Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Ellul 5761 - August 22, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Pitfalls of Vacation Packages -- and the Shearis Yisroel Solution

by M. Samsonowitz

A few weeks before bein hazmanim I was reading a chareidi newspaper, and I couldn't help but notice the tempting advertisements appearing on the front and back pages. There was a huge assortment of advertisements for vacation packages. They flashed before my eyes like a beckoning neon light, with all the power of persuasion of a human tour operator. I suddenly realized -- they're right! After all these months of hard work, I needed a vacation, and with bein hazmanim coming up, what better time was there?

I considered that the many vacation opportunities in the religious community that had sprung up this summer may not repeat themselves. Because the tourist season in Israel was so flat this year, many reputable hotels were being taken over by religious entrepreneurs organizing cheap vacations for the religious community. The hotels were amenable since they could keep themselves away from losses or even bankruptcy for another month or two in the present recession. The religious public was thrilled, finally having the opportunity to enjoy a reasonably-priced vacation in a 4-star hotel, complete with a swimming pool that had separate hours for men and women, glatt kosher food, programs with Jewish content -- all with a heimishe group of people.

After checking prices and vacation deals, I finally settled on a 4-day weekend deal at the Dead Sea. A perfect vacation for a mother, I thought dreamily, should include getting a Shabbos off and being able to walk in and be served Shabbos meals by someone else.

Is it a Dream Come True?

I checked with Chaim, the organizer of this vacation deal, and became even more enthusiastic as I heard what the vacation package included. Vacationers would arrive Thursday afternoon. On Thursday night, we would have a special audio-visual program at Matzada, on Friday, we would travel to Eilat where we would visit the underwater observatory, the Oceanarium, a jewelry store and take a boat ride into the Gulf of Aqaba. On Sunday morning, a jeep trip or a hike to the Flour Cave was planned.

In addition to the trips, there were programs for kids, including a puppet theater, a magician, and arts and crafts. I was less interested in these since I wasn't taking any kids along. The organizers had invited special chazonim for Shabbos, as well as interesting lecturers and speakers throughout the four days. We could of course visit the Dead Sea for free for the duration of our stay. I was positively ecstatic.

Before I signed up, I had to be certain about the kashrus. Chaim told me the meat would be from a very respectable hechsher, and the produce would be "Shmittah lechumra according to minhag Yerushalayim."

Although this was reassuring, I knew that the mashgiach's credentials were more important than the source of the food products. Chaim told me that the head of kashrus at the hotel was a reliable Chief Rabbinate employee, and he gave me his name and number. I spoke with the man, who confirmed what Chaim had told me. It sounded good.

Just to be sure, I had a friend with close connections to the Yerushalayim Rabbanut phone up one of the heads and ask if the mashgiach who would be supervising the hotel is a reliable person. After a day, a positive answer came back. I was thrilled.

I quickly called back Chaim and told him I was coming with my teenage daughter. My reservation assured, I restlessly and impatiently waited two weeks for my dream vacation to finally arrive.

Eating Sandwiches in the Lobby

The first surprise was a phone call that came a day before the vacation was to begin. The organizer's wife told me that although the vacation deal extended over four days (Thursday to Sunday), it actually involved only 3 full days of meals. Since our last meal would be lunch on Sunday, our first meal would be Thursday night. She advised us to bring our own food for lunch. I took the opportunity to ask what route the bus leaving from Jerusalem to the hotel in the Dead Sea was taking. During these tense times, I was aware that many people were wary of using the shortest road. Although it is the most direct way to travel to the Dead Sea, a man had been murdered there two months ago.

She explained that because people were frightened to use the short route, the bus to the hotel would leave from Jerusalem and travel to the Dead Sea by way of Bnei Brak and Arad. Assessing that this bus would take at least 4 hours, I preferred to travel with Egged. The cost was 18 shekels more, but it was only a two hour ride.

We took the 9:15 a.m. bus and after stops on the way, arrived in the hotel area in the Dead Sea around 12:15. We sat ourselves down in the lobby and munched on our tuna sandwiches. Unfortunately, the receptionist wouldn't allow us to enter our rooms because Chaim had to give each of us our rooms.

