Passover at Disney World? Why some Jews are traveling for the holiday

As Passover vacations become more popular, some worry that the move outside the home can diminish the family-centered religious holiday.

John Raoux/AP
Workers prepare food in a meat-only kitchen for the Passover holiday at the Waldorf Astoria resort at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. More than 1,000 Jews are expected to stay at the resort for the eight-day celebration.

A small but growing number of Jewish people might not celebrate the ancient rituals ritual of Passover at home this year. They're going to Disney World.

Passover has always been an intensely family-centered religious observance, and although some are cheerfully traveling to commercialized festivity, others find the idea of trading out Grandma's brisket recipe for an-inclusive package in Mexico shocking.  

"They say you can pay for almost anything," says Sharon Sherman, an emeritus professor at the University of Oregon who has researched and written on Passover in America. "I didn’t think you could pay for religion though."

Passover is traditionally celebrated in the home, but some resorts in popular vacation destinations are seeing a business opportunity and responding accordingly. As many as 100,000 people booked hotel rooms for this year's Passover, and the resulting revenue of almost $70 million is double that of ten years ago.

“We’ve seen a massive growth over the last decade to 12 years of the locations, the variety, the price ranges, the types of hotels,” said Ralphi Bloom, who runs the travel website Totally Jewish Travel.

Disney World's Waldorf Astoria resort in Orlando, Fla., has cleaned out its dishes and established a meat-only kitchen – even requesting the services of a rabbi – to create a kosher Passover experience. More than 1,000 Jewish visitors are expected for the eight-day Passover celebration, which this year runs from sunset on April 22 through sunset April 30.

But that still makes a resort Passover more the exception than the rule. An estimated 6 million Jewish people live in the United States, and 70 percent – or at least 4 million – celebrate Passover. Even if 100,000 were moving their Seder meal to Disney World, that represents only 2.3 percent of Passover celebrants.

A Passover vacation is a hefty investment. Many of these vacations are designed with the whole family in mind – packages in Mexico and Scottsdale, Ariz., even offer the option of single-family Seder dinners – and prices range from $1,600 to $11,000 per person.  

Rabbi Amy Levin of a conservative synagogue in Bridgeport, Conn., says she has seen several older members of her flock, for whom Passover might be physically arduous, booking a resort for Passover. 

"My impression is that the people who are considering leaving are doing it for logistical reasons," she says.

Preparations for Passover go well beyond the tasks of living a kosher lifestyle, she says, and some older people whose family members live far away might find the tasks too physically daunting and book a hotel instead, she says. Tradition calls for homes scrubbed of every last crumb, and many families bring a separate set of Passover-only dishes from the basement or garage for the eight-day celebration. 

If older people are driving this slight break from tradition, however, there is a good chance it will grow. Small family size among all but Orthodox Jews, combined with longer life expectancy, means the Jewish population is growing older, according to the Pew Research Center.

In some ways, however, the tasks leading up to Passover are part of celebrating the ancient ritual, and rabbis have urged many in their flock to simplify their pre-Passover cleaning rather than travel, says Jonathan Sarna, the chief historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community and professor at Brandeis University. 

"There is some concern that the Seder, which is really the most essential part of the Passover service, gets attenuated when you’re in a hotel," Dr. Sarna says. 

Going away for Passover has always been an attractive option for those who can afford it, and the increase in exotic destination options may serve as a barometer for the wealth of the Jewish community or reflect economic recovery after the Great Recession. He has heard concerns, though, that it keeps the "letter of the law" without some of the spirit.

"The law is kept, but the spirit is lost, and that too is a sort of commentary on modern Orthodoxy," Sarna says.

Dr. Sherman agrees that something may be lost by leaving. She is planning a Passover for 15 in her home, and although the work will be significant, gathering a group of family and friends increases the feeling of being part of a Jewish community stretching across the world and through the ages.

"I think the main thing about Passover for me has always been ... your family, that you’re together," she says. "You feel like you’re part of a larger story." 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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