Phoenix a ‘Jewish destination for Pesach’

Like the Israelites who journeyed through the desert and whose story is retold each year during the seder, nearly 3,000 people made their own journey to the desert this year to commemorate this occasion.

However, this time it was a little different.

Instead of tents, today’s “wanderers” celebrated in luxury at four Valley resorts: The Arizona Biltmore, JW Marriott Desert Ridge, the Millennium Resort Scottsdale McCormick Ranch and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

They dined on modern-day manna in the form of bagels (made from potato starch), made-to-order omelets, Belgian waffles, chocolate soufflÇs, pancakes, pizzas, pastries and sushi (made with quinoa instead of rice).

This influx to the Greater Phoenix area indicates “Phoenix has become a Jewish destination for Pesach,” said Rabbi David Rebibo, head of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, the Valley’s kosher-certifying agency.

About 300 people attended the Vaad’s first Passover program about 13 years ago, Rebibo said, and since then it has grown significantly. Past programs were held in Valley resorts, but after the program outgrew those facilities, the Vaad moved to the Biltmore. This year’s ninth annual V.I.P. Passover program at the Biltmore had nearly 1,200 people. The Vaad also supervised the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which was hosted by Presidential Kosher Holidays and had about 700 guests.

The JW Marriott Desert Ridge program hosted by Lasko Tours had 750 guests, according to a company representative; this is the fourth year it was held in Phoenix and was supervised by the Orthodox Rabbinical Board (ORB) of Florida.

New this year was the Paradise Kosher Tours program at the Millennium Resort Scottsdale McCormick Ranch, which had 460 guests, according to a spokesman, and was supervised by the Organized Kashrus Laboratories (OK).

The Biltmore guests came from all over the country, as well as from Mexico and Canada, according to Sheila Stein, V.I.P. Passover administrative director and part owner.

Starting prices for the week at these resorts range from $3,199 to nearly $4,000. Most guests stay for the whole holiday, but partial stays are also available.

Right now there are no shared programs among the four resorts but future plans include a joint event for singles, Rebibo said.

Pesach preparations

According to Rebibo, planning for the Passover program usually begins in January, with meetings with Biltmore staff. Then “activity picks up tremendously two weeks before Pesach, full-blast.” The kashering process includes taking the ovens completely apart for cleaning, which is done by the Biltmore’s engineering staff.

Danziger Kosher Catering of Chicago (the same company that ran the first cafe at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus in Scottsdale from July 2003 to September 2004) caters the Biltmore program, and employees come early to take additional ovens, as well as utensils and other kitchen equipment, out of their Phoenix storage space and start prepping the food.

During the week before Passover, the Vaad also kashered Ganache This!, a Tempe bakery owned by Judy Palmer, a former executive pastry chef at the Biltmore. The bakery supplied pastries and other desserts to the resort.

With the exception of those baked goods and produce, most of the food comes from New York and Israel, Rebibo said. Three huge refrigerator trucks filled with food – from meat and dairy products to processed foods and soda – transported this year’s stock to the Biltmore.

Rabbi Michael Dubitsky of the Vaad served as the head mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at the Biltmore, overseeing eight mashgichim who came from out of state.

The Vaad used two of the Biltmore’s kitchens – one meat and one dairy – and the mashgichim rotated shifts from approximately 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., to cover all the times that food was being prepared. “We’re in the kitchen until all the dishes are done being washed,” Dubitsky said.

“We’re basically in charge of making sure that everything is kosher in the hotel,” and that all the food is prepared properly.

And there was plenty of food. Breakfast alone offered omelet, pancake, matzah brei and Belgian waffle stations, fresh fruit, a variety of cheeses and lox, bagels and cream cheese, and pastries.

In addition to the elaborate meals, most served buffet-style with the exception of Shabbat and Yom Tov meals, there was also a tearoom, which was open most of the day. The tearoom, with an “Alice in Wonderland” theme, colorfully presented chocolates, slushies, fresh coffee, freshly glazed nuts, pastries, candy, candy and more candy. Sushi chefs prepared their creations at a sushi bar in the corner.

The grill on the lawn, open for lunch and dinner, served hamburgers and hot dogs – on buns made from potato starch – and french fries.

For those guests heading out on day trips, a room offered the fixings so they could prepare their own to-go boxes.

Resort, sweet resort

Although some people may feel that Passover belongs in the home and not at a resort, Rebibo stresses that the staff at both the Biltmore and the Princess try to create a family atmosphere.

For example, for the seder nights, the large ballroom is divided to create 75-80 rooms so each family can have its own seder, Rebibo noted. Many multigenerational families attend the program, including Rebibo’s, with family members traveling from different locales to be together.

“It’s very family-friendly,” Rebibo said, and the programming demonstrates that. Programs are available for children from toddlers to teens. Daytime camp activities for the younger crowd include pony rides, a petting zoo and day trips to the Stuffington Bear Factory and Makutu’s Island (day trips cost extra), while older children go bowling and rock-climbing.

During chol ha’moed (the intermediary days), guests can also choose from a number of day trips, at an extra cost, to local museums and even a day trip to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

Adults have a wide range of other programming, too. Featured speakers at the Biltmore included Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center; Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University; Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who is Winston Churchill’s official biographer; and Marvin Silbermintz, a “Tonight Show” writer and comedian from Los Angeles.

This was Silbermintz’s third stay at the Biltmore for Passover. During chol ha’moed, he flew to Cancun to perform at another Passover resort there. He’s spent time at numerous Passover programs since 1991, including those in Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Diego, Calif., Palm Springs, Calif., and Park City, Utah. “This program is really the best,” he said of the Biltmore, commenting on the extensive food options and the “incredible service.” He especially enjoys the coffee choices – he conducted a taste test between the resort’s cappuccino and latte one morning during breakfast – and the “beef on a stick” served daily on the grill set up on the resort’s main lawn.

He was at the Biltmore with his wife, who taught Israeli dancing and CPR during the week, and his three sons, two who worked as mashgichim and one as a camp counselor.

Another guest was Steven Spielberg, who attended the program with his family.

Jonathan Rimberg, a musician from New Jersey, provided music for the program with members of his band, Naf Shenu. He attended the program with his wife and four children and called it “over the top.”

“Beautiful weather, beautiful resort, amazing food.”

Why Phoenix?
Why has Phoenix become such a popular destination?

Many who come to the Biltmore used to go to Miami, Rebibo said, and they’ve told him that they wanted to try something new. The first-class resorts and the weather don’t hurt, either, as well as the tourist offerings.

One problem that occurred this year with the influx of visitors happened at the airport, according to Rebibo. The Vaad received several calls from people whose flights were rerouted or bumped. “They had a lot of problems getting in and out of town,” he said.

At least the modern-day Israelites didn’t have to wait 40 years to get to their destination.

This article first appeared in the May 2, 2008 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.