Chaim finally arrived in the lobby at 2:00 p.m., and after arranging payment, I received the key to our room. We trooped up to our room on the second floor and were favorably impressed. It looked like a decent hotel room in every respect. We put our stuff down, and looked around the hotel. The outdoor swimming pool, the dining room, the lobby -- they all answered my criteria for a proper vacation.

When the vacation bus from Jerusalem finally arrived at 4:00 p.m. -- almost 6 hours after having left Jerusalem -- we patted ourselves on the back for being so clever to take the Egged bus.

The First Cracks in our Dream

We were even more pleasantly surprised when we went to have supper. The tables were attractively set, and the variety of salads, meat dishes, and cooked side courses, was definitely satisfying. Throughout our vacation, I gave a high mark for the quality of the food.

Our first visit to the dining room also gave me a chance to see who else was vacationing with us. The vacation director was a Sephardic chareidi. The vacationers came from a wide range of backgrounds -- Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yerushalmi, Chassidic, Yemenite. About three-quarters were Sephardic or Yemenite. But there were a few religious Zionist families present too, and even one family that at most one could say was "traditional."

While I wouldn't venture to judge anyone's level of religiosity, the fact is that the daughters of the religious Zionist families did not maintain the same standards of tznius as the chareidi families. Many men are particular not to go places where they will have to meet up with people dressed like this. And I mused, what if a chareidi family has a child who is impressionable? Spending four days in the presence of other youths with different standards of dress and values could lead to a host of undesirable things.

My concern became stronger when our group arrived at the special audio- visual program in Matzada after a bumpy one- hour ride in the dark. The event, fascinating as it was, was packed with non-religious families who had come to see it. They were dressed as chilonim dress on a hot summer day. The men in our group davened ma'ariv together on the left side of the stadium steps from where we watched the show, and they sat together as a group afterwards. But on the way from the parking lot to the stadium, and on the way back, it was almost impossible to avoid mixing with everyone else. The situation repeated itself during our visit to Eilat the next day.

This brought into focus the issue of how much interaction one is willing to have with the non-chareidi world. Everyone should understand that tours in public places will inevitably throw them together with other groups.

We came back to our hotel late Thursday night, and it was then that I first began to notice that the air conditioning didn't work properly. At night, though, it wasn't that noticeable since the weather was cooler and we were sleeping anyway.

We rose the next morning at dawn and zipped off to the Dead Sea beach for a quick dip. The separate beach ("the International Dead Sea beach") was two kilometers off, but the beaches closer to the hotel area were all mixed. Dead Sea vacationers are there at all hours of the day from the crack of dawn until late at night. The International Beach only opened later in the day. On Friday and Sunday morning, our vacation director arranged for us to be driven to the International Beach and brought back.

Half the Trip Lost Because of Stragglers

My halachic authority had informed me that according to some views, one may leave Eretz Yisroel if he returns on the same day. Here was my chance to see Eilat, since the vacation deal was offering a one day trip to Eilat returning to the Dead Sea the same day. (Readers are advised to ask a competent halachic authority of their own if this point is relevant to them.)

We left in the morning after a one hour delay. Chaim had appointed an enthusiastic young man called Gilad to be in charge of our group of 40 vacationers traveling to Eilat. Gilad graciously pointed out a few landmarks on our way south. We got a look at the huge Dead Sea Works and other sites in our holy land which we had heard about but had never before seen.

We finally arrived at the Underwater Observatory in Eilat. It took Gilad half an hour to procure the tickets for us while we steamed in the sun. Finally we were admitted. Gilad warned us three times that everybody better show up on time because we can't wait for anyone and we have a busy schedule!

The Underwater Observatory was impressive. I had never seen such a huge range of underwater creatures in strange sizes and colors. There were schools of hundreds of tiny silver fish that were moving together in what looked like synchronized ballet. How did all these tens of thousands of creatures live together? I didn't see any fish eating any of the others. So what did they feed on? My wonderment at the beautiful creatures was immense. Other water exhibits were of sea horses, sharks, sting rays and turtles.

Finally we arrived at the next stop, the Oceanarium, at the prescribed hour. The film of a spaceship speeding through the universe and investigating hidden parts of the water world was lots of fun, especially since our seats gyrated and turned to give us the feeling that we were right there in the spaceship.

