My saba, the cruise cantor

Eliezer Kornreich has spent the last 15 Pessahs on ships, leading Seders for crowds of hundreds.

311_cruise ship (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_cruise ship
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Getting up and singing in front of a crowd of hundreds is not something that most bespectacled, braces-sporting preteens want to do. Yet, throughout my middle school years, I found myself singing The Four Questions with my sister in front of a room full of strangers, because that’s what cantors’ granddaughters do.
And my saba was the cantor on this ship.
Yes, you read that right. My grandfather, Cantor Eliezer Kornreich – or Saba Eli, as I call him – has worked for the past 15 years as the Jewish clergy on various cruise lines.
Saba Eli has been singing his whole life. Born in Berlin during World War II, his family made aliya when he was an infant. He grew up in Tel Aviv, where he sang with the Bilu Boys Choir.
After his father, Yosef, passed away, Saba Eli’s mother, Tzipora, was able to send him to the prestigious religious boys boarding school Midreshet Noam in Pardes Hanna (the new Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, is also a graduate) on a scholarship. Saba Eli got free tuition in exchange for being the school cantor, leading the prayers for the whole school morning, noon and night.
Click for special Jpost Pessah features
Click for special Jpost Pessah features
My grandfather met my grandmother, Rivka, at a sports camp for religious teens, where he worked as a counselor. They love to tell the story of how excited Rivka’s mother, Bella, was to hear her daughter was dating Eli, the soloist from the Bilu choir’s radio program.
Fast forward a decade, and Eli and Rivka are married, have a baby (my mother, Chen) and move to Queens, New York in the early Sixties to pursue doctorates in education and media, respectively. Saba Eli found work as a cantor and Hebrew school principal in various New York-area Conservative synagogues.
It was in one of those synagogues that I made my singing debut, chanting Adon Olam from the bima on one of many weekends spent at my grandparents’ house.
About the same time as Saba Eli left a major Manhattan synagogue after 25 years, my family went on a cruise in honor of his birthday and he and my grandmother fell in love with the concept. It didn’t take long for them to figure out how to combine their love of travel with their love of chazanut.
My grandparents have spent the bulk of the last few years at sea, where in addition to leading services, they give classes about Judaism. My grandmother uses the research skills she honed as a journalist to put together Jewish heritage tours of countries around the world.
Their favorite trip is Regent’s three-and-a-half month cruise around the world, which has brought them to exotic islands like St. Helena and Bora Bora, as well as major cities like Cape Town and Hong Kong.
“It doesn’t matter how deserted an island is – there’s always at least one other Israeli there,” Savta Rivka loves to say with her infectious laugh, recounting how the beauty queen of a Pacific island so small they had to take rafts from the ship in order to reach it, spoke fluent Hebrew she learned from her Israeli husband.
“Spending so much time with people on the World Cruise gives us a better chance to get to know them and teach them about Judaism,” Saba Eli explained to me, saying that his job isn’t just singing – it’s about educating people.
“I love to sing, but nothing gives me greater satisfaction than knowing I helped bring Judaism into people’s lives.”
Saba Eli’s Seders range from 100 to 250 participants who come from all ranges of the religious spectrum, and often include curious non-Jews. He always makes sure to explain every tradition, and gets largely positive reactions.
“I get e-mails from people telling me that they want to come on the cruise next year, because they enjoyed the Seder so much,” he said, but added with self-deprecating humor: “Then again, one woman told me she missed the Seder because she had a massage appointment.”
Often, the Seder’s non-Jewish participants are more enthusiastic than anyone else.
“I always invite the other clergies on the ship,” he explained. “On one trip, the Catholic priest declined the invitation, but the Protestant clergy came and brought his wife. I noticed that she sang along throughout the Seder, and she knew all the prayers when they returned for the following Friday night’s services.
“It turns out that, before she was married, she sang in a Reform synagogue’s choir, and was very excited to hear the familiar tunes again,” he said.
This Pessah, I’ll be in Israel, while Saba Eli is at sea. I still listen to him sing on his website (, where he can be contacted about performing weddings and giving bar mitzva lessons) but it’s been a long time since I chanted the Four Questions in public – my younger cousins have taken over that job.
However, I’ll have the chance to see him and my Savta a few weeks later when, for the first time in their seafaring career, they will be working on a ship that docks in Israel.
“It’s very exciting,” he said via Skype, as my sister and I helped him prepare a PowerPoint presentation on Israel. I hope I can make people love Israel – there’s no place like it in the world.”
Six years of living in Israel, far from Saba Eli’s Seders, have made me appreciate the fact that not everyone is lucky enough to spend their Pessahs sailing through Panama and Puerto Rico.