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How a roving sea captain became an observant Jew

Ed Howe, at Temple Ahavat Achim, in Gloucester. Photo by Larry Constantine

AUGUST 24, 2017 – Among regulars in the Sunday-morning minyan at Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim is a self-effacing man with wavy white hair and a weather-wrinkled face that speaks of years at sea. Gloucester resident Ed Howe is also known for wearing sandals year round, grudgingly donning shoes only on the worst days of slushy Cape Ann winters. The custom traces to his years living in Israel, but may also be a sign of his yearning to make Aliyah.

How this scion of a Presby­terian family from Oregon ended up sailing the world and converting to Judaism in Israel is a saga worthy of an HBO special. A war baby and the hard-working oldest of five children, he attended church camp and even participated in mission work on a Navajo reservation. When he was 12, his family moved to rural northern California, where dirt roads would flood out and power outages were not uncommon. The local high school owned two planes, and Ed learned how to fly even before he could drive.

He attended the University of California at Berkeley, but took seven years to graduate in physics with a political science minor. After college, he worked as an engineer in the Silicon Valley for several years before heading to New Orleans to help start an independent television station. Stranded without a job when the station tanked, Howe signed on as a deck hand on an offshore tug working the Gulf ports and the Caribbean.

By 1977, he had worked his way up to captain his own vessel, ultimately sailing out of about 40 countries. The ocean-going tug he captained was 260 feet long with a crew of eight.

After an Israeli woman invited Howe to visit her in Jerusalem, he transferred to the Mediterranean and ended up stationed out of Cairo with an Egyptian crew. On his first visit to Israel by bus from Cairo across the Sinai just after the Israeli withdrawal in 1982, he was enthralled by the changing view as desert gave way to orange trees and eventually to green expanses. He began using time off to visit Israel, staying with friends in Jerusalem and exploring the country. As most of his hosts were observant, Howe was living the kosher life even before he converted.

Howe took a year off to study at Hebrew University, “a 40-year-old taking a junior year abroad,” as he put it. During his year of study, Howe roomed with a friend from New York, learning about the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and keeping kosher by living an observant lifestyle.

By the end of the year, what had started as a cultural interest in the country and its people was transformed into a commitment to convert. His adviser in Jerusalem suggested that he avoid political complications and convert through a private court at Kfar Saba, which he did over the next six months.

His decision to observe kashrut extended to his boat. To Howe, his days on the ocean are part of a spiritual connection, where the vastness of sea and sky and the forces of weather and wave are humbling and relentless reminders of how small we are and how little we control.

Eventually, Howe intends to return to live out the rest of his life in Israel. “It’s just so much easier to be a Jew in Israel,” he said.

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