When it finished, we departed the large hall and waited outside to meet up with all the others for the next segment of our trip. Gilad and others were waiting at the entrance, when we saw two couples queuing up in line to enter the Oceanarium. "We missed the earlier one," they explained apologetically.

A fight broke out. Some vacationers demanded that they not go in, since they would put the rest of us behind schedule. Gilad wasn't prepared for this. He hesitated, and then the families disappeared inside the door. Realizing it was a lost battle, other families snuck in for a second showing too. Gilad apologized to the rest of us, "I don't want them to complain that they had a miserable guide."

Half an hour later, they came out and we trooped to the bus, seriously off schedule. The bus driver drove us to the jewelry store, where we discovered we had come fifteen minutes after closing time. We missed the boat jaunt into the bay too, because you only got the free boat ride if you visited the jewelry store. Naturally, some of us were extremely irked to find out we had lost half of our program because of two inconsiderate couples and an incompetent guide.

We ate lunch in our seats in the air conditioned bus, and then started on the long 2-1/2 hour ride back to the hotel. We arrived an hour and a half before Shabbos.

Air Conditioning Barely Works

When I entered the hotel this time, I discovered that the air conditioning system was apparently on its last legs. The temperature in the lobby was no different than outside. The dining room was only slightly better, and best of all, but still woefully insufficient, were the suites. There was no cold water -- besides the first 10 seconds which the water ran in the taps and showers. One of the bed lights wasn't working.

I realized with much vexation that my idea of a dream vacation hadn't taken in account sweltering in a hotel and nonstop sweating. I went to daven kabolas Shabbos in the ezras noshim, but after my glasses began steaming from the heat, I left.

I stomped to the receptionist and demanded that something be done about the air conditioning. She sent me to Chaim. Chaim said they had called the maintenance man.

Our closing discussion about the failed air conditioning took place two hours before I left on Sunday, in a tete-a-tete between me, the hotel accountant and Chaim's wife. The hotel accountant explained that all the hotels in the Dead Sea suffer from inadequate air conditioning during the sweltering summer months, it's the same at the Nirvana, etc. and nothing can be done about it.

I turned to Chaim's wife, and asked her the question which hopelessly gave away my American roots, "Do you expect me to come back for another vacation package when this is the service I get?"

Frankly, I couldn't understand how a hotel in the desert could be built without a sufficient electrical supply to run the air conditioning in the summer months. But all my complaints, and the complaints of countless others in the hotel, were in vain.

Frenzy Over the Food

After the Shabbos night prayers, all the vacationers trooped to the dining room on the first floor for our Shabbos seuda. The kitchen staff and waiters seemed to be in shock. It turns out that they expected families to drift in for their meals at different times, as is usual during the week. They were unprepared for the onslaught of all 400 vacationers at once.

The entire room was in disarray, with vacationers storming the kitchen for water, napkins, and other items. Even though the organizer had arranged for the families to sit at certain tables, it was suddenly discovered that there weren't enough tables and another five had to be set out in the corridor.

I later heard that the frenzied waiters were so upset at the crowding and grabbing that went on that some of them went on strike the next morning and didn't show up. Of course, that only made the situation worse then.

I found the combined crowding and heat too overwhelming. I took my plate to my room to eat it there in silence. At least the air conditioning worked better there than anywhere else.

It was at that point that I noticed the blinking light over the cosmetic table mirror. What was that? I wondered. Am I transgressing Shabbos with that on?

A Plethora of Shabbos Problems

This was when I discovered that the hotel had not been properly set up for Shabbos. Throughout Shabbos, I would discover other problems. And by the time Shabbos was over, and I had spoken with several other vacationers, I realized that Shabbos in a chiloni hotel is extremely problematic.

One teacher who was vacationing there, like me, reached the conclusion that one should never spend Shabbos in such a hotel because Shabbos transgression is inevitable.

A young English-speaking yeshiva bochur from Rechovot, Yitzchok, graciously explained the Shabbos violations that he had noticed. The blinking light was a sensor which reacted to the movements we made in the room and monitored the room for gas and carbon monoxide. Yitzchok had covered his sensor with a towel and had done this service for other vacationers on his floor. Being a floor under, I knew nothing about it, and so my every movement was being responded to by the sensor.

