The overwhelming majority of Pesach programs have now been canceled.
At first, they tried to adjust. Elan Kornblum, president of Great Kosher Restaurants and a consultant for many Pesach programs, including Kosherica and Mount Laurel Resort, said that when gatherings of more than 100 people were banned, “programs thought they could work with that limit by separating every 100 people into another ballroom, putting out sanitation centers, etc.”
Then came the 50-person limit. “Programs were trying to think of ways they could make it work, but by [that time], many customers were canceling out of fear,” said Kornblum.
“Before we were even thinking of closing the program, most of our American customers had canceled, and that was after Purim when most of our Israeli customers had backed out,” said Belinda Netzer, who has been running Timeless Luxury Pesach in Italy with her husband Avi since 2003.
Initially, the Netzers were thinking of taking the program to a different, safer destination. Eighty percent of its customers canceled shortly after Purim; the Netzers wanted to see if they could accommodate the remaining 20 percent, but “government bans have made it impossible,” she said.
The Jewish Press could only confirm one program still scheduled to take place: Aryeh Deluxe Retreats in Fairfield, NJ. Rabbi Yitzchok Neger, the program’s host, said 500 people were originally supposed to participate, but that number was trimmed to 150 for safety reasons. Separate Sedarim and minyanim will take place in 12 different dining rooms in the hotel so that people are distant from each other.
Gloves and disinfectant will be ubiquitous and its entertainment programming has been canceled due to restrictions on crowds.
Every step, Rabbi Neger said, is taken in consultation with the state of New Jersey. He said he’s getting many calls from people who want to join the program, but he can’t accommodate them due to safety precautions. The state is imposing new rules every day, he said, but he hopes to remain open and will do so if possible.
All other Pesach programs are now taking calls from customers who want a refund, and getting one is not always simple. “Eight weeks before the program, the hotels have been paid already,” said Raphi Bloom, CEO of TotallyJewishTravel.com, the Internet’s biggest kosher travel site. Hotels generally return money only if they close; if the hotel remains open, it generally does not refund the program, said Bloom. Since Greece closed all hotels, the hotels have to refund the programs, said Netzer. The same is true in Italy.
Many of the programs have expenses that are not refundable. “We start planning Pesach after Succos – by January most of the food purchases are made,” says Netzer.
Refunds sometimes depend on the financial state of the program. “Often programs whose owners have other businesses or own property can afford to give full refunds, but for many, this is their only parnassah, and a full refund could put them in a terrible financial state,” said Bloom.
The Chef Flam Program, the Mount Laurel Resort Program, and others have offered full refunds. Other programs are offering a partial refund or credit for next year. “It’s very hard on all of us owners; we’ve all made so many investments that we can’t get back,” said Netzer.
“Customers have lost money. That shouldn’t be minimized — I very much hope they will get as much money back as possible — but they’re not going to lose their homes in the vast majority of cases. The owners of these programs, though, could hit bankruptcy as this is their parnassah,” says Bloom.
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, who was supposed to be the rabbi of the Upscale Getaways San Diego Pesach program, said the owner of Upscale Getaways called him two weeks ago to notify him that the program was canceled. “As much as my family and I were disappointed, I felt horrible for him: imagine losing a whole year’s salary,” he said,
Rabbi Shoff, who is rav of Beis Knesses of LA and an 11th grade rebbe at YULA, said the problem is not just financial. Owners spend every day of the year leading up to Pesach, “and now, there’s nothing to show for it,” he said. “It’s as if at the end of the year, my students forgot all the material, suddenly started hating me, and took away my year’s salary. Think about the psychological impact of that.”
Rabbi Shoff said he is receiving more Pesach questions than ever, like what needs to be kashered, “because there are so many that are now making Pesach for the first time in years.”
With Pesach programs canceled, Kornblum said some restaurants will be providing Pesach cateringfor people who are not used to making Pesach themselves.
Sarah Boczo of Woodsburgh, New York was supposed to attend the Upscale Getaways program in San Diego. “This was our very first year going away, so although it was disappointing…I know how to throw everything together at the last minute.” But most of her friends haven’t made Pesach in years, she said.
Some regular hotel-goers may try to recreate the hotel experience at home. “Try making your own little tearoom; one of you can take turns being the speaker; have one of the kids put on a show and be the entertainer that night. There’s small aspects you can recreate,” said Kornblum.
Rabbi Shoff said parents should seize the opportunity offered by this year’s cancellations. “It was nice to go away for the past six years, but there’s a downside: our children don’t know what it means to make Pesach, to have an intimate family seder, to all work together to make the chag. Our children don’t know that most people eat matzah and cream cheese on Pesach and not kosher l’Pesach hot dogs in buns.”
Rabbi Shoff said he and his wife aim to make this Pesach “one the children will never forget.”
“There is something so special to being home for the chag. If you show your children enthusiasm for making the chag and for enjoying it in an intimate setting, they will feel the same way,” he said.