This year was the first time I took my wife and two boys (13 and 11) to a Pesach hotel program. We chose the Majestic Retreats in Fort Lauderdale http://www.majesticretreats.com/florida2011.html to be with my parents. We truly enjoyed the experience, I recommend it, and I would consider doing this again. So that’s the summary of the review: A thumbs-up. If you want more details, get comfortable and read on.
The context: For most of my life we did pesach at home. It was, and is, focused on family and the educational emphasis on the holiday themes (my dad is a Rabbi, we did a lot of learning at home). Preparation for pesach was difficult for my parents — as my mother is very meticulous on pesach-perfection and freedom for the most minuscule drop of chametz. As an adult, we usually celebrated pesach at home and invited one or both sets of parents. It was hard work. This year we chose freedom from that effort. This freedom comes at an expense. These programs are not cheap. But the experience we had was on-par with the expense. So we are very satisfied.
My concern going in was that I thought these programs were all about stuffing your face in a Fellini-esque orgy of tea-room delights. And after gorging and purging for a week, you’d feel like a Roman aristocrat with no connection to the essence of the holiday, and some extra baggage in the midsection. I was pleased to find that there was a healthy approach to balance of food, pleasure, and spirit (by this I mean ruchnius).
The Hotel: The Westin is renovated and has two connected buildings. The program activities were mainly concentrated in one building – so you never had to walk outside. The rooms were great, beds were comfortable, and the bathrooms were overstocked with soaps and tissues. The hotel staff was prepped about the peculiarities of pesach program attendees. So the bathroom light stayed on after housekeeping cleaned the room. The hotel has a good workout room and is located right on the beach. They also have a heated pool.
Since we live in the 21st century, you find electric sensors everywhere — the public restrooms, elevators, sliding doors etc. The program did everything they could to provide accommodations for those who observe the a strict position on the use of passive electricity on shabbat and yom tov. The halachot are complex, but the program’s Rabbi offered a relatively lenient position based on his research into the complexities of this matter. That said, those who are machmir were able to enjoy their chumrot, those how are maikel (or not observant) could do what they want. The elevators had someone pushing the buttons for you, and the stairwell was available too. Gorilla tape covered many sensors, and the escalators were turned off on yom tov. The pool did not have separate swimming. Note: there’s a gay beach about 1/2 mile down the block from the hotel — but I doubt that would make those who prefer separate swimming any more comfortable.
The Food: Delicious and available. Every meal had amble healthy options with fruit and vegetables. So if you gained 5 pounds over the holiday, that’s your fault. The best of the week was shabbat lunch — it was a carnivore’s delight with liver, cholent, meat, kishke, and cold cuts. I skipped breakfast most days, but they had custom-omelets, along with pancakes, muffins, fruit, cheese and fish. Lunch and dinner were also fantastic. Most of the time you had a choice between a chicken, meat, or fish. Steak, veal, and lamb portions were generous. There was a vegetarian option at every meal, and parve options (even at milchik meals) for those who are lactose intolerant. The program served gebrochts — but those who don’t eat gebrochs probably just opted out of the matza balls. You could order seconds (but why – there was plenty of food). The flavors were good, presentations elegant. I liked most of the dishes I tried. My picky younger son never went hungry either. They had non-matza / non-chametz on erev pesach, and a chametz delight after yom tov (with beer and a live band).
The wait-staff were well coached, very professional and accommodating. After a few days they knew what we liked. So when we arrived at lunch or dinner, my kids had a plate of extra margarine, my dad had a glass of wine, and my wife had her tea at the end of the meal. They did not rush the Seder — and with the exception of one meal there was never a significant delay in getting to the food. Apparently there was one minor fiasco in the kitchen on the first day. It happens. And of course you had options between private, table, and communal s’darim.
The Tea-Room: Was open between meals and had a variety of treats. Chilled water was always available, so was cut fruit, and tons of parve chocolate treats, dried fruit, nuts, chips, and sorbet. The coffee itself was pretty bad and the tea was worse — as the hot water pot still had coffee residue and thus the tea always smelled burnt. (I bet some attendees slipped into the local starbucks when no one noticed.) There were ample desserts that were good considering they were pesach-dik. The food presentations were elegant.
Religious character: It’s difficult to describe this in an objective way. I felt very comfortable, but I know people who might not (don’t we all). There were well-attended minyanim every day (hashkama and vacation-style) , a daf-yomi (less attended, but very well delivered by my father), and other learning opportunities. The “shul” had a collection of books in case you wanted to pick up a gemara or other sefer. In terms of “spectrum” analysis, yes, there were people who identify themselves on different parts of the “religious spectrum”. Some folks daven under black hats, some in shorts (during chol hamoed, after all it was Florida and humid). Probably more crocheted and leather kippot than velvet ones. Many attendees were from the five-towns area. Wide age range, not too many singles though. Some women wore sheitels some wore bikinis, and some had a bit of both going on. To each their own.
Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz and sons run the program. R’ Faskowitz is the Rosh Yeshiva of a yeshiva which is a spiritual heir of the Novardok tradition — but he himself is hardly the stereotypical novardoker. He is incredibly warm, funny, energetic, and personable. His speeches were probably the best part of the program. He’s a really impressive guy, and I immediately knew that I like him. His sons run the operations without making noise about it and they have a staff of menchlich managers who attend to all the details. They really cared to make the experience great.
Was it perfect? No. Of course not. Imagine the challenge to make Jews happy. Impossible! Proof: One women at the poolside complained loudly to her friend “This is the worst program I have ever been on. Last year I was in Boca and they had six different types of lettuce at the salad bar. This place only has two types of lettuce. For the money I’m spending! How much does lettuce cost? Those cheapskates… and I don’t even like lettuce anyway.” So yes if you want to find fault you can. The wine selection was not top shelf (though not bad) and the matza was not the best. Program veterans made some arrangement to have their own stash of better wine and matza available to them — and if you prearrange it, I guess they will work it out with you.
I found that the rent-a-rabbi was a bit distant and the rent-a-cantor was a bit overeager. But, I was also glad that we had very capable people running the ritual aspects of the program – and they were. All said, the davening was enjoyable. Aliyot were sold via an auction (yuck), but the proceeds went to tzedaka (nice). There was a camp program for the kids, a cheesy magic show, movie night, casino night, and other fun distractions during chol hamoed. In my opinion, there was something for everyone. And I never felt that they under-delivered. In fact, it was menchlich and really well run. I’m hoping I get a good bonus at work next year so that we can do this again. Maybe I’ll see you there too.