There was a wide range of issues which all involved amira le'akum. The laws of what things may be said to a non-Jew and how they should be said are very detailed. In practice, at the hotel, the non-Jews did many actions solely on behalf of the Jews.

For instance, a Shabbos goy turned on the lights in the shul. In many cases the vacationers openly asked non- Jews to perform a certain melochoh for them, not realizing the detailed laws which apply to asking a non-Jew for help. Nor was it clear to us which of the workers were non- Jews and which were Jews.

Because so many of the workers in the hotel were goyim, the mashgiach didn't open the wine bottles before Shabbos. People were confronted with a situation where they had to make kiddush but couldn't break the seals and twist off the caps.

On Friday night, someone said in shul that there was no eruv in the garden and people shouldn't carry in it but few heard. This was a critical issue because the way to the ezras noshim in the shul was through the garden. Many women carried a siddur to the shul through the garden. When I heard I had transgressed Shabbos unknowingly, I was shocked and angry.

Yitzchok mentioned that he had asked the mashgiach if he had put up an eruv, and the mashgiach told him that this wasn't "his responsibility." His responsibility was only the kitchen.

Zahava C., a teacher from Jerusalem, later mentioned to me that her husband had warned her not to use the coffee machine in the dining room to make coffee on Shabbos. He assumed that since this was the regular machine used during the week, it most probably does not have a Shabbos thermostat which would make it permissible for use on Shabbos. But many of the women and children who came to the dining room for coffee and cake in the morning were unaware that it was forbidden.

Some of us who were warned about the coffee machine were able to make coffee from kettles filled with hot water which had been put out early in the morning. Hot water for drinks was unavailable for the rest of the day.

The hotel also had a drink dispenser for orange and grapefruit juice, and water. Were we permitted to press on the handle which poured the liquid into a cup? No one knew for sure. When Zahava asked the mashgiach if she could use the drink dispenser machine, he told her that her husband could probably answer that question better than he.

The hotel's Jewish workers provoked a whole new set of halachic questions. The Jewish receptionist checked the computer and made phone calls in response to questions asked by vacationers. We discovered that all the workers lived in Arad and arrived by special transportation every day to work in the hotel including on Shabbos. The maintenance man, also a Jew, was busy checking the air conditioning and fixing things throughout Shabbos.

Tznius Problems

Standards of tznius were violated. The crowding in the dining room resulted in men and women pushing against each other, although the davening, joint lectures and songfest held motzei Shabbos were completely separate.

The problem was particularly acute with the workers in the hotel.

One improperly dressed worker, Olga, was serving the women cake and coffee Shabbos morning. When Chaim walked into the dining room to see how things were doing, he gestured to her to dress more appropriately. She replied, "What's the problem? There are only women and children here." To most of the workers' minds, the height of tznius was wearing pants and a shirt with sleeves in the summer.

Kashrus Problems

The kashrus arrangements failed at upholding the standards that every religious hotel automatically keeps. For instance, there was only one fork set on the table Friday night despite the need for two forks (fish and meat).

I saw a lady complaining to Chaim on Shabbos morning and drew near to listen. The lady, a teacher who lived in Jerusalem, said that she had been told that the meat had a certain hechsher, but now she discovered from the mashgiach that the meat had a different hechsher! She lashed at Chaim, "If I have known this, I wouldn't have come! I don't know what standard this hechsher is on; all I know is that we don't eat it."

The Mix of Vacationers

I compared notes with some of the other vacationers concerning what we had been told about the group of vacationers who were coming. I had been told it was an all-chareidi crowd. In reality, not everyone was chareidi. I personally found the mix of Chutznik - Sephardic - Yemenite - baal teshuva - Chabad - Shas, as exotic and exciting as a spin in a time machine. Admittedly, not everyone feels that comfortable about a mixed crowd.

A young Bnei Brak avreich who came with his four kids, mentioned that he had felt overwhelmed by the three-hour Shabbos shacharis and one- hour mincha. The reason for the lengthy prayers was the Shabbos "chazonus." Since chazonus has been out of style in the Litvish community for some time, I wasn't sure what he meant.

