Suffering is a key theme in the biblical story of Passover, and for Orthodox Jews the concept can endure during the eight-day holiday, when kosher rules mandate scrubbing, boiling and schlepping to exile every crumb of anything breadlike. Every pot, pan and utensil is replaced with a Passover set. Then starts the work of cooking the multi-course ritual meals for friends and family.
“I like to say, ‘God freed the men, not the women,’ ” Chana Lehman of Silver Spring said of the holiday’s narrative of Jews leaving slavery in Egypt.
But that classic image of Passover — onerous preparation for the rigorously observant, seder meals around a familiar dining room table — has been upended by a growing number of retreats designed to tempt the busy modern Jewish family. Dozens of hotels, from the French Riviera to the Florida coast to Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, are being temporarily transformed into Passover getaways by armies of kosher experts.
Cruise ship nightclubs and hotel conference rooms have been converted into seder spaces. Rabbis have blessed special boundary markers, usually meant for Orthodox neighborhoods, around resorts.
The retreats, most of which have appeared over the past 15 years or so, lure people with golf, religious singers and mentalists, along with lectures on Israel and parenting. One retreat in Connecticut is staffed by five matchmakers for parents seeking a nice Orthodox mate for their child. At the same time, Passover retreats are also cropping up among less observant Jews who are motivated not by kosher rules — which they likely don’t follow — but by a desire to kick-start their faith and rituals.
For Lehman, 66, the decision to ditch the conventional for hotels (in Florida, the Poconos and the New Jersey coast) has made Passover a richer time for her siblings, in-laws, children and grandchildren, who are spread around the world. They hike and visit. What they don’t do is cook or clean.
“Last year, the place in Orlando was across the street from Sea World,” said her husband, Phil. “The kids loved it.”
On Friday, the Lehmans will drive to the Lancaster Host Resort & Conference Center in the Amish countryside in Pennsylvania. For 10 days, the resort will be filled with 1,000 mostly Orthodox Jews marking Passover. Promotional materials mention tennis, swimming (men and women separately), video games and nearby outlet malls. The Lancaster retreat, which began four years ago, is thought to be the closest large Passover resort to the District.
Leaders in the small industry of Passover resorts say there are about 60 retreats across the country, about six times as many as a decade ago.
Theories for the growth vary. Most mention an increased affluence among modern Orthodox Jews, with two parents working in many families. More working outside the home means less time for extensive home preparations, which are stringent under kosher rules. Every cupboard must be inspected. Countertops are cleaned with boiling water or a blowtorch (depending on how porous the material is). Food that is not kosher for Passover — containing grains that have been allowed to ferment — is locked up or given away.
Some say parts of the Orthodox community tend to have more children (and probably more grandchildren) than they did decades ago and find it easier to gather their extended broods at a resort. Orthodox families are more likely to have their children in religious schools, so Passover means no classes — and a good time for a vacation.
The industry of kosher oversight has also become larger and more sophisticated. In the past, people who keep strictly kosher would be skeptical that a hotel was meeting proper standards.
It isn’t only Orthodox Jews who are rethinking Passover at home. Retreats are also growing in popularity among less observant, or even wayward, Jews, for different reasons.
A rabbi in Boulder, Colo., takes 260 people for a hike into the desert near Moab, Utah, for a theatrical seder under a massive rock arch, complete with dancing, singing and teaching. At sunset, the group hikes to a spot next to the Colorado River, where they sit amid the red rocks and eat brisket and matzoh ball soup on a strip of fabric laid on the desert floor.
Rabbi Jamie Korngold said most people who go on the desert hike seek involvement in a Jewish community. The Moab seder includes breakout sessions based on the Passover themes of slavery and freedom; one aims to get people involved in fighting the modern-day sex trade, another examines self-imposed dependency.
“When you’re out in the desert with no cell service, you realize how enslaved you are to your phone,” Korngold said.
This year, Roni Rudell will be away from her Washington area family on Passover for the first time. For years, she’s been seeking a Jewish community and has signed on to the Moab trip. She hopes to find people who share her belief that God is felt most profoundly in nature.
“What better way to celebrate a seder, to be on the river, and with fire pits and singing and nice people camping out,” said Rudell, who lived in the New York and Washington areas after graduate school and for work until two years ago, when she moved to Denver. “To me, this brings us back to our roots, to be in the desert, what Jewish people are really about.”
While the idea of dancing in the desert or playing golf might not sound appropriate for a religious holiday, Jewish tradition, in fact, calls for much of Passover’s eight days to be festive. Regular work is banned at the very start and the very end, but the days in between are supposed to be a time of relaxation.
Rabbi Avrumy Jordan, who helps run one of the country’s largest Passover retreats for the Orthodox, has 1,400 people coming this year, up from 650 when he started in 1999. The Gateways program offers 120 lectures on subjects that include helping your child read Hebrew and the power of positive thinking. He says the vibe of an entire hotel filled with people observing Passover feels not modern, but more like something traditional that has been lost.
“It becomes a shtetl,” he said of the Hilton hotel in Stamford, Conn., using the Yiddish word for a little Jewish town.
For Scott Klippel, the calculations were not complex. Five years ago, the 61-year-old Rockville lawyer became strictly kosher, which meant that his preparations for Passover would become more difficult, and he began spending Passover at resorts.
“I’m single,” he said. “So at that point, I have to clean it for Passover or leave.”