NEWPORT – Capt. Jonathan Kabak actually sounds like a captain. He speaks in a resonant baritone, and every sentence is clear and complete.
Walking on the deck of a replica 19th-century warship, Kabak exudes calm authority. He likes rigid timekeeping and the delegation of tasks, which are essential for a shipshape crew. But Kabak is also patient and good-humored, and it’s easy to see why students gravitate to him.
Kabak is CEO of Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island, a sailing-school vessel based in Newport. Completed in 2015, the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Oliver Hazard Perry was the first ocean-going full-rigged ship built in the United States in the past century, and it serves as a training ground for students of all ages and backgrounds.
From afar, the three-masted, 200-foot ship looks like it drifted through time from the War of 1812, when Captain Perry lived. But the interior is thoroughly modern, with welded steel walls and a robust engine.
Kabak, 44, lives in Portsmouth with his wife, Jennifer and children Olivia and Nathaniel. After three decades of working in shipboard education and four years as the head of Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island, Kabak is regarded as an expert in maritime training and education under sail. So his origins may come as a surprise: Kabak grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
Where were you raised?
I like to say that I grew up on an island off the Mid-Atlantic coast of the Eastern Seaboard. It’s only about 13-and-a-half miles long and about a mile-and-a-half wide. Most people think it’s Martha’s Vineyard or similar, but I go, “No, it’s Manhattan!” The island at the center of the world.
I think it contextualizes my relationship with the sea. People think, “A Jewish sea captain! Who’s ever heard of that?” But in reality, it’s not so uncommon, and those opportunities are not so rare for those that grow up near the ocean.
I was born and raised in midtown Manhattan. I grew up in a Jewish household, where I went to Jewish day school. My father was the president of an Orthodox congregation – one of the oldest in the city – and I had a pretty typical Jewish upbringing, if there is a typical Jewish upbringing in New York City. My family origins are pretty solidly Ashkenazic.
What drew you to the nautical life?
I was always sort of enamored with boats and the sea, and in particular I would often go down to the South Street Seaport Museum as a child. My father found out that they had a volunteer program, so [when I was] at the ripe old age of 12 or so, he called and said, “Hey, my son I think would be interested in checking out the wooden boatbuilding shop.” And the volunteer coordinator said, “Well, we usually don’t take kids that young.” And [my father] said, “Well, give him a try.” And they did, and I loved it.
Except, I got to go sailing on one of their ships, the 1885 schooner Pioneer, and fell in love. I never went back to the boat shop, but over the last 30-plus years now, I spent a considerable amount of time on the fleet there – what I thought would be just a fun summer job became kind of my life’s calling and passion. I keep promising my parents, “One day I’ll grow up and get a real job!” But I have yet to do that, so here we are.
Do you have any ancestors who worked on ships?
Not that I’m aware of. It was very sort of serendipitous that I found and fell in love with the sea. The closest thing is, my family were pretty active Labor Zionists, and on my mother’s side played a very active role in arranging some of the transports and logistics packages around World War II for settlement in Israel. So my family played a role in the logistics side, but not in the seafaring side.
There are so many ways to work on the water, like the Navy, or Merchant Marine, or even on a cruise ship. But you chose maritime education. Why?
At South Street, they have a very vibrant volunteer program and sail-training program. So my introduction to the world of seafaring came through educational seafaring and training. And there’s something about it in particular that resonates with me, because it’s purposeful.
In getting ready to chat with you, I sort of spent a little time thinking about the correlations between Judaism and seafaring, and the concept of l’dor v’dor – generation to generation – really resonated with me. Because when we work in education, we are giving to something greater than ourselves. The impact can really be felt on a much grander scale.
There’s something about seeing the growth of someone, seeing their potential to impact their own community and beyond, that really resonates with me. It’s a multiplier. I’ve worked with passengers. I’ve done a little bit on the commercial side in the maritime world. And it never gave me that same sense of satisfaction.
For participants, what is unique about the Oliver Hazard Perry program?
A ship is a microcosm of the planet. When we leave the dock, we have to have our water and enough fuel onboard to make power. It’s a wonderful place to see how people interact with each other and communicate with each other and, ultimately, have to trust in each other to make it to their destination.
Once you’ve had the opportunity to spend time in that environment, it’s hard to find anything else that is as engaging, intriguing, captivating.
This organization spends most of its efforts and energy [on] the lessons and values we offer through traditional sailing experiences. But this ship is very modern. She was built in the 21st century, she was commissioned in 2015. Other than the cabin that we’re in now, she is thoroughly modern, and that allows us to leverage the best aspects of her anachronistic sailing-ship rig while preparing people for a contemporary experience.
You’ve worked for so many organizations and in so many different environments. How did you get involved in this program specifically?
I serve on the board of directors of Tall Ships America, which is the national organization that represents sail-training vessels and practitioners of education under sail. I watched this program from its inception and infancy on through the construction of the ship. In fact, I literally stood right here [in the replica captain’s cabin] at a cocktail party chatting with the then-executive director and several board members, and was asked, “Do you ever see yourself as captain of this ship?” And I said, “Absolutely not.”
I had moved out of sail training at that point. I was working at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. My background is not necessarily in square-rig sailing. It just didn’t seem like the project I would associate with, and I wished them the best of luck.
As the organization went through some challenging times, their board of directors reached out to me, first as a consultant. It was the perfect opportunity to take 30 years of those conversations that we have with our friends, you know, “If I ruled the world, if I were in charge, this is what I would do,” and put them into practice.
It was such a compelling opportunity. And while I couldn’t have ever predicted that I would be navigating the organization through several years of pandemic and similar, it’s been an incredible experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
To learn more about Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island or to arrange a tour of the vessel, go to OHPRI.org.
ROBERT ISENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.