It turns out that chazonus is alive and well in Sephardic and religious Zionist circles. The program featured two chazonim, a religious Zionist and a Sephardi. Men and women from these circles were pleased to hear the chazonim trilling their way through the davening. To the rest of us, their artistic renditions were less appealing, and it dragged out the prayers for an extra hour.

Children's Programs

Although I didn't bring along any children who had to be entertained, I heard from the avreich that they were satisfied with the programs, and felt that the organizer had expended much effort to satisfy them. Some commented that there were very many children on the program and because of that the hotel was quite noisy.

Liora had told me that they only join vacation packages where there is a large range of programs to occupy the children. "Otherwise, the kids are bored and don't let the parents relax." The program did offer a nice range of features: a puppet theater, a magician, arts and crafts, etc. They had special girl and boy counselors in charge of the children.

The swimming pool was divided into two-hour periods throughout the day, one for men, and the next for women.

I do want to mention that the director had made an obviously sincere and major effort to satisfy the vacationers.

The Lessons Learned

After everything is said and done, I did get a vacation, even if there were disappointments. But the experience alerted me to the problems of vacations arranged by private entrepreneurs in non-glatt kosher hotels.

For one, you don't really know what you're going to get. No matter what the director promises you, no matter how well- meaning and religious he is, he may have to make compromises on his original plans for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is money. You can never be sure of the level of kashrus you'll get, what vacationers will show up, and what halachic concerns will or will not be addressed.

The second lesson is not to set your sights too high. Realistically speaking, one should consider himself fortunate if 60 percent of his expectations are fulfilled. Take it in stride and be prepared for hot water in the cold water tap, crowding in the dining room, air conditioning that doesn't work, and trips that are cancelled. That will help you enjoy whatever you do get in your vacation.

Is There an Ideal Religious Vacation?

My problematic weekend vacation piqued my interest to find out if there are other vacation packages which do address the many issues which had been missed by my vacation director. To my surprise, I discovered that Shearis Yisroel kashrus organization not only provides kashrus supervision but also general comprehensive halachic supervision.

This year, Shearis Yisroel supervised four different vacation packages for vacation entrepreneurs. They also oversaw 30 summer camps for thousands of girls from the Rav Wolf, Kahana, Ofakim and Jerusalem seminaries. These camps are held in locales which are not glatt kosher all year round, and huge preparations were necessary to insure that the range of our religious standards were observed.

Rabbi Yekusiel Dershowitz, the head of Shearis Yisroel, explains, "We don't organize the vacation itself, but we are intimately involved in planning numerous aspects of it, including the programs."

He mentions that at one of Shearis's vacation spots, prominent rabbonim attended, including HaRav Eliashiv and HaRav Weber. They were astonished to see that it was possible to organize an enjoyable vacation with many features and programs without making the slightest compromise on religious standards.

Rav Avraham Schlesinger is the Shearis supervisor in charge of summer camps and hotel vacations. He explained that this is the second year that Shearis has provided such supervision, and they have developed a long list of requirements which a hotel must agree to before they will confer their supervision.

Here are some items from that list:

1) The entire hotel must have only religious vacationers.

2) Every place in the hotel which provides food must be kashered and offer only food with chareidi hechsherim, including the kitchen, cafeteria, bar, and coffee room.

3) All TVs must be disabled.

4) If there are any stores in the hotel, they must not contain anything unsuitable for a religious public, such as improper pictures or artwork. All the hotel workers must be dressed appropriately.

5) Elevators may not be operated on Shabbos.

6) If the situation warrants it, an eruv will be made.

7) The swimming pool must be completely closed off, so that no one can see the swimmers from the suites or anywhere else in the hotel. A lady lifesaver must supervise the pool during women's hours. The swimming pool cannot be used for mixed swimming by outsiders.

8) All entertainment has to be checked. HaRav Eliashiv has forbidden all films. Before a magician performs, he has to explain to the children that magic is a form of sleight of hand. The contents of every lecture are checked with the lecturer before it is permitted.

9) In most hotels, Rav Schlesinger mentions that he checked which families had registered for the vacation to ensure that they will maintain religious standards of dress, and behavior.

"We want the hotel environment to be as pure as a yeshiva," explains Rav Schlesinger. "We have proved to the public that you can fully enjoy a vacation while upholding the strictest standards and without making the slightest compromises."

