The High Holy Hilton
The entire St. Petersburg hotel is clean, kosher and booked by a group for the Jewish holiday.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published April 12, 2006
[Times photo: Willie Allen Jr.]
Rabbi David Miller burns a pan with a blow torch so it will be kosher to used in preparing meals during Passover at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. Miller and his crew have been working 18-hour days since April 4 cleaning and preparing the kitchen.
ST. PETERSBURG - Orthodox Jews from across the nation and overseas have rented the entire Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront for Passover, which begins at sundown.
Until late next week, 700 Jews will celebrate the holidays there, following a religious regimen that required special training for the hotel staff. At a large cost shared by the hotel and the Jewish tour group that organized the stay, the kitchen has been made kosher with new equipment and special cleansings.
The hotel has made many specific accommodations for the Orthodox Jews, who are barred from labor on four of the days of Passover and on the Sabbath.
Elevators are programmed to stop automatically on each floor, because pushing the buttons is labor.
Using card keys to open a room is labor, so hotel staffers will be stationed on each floor to let guests into their rooms. There will be no Bibles in the rooms.
Bathrooms are stocked with boxes of tissue, since tearing squares from a roll of toilet paper would be considered labor.
The groundfloor Starbucks, scoured and made kosher for Passover, is closed to outsiders. So is the hotel restaurant, which will become a temporary tea room. The bar will serve snacks, not alcohol.
Windows overlooking the pool will have their sheer curtains pulled tight and pinned to protect the modesty of women going for a swim.
Such efforts are a first for the St. Petersburg Hilton, but are part of a growing trend in Passover travel. The holiday, which commemorates the Israelites' deliverance from bondage and their exodus from Egypt, traditionally has been a time of family gatherings. More and more, though, families are leaving home for the celebration, which can require intensive cleaning, food preparation in accordance with special dietary rules and designated Passover dishes and cutlery.
Jews are commanded to purge their homes of all leavened products, or hametz. This is based on the hasty departure from Egypt of the Israelites, who did not have time to allow their dough to rise and ate only unleavened bread. In the Orthodox tradition, in particular, Passover cleaning can mean cleaning the house from top to bottom, emptying pockets, dusting books, turning mattresses, washing curtains, moving furniture, buying new toothbrushes and kitchen sponges.
Matzo, an unleavened bread, is substituted for yeast bread, cereal, pasta and other foods. Dishes, spoons, forks, glasses, anything that may have touched these foods, must be thoroughly cleaned or put out of sight. Many people have just-for-Passover dishes. Even away from Passover, meat and dairy dishes and pots must be separate.
Palm Harbor's Westin Innisbrook Resort is hosting a Passover group again this year, but other guests also are staying at the resort.
The Passover travel business is growing.
"The simple reason is that it is a huge undertaking to make the Passover seder at home," said Beryl Phillips of Palace Tours in Hollywood, who is bringing 500 people to the Westin Innisbrook. "One is that it is a tremendous effort to convert the house from regular dishes to the Passover dishes and pots and so forth."
Travel packages also are convenient for families. "We have tables for 20 or 30 or more at some of the family tables," he said. "As families have dispersed, Passover is a time for ingathering and everyone gets together."
Dr. Norman Goldwasser of Miami Beach, director of Eden Tours, which arranged the Passover package at the Hilton, estimated that about 20,000 people in Florida are leaving their homes for Passover. Larger, multigenerational families want to celebrate in comfortable quarters, he said.
"Besides, husbands want to give their wives a break," Goldwasser said in the bustling hotel lobby, where women, many in traditional long dresses and heads covered, pushed baby strollers or marshalled young children to elevators or outdoors.
This is Eden Tour's first Passover package to St. Petersburg. Its Web site tells travelers to "picture the four-star elegance of the luxuriously renovated" Hilton, along with "all of the extraordinary recreational activities that the Tampa Bay area has to offer."
Packages started at $2,500 a room for the 10-day stay.
Goldwasser said he chose St. Petersburg to get out of the Miami area and because he "fell in love with the area and hotel."
The Hilton staff has "bent over backward to accommodate our special needs," he said.
Indeed, both the restaurant and banquet kitchens have been made kosher to meet dietary guidelines. During the group's stay, the banquet kitchen will be designated for meat dishes and the restaurant kitchen for dairy. Special Passover dishes and utensils will be used.
The Hilton is guaranteed at least a second year of the group's business, said Cindy Krieg, director of catering and convention services.
As she gave a tour of the hotel Tuesday, Krieg said Eden Tours began making arrangements to come to St. Petersburg about nine months ago. It helped prepare hotel employees by giving them orientation sessions about the meaning and significance of Passover. Since only kosher for Passover food will be allowed on the property during the group's stay, hotel staff will eat meals prepared by the catering service hired by Eden Tours.
An important part of preparing for the group was removing everything with leavening from the premises. Carpets have been shampooed and rooms thoroughly cleaned, Krieg said. Items such as coffee packages, which were not kosher, were removed from rooms, she said.
In the grand ballroom Tuesday, tables had been set up to accommodate each family. Some were round with only a few chairs, while others were long and banquet-style. Each family will be served by the same person throughout their stay. Ritual handwashing stations will be set up in long corridors nearby.
Communal seders will be held on the first two nights of the holiday, as well as several private family seders, Goldwasser said. Three different synagogue services will be held twice a day in one of the ballrooms, where lattice topped partitions will separate men and women during worship.
[Last modified April 12, 2006, 01:08:07]
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