By COLlive reporter
Guests of one of the “Pesach programs”, one of a wide industry of kosher retreats that provide food, accommodations and entertainment during the Pesach holiday, are claiming they have been mistreated and underserved.
While industry insiders called it one of the most successful Passover seasons in memory, it was reported that two programs have abruptly closed (the Smilow family program in New Mexico and the Socoloff family program in Las Vegas) just before Pesach.
Pesach programs are a mostly unregulated service. There are an estimated 125 programs hosting more than 100,000 people, according to KosherToday.com. The prices and kashrus vary according to the program and guests mostly rely on ads and word-of-mouth in deciding on a program.
Guests of the Royalty Pesach Retreat held at the Glen Cove Mansion and Conference Center on the North Shore of Long Island in New York said they are speaking out because they want to warn others to expect a negative experience if they sign up to attend retreats run by the same company.
People who spent Pesach at the program this year and in past years both described similar faults such as food shortages, lack of programming, staff walkouts, and filthy and unhygienic conditions.
Moshe Press, a resident of Flatbush who ran the program and a parallel one at Mountain Laurel Resort in Pennsylvania, dismissed the claims and said they were driven by hate.
The guests that spoke with COLlive.com said the criticism – that was first shared by private individuals on Facebook – was long overdue.
“What I truly don’t get is how he commits the same egregious ‘mistakes,’ year after year, and he continues to organize a program every Pesach, each year cheating hundreds of people out of hard-earned money and not delivering on anything they expected to receive,” one past guest of the program told COLlive.
One guest, a resident of Crown Heights, described attending the program 4 years ago and being told that the room for his children was assigned in a neighboring hotel. His kids “had to cross a major highway to get to their room.”
A larger issue was insufficient food, he said. “The chef said he had been told to cook for 700 when in reality there were 1200 people there. There was no tea room either, so basically everyone was hungry for much of the time. At some point, my kids found a trailer of mangoes and avocados and we were sharing it around because we were starving.”
Buffets were described as “war zones,” with food being brought out in trays for about 200, which needed to serve 1,000. After the first day, much of the food was old and recycled and leftovers were served, 95 percent of which was spoiled, guests reported.
Other guests described mealtimes that were “disastrous,” with food not appearing on the Seder night until 2:00 am, and other meals hours late or even canceled at the last minute.
One guest said the year he was there with his extended family, to their horror, the kitchen was shut down by the health department, after one of the many guests who fled the program after the first two days contacted authorities about the mismanagement.
“I myself went into the kitchen to try and find a Kiddush cup I had misplaced, a few days into Yom Tov,” he told COLlive. “The kitchen was indescribably filthy. You had to slide through the kitchen because the floor was covered in a layer of slime and filth, and the sinks and counters were overflowing with dirty dishes, pots, pans and food – some still left over from the Seder.”
This year as well, stories from disappointed guests have been making the rounds on social media, combined with photos of messy kitchens, burned food, and meager portions.
Many people did make alternate arrangements after the first two days, citing many ill guests and terrible conditions.
The worst part of it, many of the guests we spoke to said, was the lack of management. “There was no one to talk to. Mr. Press was nowhere to be found for most of the time. There was no one to ask for help or to complain to about the lack of service and the entertainment and other programs which never materialized as had been advertised.
“I think the time has come for someone to shut this down. How is it possible this is still happening 4 years later? He is not an honorable person. He cannot continue to steal and cheat people for so many years without anyone stopping him,” he said.
“To add insult to injury, he gave my credit card to different vendors, and then for months after Pesach he kept giving my card number to vendors. I was charged 3 times what I was supposed to pay. I had to dispute many charges and was forced to change my credit card number to block him.”
Moshe Press responded to the claims in a phone conversation and later in an email to COLlive.com in which he indicated that some of the claims were being driven by disgruntled past guests of the program or competitors.
“We were always known for an abundance of food,” he said. “We always donate major amount of leftover food to Tomche Shabbos in 6-7 neighborhoods – several trucks full.”
As for the cleanliness, he said: “We have great hygiene and that’s why we didn’t serve the cholent this year as a precaution when most others would’ve served it and probably everyone would be fine. We always have tons of extra food.”
He said one guest who was ill following a meal was her fault. “A lady was hospitalized and the cause was she ate 4 (yes, 4) delicious rib steaks until she had to be carted away in an ambulance.”
Regarding fluctuating times, he said: “Our schedule is never exact as we allow everyone to make a minyan any time they want. For example, we allow Chassidish 10:00 minyan Chabad 11:00 minyan etc. We accommodate our guests. You come back late from a trip we will have fresh steaks grilled just for you,” he said.
Shea Rubenstein, Executive Vice President of the Marine Park, Brooklyn JCC, was a guest at the program this Pesach, along with his extended family. He served as Chazan and one of the lecturers, and said the venue was beautiful and the program was great, but the “service and management certainly had some very big issues.”
“The service was terribly slow, and the cholent did spoil, which they did not serve,” he told COLlive. “The biggest problem is that he didn’t hire a separate caterer, and I was told the chef left, so the timing of meals was unreliable, tables were not assigned, and food did not come on time.
“I did enjoy my Pesach, but I told him that I will not return next year if he does not hire a professional catering company. On the other hand, the program is very budget friendly, so in my opinion, you get what you pay for,” he said.