Cantor’s congregation is on the high seas


For retired Cantor Morris Chotin, the congregation he currently serves is constantly changing — in terms of both location and the people he serves.

Chotin, a native St. Louisan, served a variety of congregations in the Eastern United States during his professional career, and worked during overflow services at United Hebrew for six years.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Now, rather than a traditional synagogue setting, Chotin serves on the high seas — as a cruise chaplain for Radisson Cruise Lines.

This is Chotin’s seventh year as a cruise chaplain, a position he began after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“After the 9-11 attacks, I got a call from my placement agency in New York (The American Conference of Cantors). The Radisson Cruise Lines called in and many of their chaplains were canceling, because they were afraid to fly. They needed retired cantors who would be able to fit into their program,” he said.

“It’s a very exclusive cruise line. They cater to a very wealthy clientele, so they have very strict standards. They need someone who not only has the Jewish background, but someone who can relate to the passengers,” Chotin said.

The cruise lines only look for ordained rabbis or invested cantors — but are still very selective in finding the right personalities for the job.

“Keeping the passengers happy is even more important than doing the religious services,” he said. “They want a personality, someone who could relate to them on the level that they are used to.”

So, the ACC recommended Chotin and the cruise line asked him if he could be in Venice in two days.

“I figured he meant Venice, Ill.,” Chotin said with a laugh.

The cruise line sent Chotin an airline ticket to Venice, Italy, and apparently Chotin’s personality and the cruise line’s needs meshed, because he has been serving as a cruise chaplain several times a year ever since, both for Radisson and Regent Cruise Lines. In fact, a number of passengers have requested him on subsequent cruises.

As a cruise chaplain, Chotin leads Shabbat and holiday services, officiates at weddings and renews vows, counsels passengers and attends to those who become ill. A typical cruise has about 350 passengers, or on the larger ships, up to 700, about 20 percent of whom are Jewish, generally, Chotin said. Usually, a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister are also on board, but occasionally, when Chotin is the only chaplain on board, he conducts interfaith services.

However, another part of Chotin’s job is getting to know the passengers.

“I love the interaction,” he said, “and meeting people from all over the world.”

Chotin’s travels have taken him quite literally around the world — twice.

Last year, Chotin served as cruise chaplain on an around-the-world cruise that had him at sea for four months.

“We went through Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, all over the place,” Chotin said.

Chotin started his musical career at Soldan High School, as part of the school’s a capella choir. He then attended Washington University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education.

Chotin credits his mentor, Jan Peerce, then a leading a tenor from the Metropolitan Opera, with encouraging him to become a cantor.

Chotin earned his bachelor’s degree in sacred music and a degree as a certified cantor from Hebrew Union College (HUC). In the past year HUC awarded Chotin with an honorary Doctorate of Divinity, adding to a long list of awards and honors accumulated over the years. Chotin also has a master’s degree in religious education from NYU.

When asked about his favorite experiences from his travels, Chotin has no shortage of examples of exotic locales and celebrity encounters, including swimming with sharks and stingrays to trekking through the jungles of Thailand, and holding the tails of two live tigers, each weighing close to 500 pounds.

“Once I patted the head of a King Cobra,” Chotin said. “There’s an adage that if you pat the head of a King Cobra, it will bring you good luck. Well, my good luck was that he didn’t bite me.”

In China, Chotin once visited the Great Wall alongside Judge William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA. And he sang on one cruise with legendary opera soprano Kiri Te Kanawa.

For the first couple of years he worked on the cruises, Chotin traveled with his wife, Elayne. Together they saw Istanbul and Tahiti, among other locales. However, after 46 years of marriage, Chotin’s wife passed away in 2003.

Now Chotin splits his time between living in his Chesterfield home, traveling on cruise lines — generally three times a year: around Hanukkah, Passover and the High Holidays — and spending winters in Las Vegas.

This Hanukkah, Chotin will be cruising the Caribbean. In 2008, Chotin will sail to Spain and Portugal and lead Passover services in the French Riviera.

So, did Chotin ever imagine he would be attending to people’s spiritual needs on board a luxury cruise liner?

“Never,” he said. “If anybody ever told me when I was living in St. Louis when I was younger, going to Washington University that I’d be traveling around the world, I would have thought they were crazy.”

“I was just a poor, struggling kid. My parents were immigrants from Russia,” Chotin said.

“Life has many, many mysteries,” he said.