At first glance, it looked like any other Friday night service at Beth El.
The people were slowly filing in while stopping to talk with friends about this, that and the other. They looked to find their seats, with more coming in closer to the time the service was set to start. After everybody got finished talking and socializing, they took their seats and got ready as Rabbi Dana Saroken and Cantor Thom King stepped up.
But everything else about this service was much different than normal — since it took place on a boat that sailed along the waters of downtown Baltimore.
About 150 people came downtown to board The Black-Eyed Susan in the Canton area, and take part in the “Sail Into Shabbat” program. Basically, Beth El moved its Friday night service on to the boat. The 30-minute service took place while the boat quietly made its way on approximately a six-mile trip that lasted about two hours, and those who came got to relax afterwards and enjoy some time watching the water.
The Black-Eyed Susan is an old-school paddlewheel-driven riverboat. It’s 111 ½ feet long and 28 ft. wide with two levels on it. The Friday night service took place upstairs, and afterwards some people stayed there to relax and look at the water and the sights of downtown. Others wanted to escape the heat and went downstairs for some drinks and snacks.
“I thought the service was great,” said Joel Shugarman of Pikesville. “It was a wonderful idea. It brought people together on a beautiful night. It was a relaxing environment.”
The service began with a 19-page prayer book that was given to those on board, and it took place while the boat slowly moved throughout the waters. It ended right about the time the boat approached Harborplace and began turning to go back to the dock, located off of Boston Street.
This is the first time that Beth El has tried this program, and Saroken and others were so delighted with the results that they’ve pretty much guaranteed the synagogue will do it again in 2012. The boat’s crew set up about 150 seats on the top deck of the Black-Eyed Susan, turning the area into a mini-synagogue.
“Being out here on the water, as we had hoped, would create a space where we could set sail together and just bring in Shabbat in a neat way,” Saroken said. “People have our traditional service; we’re just on the water, which is really neat.”
The biggest problem on this night — as it has been throughout the area recently — was the weather, since the temperatures were pushing 100 degrees once again when the boat set sail around 6 p.m. But the boat picked up a nice cross-breeze that cooled off the deck.
Despite the temperature, a large number of people remained on the deck after the service.
“I love the Harbor, and I love boats, and it’s very nice to be out here,” said Beth El’s ritual director, Sandy Winters. “It’s something different. It’s a lot of fun. It feels like Shabbat.”
Ray Kahn is the immediate past president of Beth El, and his wife, Dale, played a huge role in making this event become a reality. He was delighted with everything except the weather.
“I thought this was the first, initial and hopefully the very beginning of a tradition that we can start because it adds another dimension to Shabbat,” he said. “It brings the community together. What we had hoped for was that we could entice maybe another group of congregants to attend the Friday night service, and I think we accomplished part of that.”
In the end, the people who attended got their Friday night service as usual. It just was in a different setting.
“I just loved it,” Saroken said. “It’s been amazing.”