New for Conservative Jews: Passover at Beach

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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The brochure promises the most lavish of vacation getaways. The hotel, gleaming with white walls, features a 60-foot glass atrium, a pool cascading with waterfalls, ocean views and access to five-star tennis courts. When it’s time to escape from the rigors of relaxing, afternoon tea or a massage are close at hand.

But that’s not all: Guests will also enjoy glatt-kosher food, guaranteed unleavened, with two Seders and a smorgasbord of Jewish activities for adults and children. The package, offered over Passover at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla., was arranged by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for congregants who want to trade dirty dishes for a sunny climate. More than 60 families have accepted the offer, with many planning to bring three generations down to South Florida.

For decades, in Orthodox circles, hotel getaways have been a popular holiday staple. But this year’s program at the Diplomat marks the Conservative movement’s first official foray into Passover-by-the-beach, movement insiders say.

“Normally we make a big Seder at home and change the house over,” said Dr. Steven Brown, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Brown will help lead Jewish programming at the hotel and is taking along his adult children, an infant grandson and his wife who, he notes, “feels very liberated” from the burden of holiday preparation.

The Diplomat program includes Seders for children; discussions on everything from illuminated Haggadas to the role of women in the Exodus; and presentations from such bold-faced names as Noam Neusner, White House liaison to the Jewish community. In recent years, the Passover vacation has become ubiquitous in the Orthodox community, which packs roughly 100 hotels across the country, according to Arlene Lasko, who owns Lasko Family Kosher Tours with her husband Sam. This year, the Laskos alone are running Passover vacations at seven hotels, including the Diplomat, and have ordered 15,000 pounds of matzo, 65,000 pounds of meat and two tractor-trailers full of beverages to sate over 6,000 guests.

Several trends are driving the retreats’ popularity, Lasko said. For family members living increasingly far away from each other, hotels serve as reunion venues. For parents of day-school students, the holiday coincides with spring vacation and is the perfect time to combine travel and Jewish learning. Then, of course, there is all the cooking and cleaning left behind.

Still, not everyone is impressed by the five-star Passover. Orthodox feminist activist Bat Sheva Marcus, who observes the holiday with her husband and three children at their home in Riverdale, N.Y., worries that vacationers miss the holiday’s richness.

“I’ve heard from lots of people that their Passover memories are some of their strongest Jewish memories of their childhood, whether people are from very, very observant homes or less observant homes,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “They stick with you cause they’re so experiential.”

Marcus, who laid out her argument in a recent essay in The Jewish Week, acknowledged that getting ready for the holiday is a significant burden. But, she added, her whole family pitches in with preparation, including her husband, who takes two days off from work to do so.

Brown countered that families who want a break have nothing to feel guilty about.

“The families that care enough to observe Pesach and spend all the money it takes to go on a [kosher for Passover] vacation, are probably families that keep Shabbat and keep kashrut, so the kids have quite an education the rest of the year,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry that going away for Pesach is somehow going to diminish their Jewish education.”

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