My friends, I have been to the mountaintop, but more recently I came back from the valley. Yes, the rumors are true: I spent the last two days of Passover at a program in Florida that was shut down on the first day of chol hamoed.
The collapse of “A Different Pesach Program,” as it was billed, was the subject of an article that appeared in the April 25 edition of this newspaper (“Let my people stay,” a headline that I didn’t write, but wish I had). It details how the program in Orlando was abruptly cancelled after owner Ben Atkin failed to pay at least $75,000 in services owed to staff, vendors, and rental-home owners. Even so, most participants stuck around for the rest of the week — where else could most of them go in the middle of the holiday?
For the last six or seven years, my family has taken part in this program, in which guests rent private villas with shared common areas such as a synagogue tent and clubhouse, and provisions for kosher seders and meals throughout the eight-day holiday. It’s appealing for those like us whose large extended family can stay in the same house, which would be almost impossible at my parents’ home. The food is not spectacular, but it’s passable, and while the service was always, to be charitable, lacking, it was a price we were willing to pay — as was the monetary cost — for being together.
I won’t rehash the details of how things went bad (click here for the details), but on the second day of Passover my parents came back from morning prayer services to find a note on the door to their villa informing them that Atkin had failed to make the final payment for the home and so they were to be evicted. Similar notices were left on at least 10 other villas. When the yom tov came to a close that evening, my father got in touch with the homeowners and paid the outstanding $1,000, and I presume the other soon-to-be evictees did the same. The next night guests learned that the official program would be shut down immediately, as Atkin was allegedly in arrears for tens of thousands of dollars more.
Also, Atkin put more than $17,000 in unauthorized charges on my father’s credit card — my dad disputed the charges — and I’m told other customers were charged without permission, as well.
The remaining staff and guests pulled together to ensure that Passover, unlike the program, would continue. Even though the staff members understood they may never be paid, many worked for the duration of the holiday out of genuine decency and a sense of responsibility. The program’s operations managers paid thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to cover costs, and guests generously volunteered to donate additional money toward vendors and staff. Some prepared kosher-for-Passover food was brought in from Miami, but guests were left to fend themselves for most meals; a nearby Winn-Dixie was a beneficiary of Atkin’s misdeeds. Families volunteered to host the remaining prayer services in the living rooms of their villas.
Our plane tickets were already paid for so my wife and I decided to risk it and fly down to Orlando, drama notwithstanding. At very least it would make a good story (ta-da!). And we’re glad we went: We enjoyed being with my family, and it’s hard to overstate the value of my young children spending quality time with their cousins and grandparents.
I was surprised to find that many people were unhappy with the media coverage (chiefly ours), believing that the focus should have been on the efforts put forth by the guests and staff to stave off disaster, rather than on the sins of an individual. Of course they deserve praise for asking, “How can I help?” instead of just, “Who’s to blame?” During Yizkor on the last day, people pledged to donate money to the staff, and I’ve heard of several guests who planned to give even more. That’s a beautiful thing.
But let’s be real. Having been on both sides of the Passover experience — the more common, do-it-yourself variety, and the have-it-done-for-you kind — I can attest to the fact that our friends up north who spent weeks cleaning their homes, hosted seders, prepared food for all eight days, and went to work the rest of the time had a tougher week. Making Passover at home is about as close as most of us will get to replicating the experience of being slaves in Egypt. Those of us in Orlando salvaged a bad situation and then took a nap by the pool. Good for us, but not that good.
I have no idea what my family will do for Passover next year. But I hope that if it’s “a different Pesach program,” it’ll be different in a good way.