo cabins (more expensive) or shared rooms with other participants. These cruises also provide a host onboard to run programs and assist guests.
A company like Amazing Journeys will run five to six cruises per year, along with a number of other land-based options for Jewish singles travel. Jewish content comes in the form of Shabbat and Hanukkah celebrations, custom tours to Jewish heritage sites and presentations by experts sailing with the group (such as a Jewish educator speaking about Cuban Jewry on a Fathom cruise to Cuba).
Other group activities might include icebreaker events and cocktail parties, communal dinners and onboard activities; some solo travel organizations might bundle group shore excursions into the price.
Most Jewish singles cruises attract Reform, Conservative and some Modern Orthodox travelers, who can opt for kosher food through the cruise line as on any regular sailing, though most attendees will dine on regular cruise ship fare.
Occasionally, a Glatt kosher solo trip will be offered (Kosherica has done them in the past), but these will be specifically labeled as kosher cruises.
You can certainly celebrate a Jewish life cycle event at sea. Most cruise lines can host onboard weddings, often on embarkation day, and many have wedding specialists who can facilitate port-day ceremonies.
If you choose an embarkation day wedding, with a honeymoon cruise to follow, you can simply bring your own rabbi onboard to officiate, like you would at any other wedding venue. Contact your preferred cruise line's wedding department or speak to a travel agent who specializes in Jewish destination weddings.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah cruises are a bit more complicated, but certain travel agencies, such as Destination Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah Vacations, specialize in arranging details for this type of travel.
Choose to have the ceremony pre-cruise (and just party onboard), on embarkation day, at sea or in port. The agency will provide rabbis (most often Reform or Conservative), Torahs and the synagogue experience.
Hosts from the agency might come onboard to facilitate events or meet you in a port of call, and you might be among a group of Bar Mitzvah cruisers, with the option for private or joint celebrations, or you might be the only Bar Mitzvah family on your sailing.