Most Jews around the world say the traditional “Next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the annual Passover Seder feast. Last year, St. Louis native David Benkof said to himself, “Next year in Disney World.”
For many Jews like Benkof, traveling to vacation hotspots during the eight-day Passover holiday has become a way of avoiding the hassle of heeding religious rules that require scrubbing a home clean of grain particles or hosting back-to-back, hours-long dinners at their homes for dozens of relatives and friends.
Passover vacations have grown in recent years beyond the traditional destinations of Miami Beach, the Catskills and Israel. They now include scores of resorts in Orlando, Florida; Scottsdale, Arizona; Riviera Maya in Mexico; Whistler, Canada; Sardinia, Italy; the island of Crete in Greece; San Diego; and Puerto Rico, as well as a fully-kosher South African safari.
“We’ve seen a massive growth over the last decade to 12 years of the locations, the variety, the price ranges, the types of hotels,” said Ralphi Bloom, who runs Totally Jewish Travel, a travel website.
Bloom estimates that up to 50,000 hotel rooms for as many as 100,000 people are booked this year for Passover, which starts at sundown Friday. That represents about $60 million to $70 million in revenue, double the amount from a decade ago, he said.
Passover travel programs at the resorts, which include Ritz-Carlton and Waldorf Astoria hotels in Florida, are accommodating the celebrants with kids’ camps, casino nights, Hawaiian luaus, daily barbecues, lectures by rabbinic scholars and meals that follow kosher dietary rules of separating milk from meat and prohibiting pork and shellfish, along with Passover prohibitions against bread.
“People are more willing to not have the traditional Passover at home and actually go away, with the ability to make hotel kitchens kosher, source food locally that is kosher,” said Bloom, who is based in Manchester, England. “I think in more and more families both the husband and the wife work. When you go away for Passover … there’s no cleaning, preparing, cooking.”
Benkof spent the last few days of Passover last year at the Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, but he missed the first two nights when Jews have the traditional Seder meal. He plans to arrive in time for the Seder dinners this year. Food was a selling point: Some Passover food can be dry and flavorless but the resort served delicious meals.
Observant Jews don’t eat leavened grain products during the eight days of Passover because the holiday commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus, when Jews fleeing slavery in Egypt didn’t have time to let their bread rise. They took instead flat, hard unleavened bread that today is sold as matzo. Passover dietary rules forbid consumption of certain grain-based foods like bread and pasta that puffs up when cooked.
Benkof said the food at the resort hands-down beat the matzo and gefilte fish he would eat if he stayed home.
“I went to the theme parks during the day and ate myself crazy at night,” said Benkof, who is paying about $4,500 for an all-inclusive package. “What is remarkable about the food is how much there is, lots of it. They had bread! It was kosher for Passover bread, but you couldn’t tell it was Passover food.”
Depending on the hotel and destination, prices for Passover vacation packages range from $1,600 to $11,000 per person, and typically cover lodging, unlimited food and entertainment.
Many tour operators hosting Passover vacations bring in their own rabbis and staff to make the resorts Passover-ready. They also bring in Passover-only dishes, utensils and cookware that are untouched by grain products. Utensils or dishes that aren’t used specifically for Passover must be immersed in boiling water. Stoves and ovens are cleaned for Passover by heating at full blast for one or two hours. Cupboards, refrigerators and freezers are scrubbed clean of any crumbs and residue. Sinks are cleaned with boiling water.
“There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into making a kitchen kosher,” said Alan Berger, who is running the Grand Getaways Passover vacations.
Berger’s company is hosting 1,000 people for 10 days at the Waldorf Astoria at Walt Disney World. His staff and caterers are taking over a hotel ballroom kitchen for the week.
“There’s no ‘almost kosher’ for Passover. It either is or isn’t,” he said.
At some resorts, sex-segregated swimming sessions are held at resort pools in deference to ultra-Orthodox Jews concerned about modesty requirements. Conference rooms are converted into makeshift synagogues for prayer services. There are also concerts, performances by mentalists and illusionists and, of course, a “tea room” where guests can nosh on sweets and snacks all day.
“We’re constantly keeping everybody stuffed to the gills,” Berger said. “We try to entertain people at all times.”