Some Jews are exchanging duties of Passover for rest, convenience

April 06, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Why is this vacation different from all others?

Passover commemorates the Israelites' escape from slavery, but for some Jews, the weeklong holiday has come to mean toil they would just as soon leave behind.

Instead of cleansing their houses of all leavened grains, unpacking dishes reserved for Passover and cooking traditional meals at home, an increasing number choose to pack their bags and spend the holiday at hotels, international resorts and on Caribbean cruises.

This week, about 150 people are relaxing at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, the third time conference staff have offered a Passover program. There, they are enjoying food prepared under rabbinical supervision and workshops about Judaism in a scrubbed facility with family and friends.

That's what attracted Arthur and Barbara Weinrach of Allentown, Pa., who are spending Passover at Pearlstone with their daughter, Julie, from Pittsburgh, Pa., and their son Yaakov and his family from Columbus, Ohio.

"We wanted to be with our grandchildren, and not be tied up with various domestic activities," said Arthur Weinrach.

Rituals vary

The rituals of preparing the home for Passover vary with levels of observance. Some Reform Jews do little more than abstain from the more obvious chametz, or leavened grain products like bread and pasta. The most observant may spend long days before the holiday scouring traces of chametz, including grains such as rice and corn, from every corner of the house. The practice recalls the Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt, so abrupt they couldn't wait for their bread to rise, which in turn gave rise to the tradition of eating matzo during the holiday.

Many observant families use dishes reserved only for Passover from sundown at the start of the first day until the holiday ends seven days later and insist on only eating processed foods certified as kosher for Passover.

Jews also hold a seder, or ritual meal, on the first two nights of Passover - which was Monday and Tuesday - to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. The seder includes asking four questions stemming from one major one: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Extended families often gather to celebrate, which means many more people to feed and entertain.

Like the Weinrachs, other guests agreed that handing off the duties enables them to enjoy Passover without the work.

"Everybody can get together and nobody has to worry about whose turn it is to do the dishes," said Andrea Lavine, 37, who lives in Pikesville with her husband and two daughters. "Nobody misses the seder because they're in the kitchen warming up the food."

Her parents invited their children and families - 22 people in all - to Pearlstone for the second year in a row. "It's a great time to be able to focus both on the family and on the spiritual side," Lavine said, as she sat in a rocking chair and watched one of her daughters decorate a plastic "kiddush cup" for use in that night's seder.

"It's a vacation from what you would have to do if you didn't get away," said Pearlstone's general manager, Dick Goldman.

The center's rooms have been booked since last August, he said. Guests came from as far away as Israel, but most are from the greater Baltimore area. The youngest visitor was born Saturday and the oldest is 97, he said.

They've brought in a rabbi as a scholar-in-residence, and others are leading workshops. They also offer a daily Passover camp for children and field trips to destinations such as Gettysburg, Pa., and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Groups can choose either a private seder or a communal meal.

It's a pricey investment for hotels, cruises and resorts to appeal to this niche. Pearlstone hired an outside crew that took more than 10 days to clean the kitchen, Goldman said. Rabbis from Star-K Kosher Certification agency also performed cleaning rituals to endorse the center as kosher for Passover; three people supervise the kosher status of the center during the holiday. Pearlstone has spent thousands of dollars to purchase Passover dishes, pots and utensils - which can only be used for that week of the year - and all chametz had to be moved into storage.

Those who want to travel for Passover certainly have more options than they did half a century ago, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. He doesn't remember anyone vacationing during Passover when he was growing up in Manhattan and Brookline, Mass.

Some people may have gone to resorts in the "Borscht Belt" of New York's Catskills Mountains that welcomed Jewish clientele, but the practice wasn't widespread. "I think if you compare the number of ads in Jewish newspapers then and now you would see an enormous difference, as indicative of the growth of the industry," Sarna said.

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