What went wrong at this year’s “A Different Pesach Program” and who saved the day? Last year, Ben Atkin, the owner of A Different Pesach Program, ran two Pesach programs. This year, he combined the two into one and planned to have 1,000 guests. He hired an operations manager so he would not need to be on site. Ben put deposits on 120 homes, advertised extensively, and, as Pesach grew near, he was in the unenviable position of having about only half the guests he expected and a fraction of what he had last year. The reservations he was expecting just did not come through in the numbers he expected. Financially, the program was no longer feasible but it was also very late to cancel. Where would his guests go? Many were flying in and had already purchased tickets. Some money was already lost on canceling homes that were not needed, advertising dollars could not be recouped, and food was already being prepared by the truckload. All of the homes were paid for, except about $900 was still due on each of 11 homes.
Ben did what he thought was the best under the bad circumstances. He was under-capitalized and planned on borrowing money to pay the remaining bills for this year’s Pesach program. He over-projected how many guests he would have and made some bad decisions. Renting the parking area where the tent would be placed for the shul, the grassy area where the tent would be positioned for community meals, the land where three refrigerated tractor-trailers would be located to serve the meals and some small other items, as well as garbage pickup in those areas, cost over $65,000. The tents were another $11,000. The generator for lights in the tent were even more. The program placed $10,000 in deposits for the land rental, with just over $55,000 due April 1 and extended to April 22. Ben was working hard on getting a loan and expected it during Chol HaMoed. Ben expected the Homeowner Association at Windsor At Westside, A Pulte Home Community, would work with him and give him another extension. After all, by having the Pesach program in their community, the program rented about 70 homes and villas for guests and staff at high prices because of the demand for homes the program created. The association representative mentioned that in the past he had been late in getting them full payment and caught up.
This year, when April 22 arrived and Ben did not have the $55,000+ balance, the HOA rep called the police and asked them to take back the land where the shul was and the land where the community meals were served in a tent. They also regained possession of the area where the food trucks were parked but later allowed access to the trucks. When the 25-member server/delivery team learned the program was having financial difficulty, all but one left and did not return. For a few minutes, it seemed like there would be chaos. There was enough food for everyone, but without servers and delivery people how would food get from the trucks to the guests’ plates?
The Windsor At Westside Homeowners Association had every right to take back the land for the shul and common eating area if its agreement was a license rather than a lease, since they were not paid. But with 65 innocent families in the middle, and no demand for the parking lot area and grassy area by the association or anyone else, was it a smart business decision by the association? Will anyone ever want to spend $65,000 for those small pieces of land again, Pesach time, since meals were more enjoyable in our private homes than in a big communal tent, and services were more enjoyable in homes than the tent? If they were a little more flexible, Windsor At West Side would have had $65,000 a year for the next ten years ($650,000). Instead, they will have a small grassy area and two small asphalt areas without tenants. My guess is without the demand the program created, more people will go to the many other vacation-rental communities. Those who do go to Windsor At Westside will likely find the rents much lower.
If the agreement between the program and the association was a lease and not a license, then the proper method to dispossess the program was by giving a three-day notice followed by a five-day summons. Since the program was put out of business, we likely will never know if the association and the police applied the correct law. Perhaps if the program files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee will investigate this issue, and if things were not done right, collect some money for those still owed money! The statute provides for actual damages plus legal fees with a minimum of three times the monthly rent. That is a minimum of $195,000 plus legal fees.
Once the Sheriff dispossessed the program of the areas, and the tent was taken down, articles, blogs, and the gossip machine made the Pesach Program at Windsor At Westside arrears to the world as a refugee camp with starving guests. Even though nothing could be further from the truth, it became impossible for Ben to borrow money from anyone. Articles even suggested that Ben left the premises and his whereabouts were unknown. Ben was not the operations manager at the property this year. Ben was not at the property; he was in the property down the street. He was staying so close by to be available should he be needed.
The operations manager began letting the remaining staff know the program may not be able to pay them and no one would be required to work any further under those circumstances. When Jonathan Braunsweiger was approached with this information, he was our Nachshon ben Aminadav. He immediately jumped in and announced that he would work around the clock to be sure everyone had a great Pesach, even though he was not responsible and would likely not be compensated. His wife, four sons, and a daughter quickly announced they were all in. Then it was Yisrael Meir “Coach” Cohen and his wife Ettie who joined. Shira Anton was also in and so were Pesach Rotenberg, the Goldberg family, and the Ratzker family. It is not an exaggeration to say that most of these amazing people worked 18 hours a day or more, and the results were a beautiful Pesach. There were many others who helped in many ways. The Wilks family, including children, provided entertainment and groups for the children. Dr. Lasson arranged for multiple minyanim in private homes, and the Antons pitched in with many roles.
Who would have ever guessed that it would be so much better without the shul in a tent and the community meals? It saved $75,000 and was so much more enjoyable. There was so much more interaction between guests and so many friendships made. The meals were delicious. My favorites were the ribs, corned beef, pastrami, and salmon. But I must say, I never tasted such scrumptious hamburgers as the ones we had at the barbecues, and the veal wasn’t bad either. Everyone’s refrigerator was stuffed even after Pesach. If there were three more days of Pesach, we still could not have eaten all of the food that the program had prepared. When Pesach ended, there was still so much food left over. Orlando Torah Academy was the lucky beneficiary.
With the WhatsApp group set up, most of the requests were to offer food to others, since everyone had too much. A couple of people asked me: If I did not know there was a problem, would I know there was a problem? The answer is no. The amazing volunteers demonstrated what it is to come together and help each other. They truly defined who they are, and they are great people. The achdus was something that will never be forgotten.
Yes, it was a different Pesach Program, and many said it was their best Pesach ever. A guest from Atlanta volunteered that it reminded him of the hurricane where North Miami Beach residents trekked up to Atlanta and no one worried if a house had enough space or there was enough food. Everyone shared everything and everyone was there for each other.
By Alan Sakowitz