Why Are Thousands of Jews Selling Their Homes for Passover?

The Jewish people are only too familiar with exile and exodus. But these days it's an exodus of their own choosing.

Every Passover, tens of thousands of Jewish families sell their homes (temporarily!) and head to a luxury hotel or resort for the duration of the holiday. It is a huge overlooked corner of the tourism industry: for a minimum of eight days at prices that start around $1,500 a head, families that sprawl across generations consume obscene amounts of food and entertainment, plus travel expenses. But why Passover?

In the story of the Exodus, Jews were freed from slavery and rushed out of Egypt so quickly that their bread didn't have time to rise. To commemorate, Jewish law states that during Passover, no bread, grains or leavened products -- known as chametz -- can be eaten or even remain on your property. Couch cushions, book pages, baby cribs, telephones, radiators, pants cuffs and pockets -- all have to be scoured for renegade foodstuffs.

Depending on the level of observance, Passover preparation can range from a stressful Spring cleaning to a full-blown, commando-style search-and-destroy mission that begins months beforehand. Plus, there's significant food preparation to do, especially if extended family is involved.

It's stressful and time-consuming, but where there's a need, there's a religious loophole. As with the infamous Shabbos Goys (Gentiles who do work for Jews on the Sabbath; their ranks have reportedly included Martin Scorcese, Colin Powell, Elvis Presley and even Barack Obama), sometimes Jews need a hand from the non-Chosen Ones.

Jewish law allows the sale of chametz to a non-Jew, who's the technical owner of the household for the duration of the holiday, after which it's bought back. In practice, the congregation appoints their rabbi as an agent who sells the communal chametz kit-and-caboodle to a trusted non-Jew. It's easy and effective, and widely practiced among the Orthodox. (On a technical note: They're not selling the house itself; they're selling all chametz inside, plus access to the house.)

Even Jews who stay home for Passover effect the sale (called the mechirah). They clean house, and store the verboten goods and dishes in sealed-off cabinets, closets, and rooms. No need to flush the 18-year aged whiskey or chuck that very special ice cream cake.

The Passover tourists just sell it all -- no need to clean! -- and off to a catered seder they go.

The practice isn't restricted to individuals. The State of Israel owns a lot of chametz: About $150 million worth when you total up state-owned companies, prison services, and stocks of emergency supplies. Holding onto it during Passover would render it unfit for consumption by the Orthodox. So every year it is sold to Jaaber Hussein, an Arab manager of an Israeli hotel, for a down payment of $4800.

(As it happens, some Muslims have a similar travel tradition. Wealthy Indonesians flock en masse to hotels and resorts during Id al-Fitr, the celebration that closes Ramadan, because it's easier than doing without the domestic servants who go home for the holiday.)

Of course, many non-Orthodox Jewish families don't particularly care about the cleaning regimen; for them, it's more about a family vacation, and hotels offer a convenient, if expensive, solution to hosting and feeding the clan -- especially if part of the clan is Orthodox.

Yonah Krakowsky's family has been traveling the Passover travel circuit from Fort Lauderdale to Niagara Falls since he was twelve, along with a large, rotating cast of cousins and grandparents.

"The holiday is extremely difficult to prepare for, and going away really lightens the load," he said. "And we're together for eight days -- it's quality family time, and means a lot to my grandparents."

Jews can munch matzah in Hawaii, Mexico, Italy, Spain, Costa Rica, Aruba, Cannes, and many other places besides. Florida alone has dozens of hotels that convert to Passover mode, and the trend has recently taken off with Israeli Jews. A few years ago, an Israeli company was peddling a Passover package in Egypt, which is almost unendurably ironic. Some of the fanciest hotels in the United States have Passover programs, like the Biltmore in Scottsdale, AZ, and the Fountainebleau in Miami. There are Passover cruises, Passover safaris, and Passovers for Jewish singles.

The great majority of these hotels go Passover kosher, which is dizzying in complexity and scope. No outside food items may be brought in by guests or wait staff, lest it contain leavened products. Kitchen appliances, sinks, and countertops must be made kosher -- a process that involves blowtorches and gallons of boiling waters. Special Passover utensils have to be bought. Armies of kosher supervisors called mashgiach have to employed. And absolutely no bread products are allowed.

Imagine feeding hundreds of picky and pampered people multiple times a day for eight days, without wheat or flour -- especially if they demand food that, to put succinctly, doesn't taste like Passover food. There's an entire mini-industry devoted to mimicking standard cuisine: Cakes, pancakes, muffins and pizza are all, somehow, produced and served. Occasionally, there's an honest-to-God miracle for the Passover-observant, like quinoa. Rice, due to rabbinic fears of it being confused for wheat, is forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews, even if it's not technically chametz. But quinoa was 'discovered' after the prohibition was enacted, and was therefore not included. This means that Passover needn't equal sushi-deprivation.

It's not just food that has to be delivered: entertainment, too, is a must. Passover, as celebrated in America, consists of two two-day holidays sandwiching four "intermediate days" when work is prohibited. Hotels scramble to fill those days with activities, concerts, and the like. Prominent Jewish singers are in high demand. Rabbis and scholars in resident are used to lure potential guests. Stand-up comedians riff about the exodus and, of course, the food. Children are assigned to day care, adolescents have to be herded up and distracted, and the twentysomethings have Passover dance parties. "It's pretty similar to a cruise ship," Sam Lasko, the President of Lasko Family Kosher Tours, told me. "We offer food, room, a tea room, day care, scholars, children's activities, adult activities, religious services -- the whole nine yards."

So maybe the expense is justified, after all. Five thousand dollars a person is common for the high end resorts, and it rarely dips below $1500. There's no reliable hard data on the size of the Passover tourist market, but Menachem Lubinsky (no relation), a marketing consultant who specializes in the kosher industry, estimates it is worth about $100 million a year. Michael Kaiser (yes relation), writing a few years back in an Orthodox magazine, echoed that number, but warned it was a very conservative estimate. Lubinsky told me that more than 20,000 American Jews participate in Passover programs around the world.

It's even somewhat recession-resistant: though five Passover programs (representing about 1500 spots) in America were closed this year, all the participants were absorbed into facilities. Because while Passover can be expensive, it's not optional. And the hotels are determined to make it as headache-free and enjoyable as possible.

But even five-star service has its limits when it comes to Passover, as Krakowsky says, especially with the food.

"It doesn't matter what they make," he said. "It all tastes like potato latkes."

(Nav Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)