January 16, 2019

On Pesach, to resort or not to resort?

God miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt — so the old joke goes — only to see Jewish mothers slave around the house cleaning and cooking in preparation for eight days of Passover.

Or not. 

At least not anymore, not for the many Jewish families who can afford to have someone else prepare the chametz-free environment and delicious leaven-free meals American Jews require over the holiday, doing their best to serve meals that help guests forget the dietary restrictions Passover demands.

And so Jewish families pay — a lot, often upward of $10,000 per couple — to attend all-inclusive, mega-deluxe Passover resorts as far away as Greece and Italy and as near as Las Vegas and Southern California. These Passover getaway programs can be so large that the arriving Jews (many from colder climates, mostly Orthodox) take over entire hotels for more than a week, enjoying a nearly 24/7 buffet of freshly carved meats, sushi bars, expensive (kosher for Passover) wine, hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, boating expeditions, scholars-in-residence, prayer services — you name it.

Ellen Katz, a Los Angeles mother of four and grandmother of two, will drive with her husband to Henderson, Nev., a suburb just outside Las Vegas, for the Katz family’s seventh annual Passover reunion at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa for a deluxe holiday program put on by World Wide Kosher Tours, a Los Angeles-based company; rooms this year start at $6,500. 

“We only go away once a year, so this is our only vacation,” Katz said. “It’s nice to go away with your family and not worry about the food-buying. Everything’s in one place, you have entertainment, you have shiurim [Jewish classes], they give babysitting.”

And for someone who never had the Jewish summer camp experience while growing up, Katz said her annual Passover getaway has allowed her to develop some of those seasonal friendships that resume every Passover, just where they left off the previous year.

“I never went to camp,” Katz said, “but like those campers, I have Pesach friends.”

And, of course, there’s the family reunion — an important element as two of the Katz children live in New York and most of Katz’s cousins and relatives live between there and Boston. The annual tradition of cooking for and hosting children, siblings and cousins became exhausting and stressful, so they joined the 1,000-plus Jews, many from Southern California, who do the Lake Las Vegas experience for Passover.

“There’s nothing better in life if you’re healthy,” Katz said about her annual Passover vacation. “I miss nothing at home.”

Just down the street from The Westin, another Passover program — this one run by the New York-based KMR Werner Brothers and primarily attracting New Yorkers — takes over the Hilton. “Every meal is a course in fine food,” states the website, which also describes the program’s outdoor barbecue, on-site bakery and kosher for Passover grocery store, where families can shop for food to take on off-site day trips.

The Westin Lake Las Vegas

Mel Weiss, 94, a Calabasas resident, said he went to Passover resorts with his late wife, Lillian, and their children and grandchildren almost every year for more than three decades, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 as a couple many years. Weiss, a Passover resort world traveler, has been to retreats in Israel multiple times, as well as Italy, Arizona and, this year, he will be enjoying the holiday with his kids in Nevada.

“Everything is taken care of — the whole shebang,” Weiss said. “If I stay home, I have to kosher the whole house, and I live alone. I have to go away.”

But as with so many aspects of the Jewish world, things as seemingly innocuous and pleasure-filled as a luxury Passover getaway are, if not a source of tension, at least a topic that some rabbis think must be regarded with a degree of concern or skepticism. The problem, though, is that few, if any, Jewish community leaders are willing to be openly critical of the phenomenon of turning what used to be days, or weeks, of intense Passover cleansing into simply writing a check and packing a suitcase.

One local Orthodox rabbi, who emailed with the Journal on condition of anonymity, wrote that he believes creating the intergenerational memories and transmitting the lessons and stories of Passover is made more difficult when it’s in a communal setting, even in hotels entirely filled with Passover-observing Jews. 

“There are no preparations for the children to see and share in,” the rabbi wrote. “And even in those [resorts] that are exclusively for frum use, you have some elements of hedonistic and materialistic excess.” He explained that one reason many rabbis may hesitate to speak on the record on this topic is because some of their members attend these programs or even earn their livelihoods running them.

Elchanan Shoff, 32, the rabbi of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, said he and his wife grappled with whether to accept an offer from a Passover program at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego for Shoff to be a scholar-in-residence, but eventually decided to go, in large part because she’s in her ninth month of pregnancy with what will be the couple’s fourth child.

“It worked out really nicely to not have to make Pesach this year,” Shoff said, noting, though, that he, his wife and their three daughters will feel an “empty space” from not enjoying the time with as much family as they would have had they stayed home. “In the end, we realized that being in the ninth month of pregnancy, the cleaning and the cooking might be really challenging.”

Shoff believes each family needs to decide what will create the most meaningful Passover experience — at home or away. 

“If the mother is going to be cleaning for a month, is short-tempered and has less energy to give her children hugs, it’s really a poor choice for them to make Pesach if they can comfortably afford to go to the hotel,” Shoff said, contrasting that with family experiences where “the cooking and cleaning creates wonderful memories.”

“When it’s waiters and it’s not your mother’s chicken soup or your grandmother’s matzah balls, all the little details that make up so much of our life experience is different,” Shoff said. “It’s not worse or better — it’s just different.”