10) Trips off the hotel premises are in secluded places rather than in public places like amusement parks where religious vacationers will rub shoulders with other elements in Israeli society.

He explains that while at times they have permitted religious Zionist families to join, it was completely understood that they had to maintain the standards of the chareidi majority.

Although he hasn't hesitated in the past to approach a person whose behavior or dress was inappropriate, he says that this is rare. As far as which background of vacationers are welcome, Rav Schlesinger says that people who are totally committed to Torah Judaism and are bnei Torah are welcome, irrespective of which ethnic group they come from.

So-called "Glatt Kosher" Hotels

He says that most people have no idea of the lengths to which an organizer must go if he wants to ensure that all aspects of the kitchen and the program conform to Torah standards.

"There is a hotel where many frum Jews go to," he says. "People ask me my opinion about it, but on principle I won't put down any other program. All I'll say is that I only know about Shearis. In this hotel, 80 percent of the vacationers are chareidim and 20 percent are chilonim. On Shabbos, the chilonim smoke, they go swimming in the pool, they have parties. I heard that some of the chareidim who were there and saw how Shabbos was being trampled began shouting gevalt!

"This hotel has a chareidi hechsher on the food, but food is not the only component in a Jews's life. We give a hechsher on everything a Jew needs."

He mentions one hotel he knows of where there are TVs in every suite. While parents go off in the evening to hear a lecture, the teenagers remain in the room and can switch on the pornography channels, R'l.

"You have to be careful if you want your child to come back from vacation refreshed and unsullied," he warns.

The situation in the kitchen is not simple either. He warns that many mashgichim are versed in the laws affecting dairy and meat foods, but are unaware of the numerous violations that can occur on Shabbos and with other foods. For instance, most hotels don't prepare salads on Friday for Shabbos afternoon. When preparing the salads on Shabbos for day meals, there are many Shabbos prohibitions which they must avoid, such as losh, borer, chotech, and more. A mashgiach must be on hand every second to insure the workers are preparing the food according to halacha. If the mashgiach is unaware of these issues, the workers will prepare the food in violation of Shabbos and then a religious Jew is forbidden to eat it.

Rav Schlesinger finds that despite being very far from Yiddishkeit, the workers in kibbutz kitchens willingly follow his instructions, including even the most tedious and difficult. "We demanded that they keep away from the oven and they could have gotten insulted," he says. "But they took it in a nice way."

Some of the details which he says must be taken into consideration are inconceivable to the average person. For instance, if a worker puts a dirty dish with raw food on it into the dishwasher on Shabbos, the boiling hot water in the dishwasher will cook the food and one will have transgressed bishul. He says that even many mashgichim aren't aware of this halacha.

Rav Schlesinger mentions that in many places, women light candles in the lobby of the hotel. However, such candle- lighting is worthless and the blessing recited over it is a brocho levatoloh, since candlelighting must be done in the place where one will eat the Shabbos meal. How many mashgichim are particular about this?

"People frequently ask me if a certain mashgiach is OK, and I'll tell them truthfully, `Yes, he's a tzaddik, he puts on tefillin faithfully every day.' The problem with most mashgichim however, is not whether they're OK, but whether they're acquainted with the myriad problems that exist in a kitchen. From my experience, I would say that 90 percent of the hotels have mashgichim who are not trained in the full range of issues involved in running a glatt kosher hotel kitchen."

He says that in the camps and hotels under his supervision, the work load on the mashgiach was so demanding that he worked nonstop from 5 in the morning until 12 at night.

For instance: Shearis mashgichim appoint a religious Jew to check the beans and to open the hundreds of eggs used by the hotel daily. They would not entrust these jobs to the hotel's irreligious workers. They set up a dining room timetable wherein lunch is arranged early enough for six hours to pass before the vacationers sit down to eat a dairy supper. They also insist on separate bars in the dining room for men and women.

"Each vacation place has its own problems," avers Rav Schlesinger. "Each place has its questions. It is helpful where there is a local rav who understands the issues, but in hotels where they barely keep kosher all year round and a mashgiach is suddenly sent there to make everything glatt kosher -- his work is enormous. If he is not thoroughly trained, there's no chance that the food will be prepared according to the stringent standards that we keep in our own homes."

From my own unfortunate experience, I can confirm that.


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