Diana Sragowicz dreads the prospect of preparing her home for Passover.
With four young children who tend to leave crumbs around the house, she'd have to clean out their closets, clothes, and toys to comply with Jewish dietary laws governing the elimination of leavened food from her home during Passover. The expectant Bal Harbour mother also would have to move all her furniture and rugs and vacuum and mop beneath them.
But Sragowicz has a better idea. This year, she will return to the Fontainebleau Resort and Spa, where she, her husband, Daniel, and her extended family have spent the last 14 Passover holidays.
"It's something we've always done so it's part of our tradition," she says, explaining her extended family has organized Passover family reunions for as long as she can remember. "Now, as an adult, I appreciate it for more than just the adventure of going away. I can enjoy the holiday without stressing out over the cooking and cleaning. I can prepare things to entertain my kids during the Seder (the ceremonial Passover dinner) which makes it fun and meaningful to them."
Sragowicz, who describes herself as modern Orthodox, notes that many of her friends turn the process of preparing their home for Passover into a heavy spring cleaning to insure no leavened products remain inside the home.
The greatest challenge, she notes, is readying the kitchen — even one that's already kosher.
"You have to use a separate set of dishes and cooking utensils or take what you have and put it through an involved process to make it kosher for Pesach, she says. "Some surfaces have to be cleaned with boiling water, others have to be covered with two layers of heavy foil, and you have to clean and scrub the ovens."
While many less observant Jews limit their Passover ritual to removing leavened food from their homes and holding Seders on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, South Florida is a popular destination for people from around the world who want to celebrate the Jewish exodus from slavery in a traditional manner — but without the hard work.
Several South Florida venues provided weeklong programs of Seders, kosher meals, daily religious services, lectures, day camps and evening entertainment. Along with The Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, other local venues include Bonaventure Resort and Spa in Weston, Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Boca Raton Resort & Club, Marco Polo Beach Resort in Sunny Isles Beach and the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens.
Most of these programs — priced between $6,000 to $16,000 for a family of four — have kosher pool-side barbecues and tea rooms where elaborate buffets are available all day.
Before those hotels welcome their first Passover guests, however, their kitchens go through a "kashering" or purification process to insure that all of the surfaces in the kitchen are free of non-kosher and leavened products
Smilow Family Tours, which hosts the Passover program at Weston's Bonaventure, brings in a team of 10 to 15 people — including rabbis — to oversee the kashering of the hotel's kitchens.
"The kitchen has to be down for 24 hours before they even begin " says Bob Axenfeld, the Bonaventure's executive chef. "Then they spend 12 to 15 hours kashering the kitchen by scrubbing down all surfaces, taking apart and cleaning the ovens and exhaust fans, and dipping the glassware and flatware in boiling water."
Since many of the Bonaventure's guests are strictly observant of Jewish law, the cleaning crew torches chafing dishes and food warmers until they glow; runs the hotel's ovens at 550 degrees for several hours; replaces dishwasher parts; and wraps food preparation tables in three layers of aluminum foil. Separate meat and dairy kitchens are monitored by rabbis stationed at all exits.
While all of the food served at the Bonaventure is prepared by caterers brought in by Smilow Family Tours, Fontainebleau executive chef Thomas Connell works with the caterer hired by Lasko Kosher Getaways to adapt the hotel's menu for its 1,700 Passover guests.
"All the techniques I'd offer in a classical kitchen are employed in preparing Passover food," Connell explains. "We'll have brisket on the menu, for example, but it'll be seasoned, seared, braised and finished with a glaze so it'll have a lot of flavor."
He notes that the hotel kashers separate meat, dairy, cold and hot kitchens and bring in a pastry chef who's dedicated 40 years to mastering the art of Passover baking.
Sragowicz, the Bal Habor mom, finds relief from high-stress meals to be one of the greatest advantages of attending the Fontainebleau's Passover program.
"In our family, everyone's required to say something about the holiday at every meal and when I have to clean my house and children and prepare a meal, there's no time for me to prepare a talk," she says. "The point of the holiday is to retell the story of coming out of Egypt and to keep learning something new about the holiday each year. When we go away, I have time to teach something to everyone else."