Is It Passover or Spring Break? For Some Affluent Observers, It's Both

Updated April 14, 2014 10:31 p.m. ET

The Passover buffet at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Lasko Kosher Getaways

On Tuesday night, Jews will gather for their second Passover Seder and ask the age-old question: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

In some circles, the answer is: "Because this holiday is costing me $100,000." Or more.

Passover, the eight-day celebration when Jews recall their ordeal as slaves under the pharaoh and their Exodus from Egypt, has traditionally emphasized hearth and home. Families would get together in a house cleaned and scrubbed of any bread or bread products. Mothers toiled in the kitchen preparing multiple meals. On Seder night, a family member would open the door, a symbolic gesture meant to welcome the Prophet Elijah.

These days, Passover is still about family.

But home? Not so much: For some, Passover has become a chance to turn a religious holiday into a six-figure spring break.

At luxury resorts in Miami and Cancún, Orlando and Laguna Beach, Grandma's matzo ball soup and brisket is being sidelined as chefs serve mushroom bisque and chateaubriand.

There are prayer services, of course, and the food is strictly kosher. Newer rituals include spa treatments, cooking lessons, tennis clinics and day-camps for the children. New Yorkers and other East Coast types are especially keen to make the pilgrimage.


"Instead of the Exodus from Egypt, we now witness the exodus from the metropolitan areas," says Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton, N.Y.

Tradition hasn't entirely been passed over. "We will always have boiled chicken," vows Jeremy Goldfeder, who is overseeing a high-end Passover getaway at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún.

Mr. Goldfeder is one of several tour operators in the fiercely competitive business of creating opulent Passover celebrations. His firm, Ram Destinations, has booked the entire Ritz-Carlton Cancún for the holiday—including the property's various restaurants and a sushi bar, which were cleaned to exacting kosher-for-Passover specifications. He even installed several new wood-burning stoves to make brick-oven pizza.

Conventional pizza is a no-no on Passover because it contains flour. But these ritzy pies will have crusts made from tapioca or potato starch.

Mr. Goldfeder won't disclose his prices, but says rooms alone range from $13,000 to around $75,000 for the extended 10-day week.

With extended families consisting of parents, grandparents and grandchildren booking multiple suites, it isn't too hard to spend $100,000-plus on the holiday, Mr. Goldfeder says.

Jack J. Ezon, CEO of his own New York import apparel firm, says he booked rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Cancún for his wife and five children, parents, sisters and their children—a party of 25 people.

He declines to say how much he is spending, but says it is worth it.

"I get to enjoy eight days of family time, unplugged from the world," he says.

There is intense competition to land affluent clients, say Mr. Goldfeder and others. To do so, tour operators "are constantly trying to one-up each other," he laments.

Sam Lasko, a veteran in the business, who is overseeing Passover for 1,200 people at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, strives for entertainment that will really pop. Last year, he brought in the Miami Symphony Orchestra. This year, he has recruited 13-year-old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick, whose official website boasts a repertoire that spans "from Beethoven to the Beatles to Bieber."

New on the Passover scene is Joey Allaham, who has reserved all the rooms at the St. Regis Monarch Beach near Laguna Beach, Calif. Not to be outdone by musical acts, he has been attracting attention with his sports-themed offerings—some of which allow guests to hobnob with famous athletes.

Mr. Allaham, who operates upscale kosher restaurants in New York, has created a Passover football field that will host stars such as National Football League player Mark Sanchez of the Philadelphia Eagles. For children, Mr. Allaham has arranged for dairy cows to come each morning so children can learn how to milk them.

Adults get a "Sunset Hour," sipping drinks and nibbling on kosher hors d'oeuvres on a bar-terrace overlooking the Pacific.

Not everyone is so starry-eyed. Professor Jonathan Sarna, a visiting professor of American Jewish Studies at Harvard, says there is an inherent contradiction to the swanky Seders. "It's the idea that I can be Jewish and observing Passover and tradition and at the same time I can have an elite vacation with the finest food and drink," he says.

Some of the hotels, including the Fontainebleau and the St. Regis Monarch Beach, moved to beef up security in the wake of a shooting spree in the Kansas City area Sunday at a Jewish community center and a retirement village.

Jacob Gold, the chairman of wireless Internet provider Rainbow Broadband, says he plunked down $100,000 as a deposit to attend the St. Regis affair. A friend of Mr. Allaham's, he booked rooms for an entourage of 40 people, including his wife and children, in-laws, grandparents and assorted other relatives. The New Yorker's tab: Several hundred thousand dollars.

His wife's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, is coming. "You can't monetize that," he says. "You can't peg a dollar amount."

Judy Twersky, a New York public-relations specialist, has participated in a few high-end Passover getaways that fell flat. One year, she says, her West Coast hotel ran out of matzo—a big oy vey. So last year she checked out the Fontainebleau. While she found the ubiquitous chandeliers and orchid centerpieces to be "over the top," she decided to return. "It is easy to get spoiled," she says.

Some traditional foods of the holiday are getting an upgrade, too. At the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, which is holding its own Passover extravaganza, the humble matzo bread will be served in a half-dozen varieties—including whole wheat and gluten-free.

Guests can wash their unleavened snacks down with kosher-for-Passover tequila, a popular offering, says tour operator Alan Berger. Guests like it mixed with lemonade.

Simon Auerbacher, whose catering firm oversees meals at the Fontainebleau and in Cancún, says his work demands intricate kosher-for-Passover creations such as baguettes, panini and various pastries. Still, he says, people "want the food they remember growing up as a child." His solution: Always offer matzo ball soup, and serve brisket on Saturday afternoon.

Of course, nothing can replace the feeling of home—especially that moment in the Seder when a family member opens the door for Elijah to enter. Mr. Lasko says his guests honor the tradition by opening the hotel's various doors.

Home is where family is, Rabbi Schneier declares. "Maybe Elijah is arriving from South Beach."

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