March 29, 2010


Yechiel Baron watches the preparation of grilled eggplant in the kosher kitchen at the Eden Roc Hotel. Baron is a member of the Lasko Family Kosher Tour crew, which will spend one week getting the hotel kosher for Passover.

As a child, Jeffrey Grodko dreaded Passover. With its Seder dinners, no-grains diet -- his family ate lots of meat and potatoes -- and restrictions on car and electricity use for four of its eight days, it was ``a lot of being bored.''

Now 43, the Orthodox Jewish father of two from Brooklyn can't wait for the holiday, which begins Monday night and marks the ancient Israelites' exodus from Egypt.

To observe it, he's embarking on another kind of exodus: a luxury Passover at the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach.

The Fontainebleau is one of at least eight local hotels offering Passover packages, making South Florida the country's biggest Passover destination.

Thousands of Jews from New York to Israel will be in South Florida this week to celebrate Passover a way their grandparents probably never imagined: sipping kosher cocktails after poolside barbecues, or eating gourmet sushi lunches and elaborate dinners where options include tangerine caramelized duck and veal Milanese -- made with no grains.

Hotels offering Passover packages include the Biltmore in Coral Gables, which is completely booked for 600 Passover guests; the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston, which will host 1,000 Passover vacationers; the Doral Golf Resort and Spa; and the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort in Aventura. A Passover cruise departs from Port Everglades and, for those on a tighter budget, South Floridians are renting out kosher apartments.

Make no mistake: faith is central to the Passover vacation experience. Hotel kitchens have been made kosher, temporary ``resident rabbis'' have been flown in and Judaism scholars will offer nightly talks.

``We can have Passover without the hassle. It's a relief to me and to my wife,'' says Grodko, who has spent the holiday at South Florida hotels for 18 years. It's a stark contrast to his childhood, when Passover meant meticulous house-cleaning, switching out dishes and silverware and preparing food for extended family visiting for Seders.

At the Fontainebleau where he's staying, rates for the duration of the holiday begin at $3,400 for eight days and nights. Rates are similar at other hotels and top suites have been booked for up to $24,000.

While the economy has affected the Passover travel industry -- insiders say the number of hotels offering packages has slightly decreased in the last decade -- every South Florida hotel offering a kosher experience this year has been booked for weeks. According to Totally Jewish Travel, a vacation listings website for observant Jews, 120 hotels will offer Passover packages across five continents this year.

Sam Lasko, president of Davie-based Lasko Tours, will host 3,000 people between the Eden Roc, Fontainebleau and Hyatt Regency Bonaventure. ``We bring in 15 tractor-trailers full of food. We make desserts, paninis, waffles, foods not traditionally kosher for Passover,'' Lasko says.

For weeks, 30 rabbis have worked around the clock to bring Lasko's hotels in line with kosher standards, from using blow torches on kitchen appliances and pouring boiling water over them to making sure all grains, including bread crumbs, have been removed from the premises.

During Passover, Jews eat cracker-like matzoh instead of bread in remembrance of the Israelites, who left Egypt so quickly they had no time to let their dough rise. Ritual Seders, with foods representing a symbolic re-telling of the exodus, are central to Passover.

Before the holiday, Jews are required to rid their residences of all grains and many also stay away from rice, corn, lentils and beans. Spending Passover in a hotel is a way to avoid that tedious process, says Rabbi Pinny Andrusier of the Chabad of Southwest Broward, who has advised many Passover hotels over the years.

``It doesn't say anywhere that we have to be slaves getting ready for Passover,'' Andrusier says. ``Some people have the perception that you are not supposed to enjoy Passover, but it's a very enjoyable holiday.''

In addition to kosher kitchens, hotel mini-bars have been emptied of candies and sodas that contain non-kosher corn syrup and drinks such as vodka and whiskey made from fermented grains, and ballrooms have been turned into day-care centers and temporary synagogues complete with Torah scrolls and gender barriers.

At the Eden Roc in Miami Beach, two rabbis will lead four daily prayer services between two ballrooms-turned-synagogues; one for Ashkenazi Jews, the other for Sephardic. At the Biltmore, an Israeli cantor will perform. At the Doral Resort, organizers are promoting the golf course and offering boat tours.

``We want to give them an experience like they have never had before,'' says Abe Fuchs, who is catering at the Eden Roc and Hyatt Regency Bonaventure with a 200-member staff. With four kitchens at the Eden Roc -- divided into dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables and a bakery -- he will serve 75,000 meals through the holiday.

Observant Jews are prohibited from ``work'' on the first and last two days of the holiday, which many interpret to include manually switching electricity on and off. On days of no work, there will be lectures by rabbis and scholars on topics ranging from Jewish history to self-improvement. Hotels will have Shabbat elevators, meaning they will stop automatically on each floor to circumvent the electricity rule.

Passover travel is also popular among younger Jews and singles, who often rent cheaper kosher apartments or stay with friends.

``It's become the most active young adult scene for Jews, there are so many people to meet,'' says Margaux Chetrit, a 25-year-old from Montreal who is renting an apartment on Collins Avenue for the holiday. Between a Seder with relatives in Aventura and attending services at Beit Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, she plans to check out Miami Beach clubs including Louis at the Gansevoort South, LIV at the Fontainebleau and Klutch in the South of Fifth neighborhood, all of which are hosting Passover parties.

``I've been coming since I was 12 with my family and now I come on my own,'' Chetrit says. ``There is nothing like Miami for Passover.''