Efrem Goldberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in suburban Miami, jokes that for the eight days of Passover, he gets to be a visiting scholar by just staying home. Half of his congregants go away, but many who remain have family members visiting. So the synagogue stays full, but many faces are unfamiliar.
“While the rest of the world goes to Florida,” said Rabbi Goldberg, who leads the large Boca Raton Synagogue, “people in Florida have to go to Cancún.”
Historically, Passover was not for going to Cancún but for Seder at the grandparents’, where several generations would tell of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, drink sweet wine and avoid leavened bread. But in recent years, luxury hotels and cruise lines have begun to offer packages for those looking to get away, eat gourmet kosher-for-Passover food, swim, gamble and golf — and pay as much as $5,000 a person for the weeklong indulgence.
What began as a small push to consumerism has become a full rush. Resorts compete to offer the best in sushi, barbecue and French cuisine. Hotels promise sizzling entertainment — this year, The Amazing Kreskin and the reggae artist Matisyahu will be at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, P.R. Notable rabbis, authors and politicians are scheduled to give guest lectures. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, is a favorite, and former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has lectures scheduled this year in Puerto Rico and on Chesapeake Bay.
Despite their popularity, Passover getaways leave some feeling uneasy. Even Jews who have taken the holidays worry about the extravagance. Defenders say leaving home allows for reunions of large extended families; eases the burden of having to cook special, unleavened meals for a week; and sensibly takes advantage of a week when children’s Orthodox schools are closed.
“The Jewish woman historically has been really oppressed by Passover cooking and cleaning and preparation,” said Allison Josephs, the founder of Jew in the City, a website that educates people about the Orthodox. “This is a way of giving freedom to her in that traditional role,” added Ms. Josephs, who has taken Passover vacations with family members to both Florida and Israel.
Ms. Josephs has gone on trips with her husband, children and her parents, along with her sisters, their families and in-laws. “It’s the only way our large family can fit into one space for the holiday,” she said. It was the reunion aspect that mattered most, she added, not the trips to Disney World, the jet skiing or the hokey theme nights.
“There’s cowboy barbecue night, so all staff is dressed in cowboy hats and bandannas,” she said. “The next night maybe is Mexican food, with Mexican music.”
Then there is the “tearoom,” considered by some as a staple of Passover resort living. The tearoom, often open round-the-clock, is for snacking, or turbo-snacking. “My son refers to it as Candy Kingdom,” Ms. Josephs said. “Dried fruit, nuts, candy, five platters of Passover cake. Jews like to eat.”
Marianne Novak is a mother of three in Skokie, Ill., who takes online classes at Yeshivat Maharat, a New York-based seminary that offers Orthodox rabbinical training to women. In past years, her family has gone to Orlando, Fla. This year, on the first two nights of Passover, she and her family will have Seders at home, then travel to a hotel in the Dominican Republic. She thinks it is a good compromise.
“The cost of many of these programs is insane,” Ms. Novak said. “And if you don’t go for the Seders, for a lot of them, the cost goes down quite a bit.”
Picking a resort can be tricky, Ms. Novak said. There is the question of the cost, but then people also look at the cuisine options. “Even though my husband won’t admit he’s a foodie, he was checking out programs based on the food.”
There is also the matter of religiosity. More liberal Modern Orthodox are — despite rabbinical teachings — open to mixed-sex swimming and dancing. More right-wing Orthodox often favor hotels in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, where the water is still frigid in early spring, and where nobody is frolicking immodestly on beaches.
Programs for the most observant are more likely, Ms. Novak said, to offer the hope of true love. “If they say they are having matchmakers on site, to do shidduchim” — arranged matches — “that’s a clue they are a frummer crowd,” Ms. Novak said, using a Yiddish word for “more religious.”
Jenna Weissman Joselit, who teaches Jewish history at George Washington University, has found evidence of Passover vacations as early as 1915. But she said the trend has exploded recently for a number of reasons.
“Families are increasingly spread throughout the country, so this is one opportunity to get together,” Professor Joselit said. “People are living longer, so there are more people to accommodate. Women are working.” However, she said, “none of these things would have mattered if not for affluence” in the Orthodox world.
But the affluence, and the luxury travel, are not universal.
“There is no holiday ceremony ritual that more separates the haves and have-nots than Passover,” Rabbi Goldberg said. Not everyone “can go away go to these resorts with the wine options, the buffet, the sushi station, the hand-rolled cigars.” As a rabbi, he hears about the sacrifices required of Jews who are not rich, during a holiday when the special matzo and wine can, for a large family, cost hundreds of dollars.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I have gotten over the last 10 days, saying, ‘I can pay my electric bill or buy matzo,’ ‘I can either pay tuition, or buy matzo,’” he said.
In a blog post this year, Rabbi Goldberg encouraged families spending lavishly on Passover to give proportionally to charity. After it appeared online, a colleague chastised him for going too easy on bigger spenders.
“Another rabbi reached out to me to say, ‘Why are you excusing the ostentatiousness?’” Rabbi Goldberg said. “But I think, strategically, people aren’t going to stop doing it. So we might as well leverage it to help others out.”
Rabbi Goldberg works during Passover, but he did get a nice perk last year: an invitation to speak to the Passover vacation crowd at the Trump National Doral hotel, a short drive from his home. He took the experience in stride, but one of his children remembered it well.
“We were watching a debate, and my 8-year-old daughter said, ‘Abba, you should vote for Trump.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because he has the best tearoom in the world.’”
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