Kosher Hotels – Monsey, NY – Ora v’Simcha
The most popular article on this blog is about the now kosher Raleigh hotel in South Fallsburg, NY. Clearly, it’s something people are interested in, as the article is mostly found via search engines while my articles on philosophy … not so much. There is clearly a desire to find a hotel which lives up to the highest standards of amenities and halacha [Jewish law]. Mostly, one finds either exceedingly expensive Pesach programs, bed bugs, or just a “kosher friendly” place. There’s the exception with a bed and breakfast that is quite good, but I thought I would never find the, l’havdil, “holy grail” of a proper hotel for the Torah observant. Most such hotels, such as Kutschers and the Concord have closed and it seems to be a money losing proposition today. It still is, and that’s why, in all my searches for “kosher hotels” I haven’t this one. They simply don’t advertise themselves as a hotel, but wow.
On the campus of Ohr Somayach in Monsey, NY is “Ora V’Simcha Family Retreats“. In your room, you’d think you’re in a Hyatt or Marriot only with bigger rooms (for families). During meals, you’d think you’re on medium rate cruise ship. As my wife put it, “This hotel gets an A+, except that every child thinks I’m their mother.”
The story goes that a very wealthy ba’al tesuvah (who seems to have made his money on Russian oil) sponsored the entire hotel and conference center for Jewish outreach purposes. It is on the campus of, and operated by Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for Jews who want to learn more about and/or are returning to Judaism. They have programs at this hotel / conference center along these lines, as well as for Torah observant families. For example, the “Shabbaton” program I attended was meant to be a family inspiring Shabbos with programs for the kids and shiurim [lectures] for the adults on child raising. I was just looking for a place to go away with the family, but started attending the shirium which were very good.
The “hotel”, well, “family retreat center”, operates seemingly about every other month … so you can’t just go any time. They also rent out the space to others and use it for other types of programs. You have to look at their website to see when it’s available, but while it’s a really fancy hotel, their primary reason for existing is to teach Torah. It’s a very hard thing for someone with kids to get away for such a thing, so they take care of that too.
The hotel is on the campus of Ohr Somayach, right of Rt. 306 in Monsey, NY. Some of the minyanim were in the main yeshiva building of Ohr Somayach, where I sat in my old seat, the seat where I first fumbled with tefillin many years prior during a brief period when I attended the yeshiva. I’m sure other readers, those who are both frum and looking for decent hotels, shared the same experience not many seats away from there.
The hotel itself is modest in size, as far as hotels go. There are only about 30 (estimated) guest rooms with a two story lobby, elevator, and three staircases. Upon entering, you’re greeted with a fire place and some very European taste. To the left is a conference room or “library” and to the right is a rather large gym with a full court basketball court and locker rooms. Go the other direction, and you’ll come to the dining room which holds about 80 people. On the second and third floors you’ll find the guest rooms. The second floor is also houses the beis medrash / synagogue. In the basement and rooms on the second floor, is a game room, childcare, and more childcare.
When we first arrived, the bellboy insisted on loading our luggage onto a wheeled cart. I tried to stop him, preferring to have my kids do the wheeling, but he would have none of that. By the time I got inside, not very long after, my wife already had our room keys. We were up in room quicker than any other hotel that I can remember staying at, and everything was waiting for us. When I had registered, I was asked the ages of kids. I didn’t even have to think about asking for the right number of beds and cots, because it was all already in the room, complete with crib for the baby. Never, can I recall, has a hotel gotten it so right. I’m still astonished that this is a yeshiva where the emphasis is not on “gashmayos” … and to be clear, it’s still not. When the Rabbis spoke to me, they clearly much better appreciated answers having to do with what I learned while there, rather than my appreciation of the physical surroundings, which were meant as a tool for the former, despite my less than ideal first intentions when signing up for the weekend.
We stayed in two joined rooms – the kids in one room with enough beds for each of them and enough room to walk around between them. Our room was a bit smaller, but still quite well sized. You could think you’re in a Hyatt Regency or Marriott . . . the layout is identical. The ceilings with stuccoed acoustic panels, slightly lower ceiling at the entrance way, and so forth is identical to the best of hotel blue prints. My wife and tried to move a dresser over to fit a bed where we wanted it … that thing was solid. The only thing “missing” was, of course, there’s no television, and while it was wired for phone service (I checked) there were no phones. Today, when everyone has cellular phones and I really don’t want to go to a hotel for my kids to watch TV, this was just fine.
First comes the food. Then comes more food. Then there’s some more food. There’s a buffet when you arrive before Shabbos – mostly confections and some fruit. There’s the Friday night seudah – wine and meat. There’s the 10pm “tisch” complete with beer and wasabi almonds. There’s breakfast – cereal and cakes. There’s kiddush after davening – herring, cakes and salads. There’s the seudah by day. There’s afternoon snack foods. There’s seudas shlishi – various kinds of fish and salad. There’s melavah malaka – pastas, soups, and pizza. There’s Sunday breakfast – waffles from the waffle iron, cereal, cheeses, etc. There’s Sunday lunch – wraps. The food was very good and my stomach doesn’t take much to complain. When I don’t get sick at a place like this, that probably means no one else will either.
At least when I was there, the Shabbos children’s program consisted of not much more than “hand’s off” babysitting. There was not a very organized program for the kids, and while my older kids said they had a good time, it’s a better place for younger kids between the ages of about 2.5 and 8 or so. Below that, and really, you need to be with your baby and above that, there was one shiur for boys and they can play ball in the massive gym. Only on motzei Shabbos and Sunday were there “organized” programs including a juggler, a magician, cotton candy, story telling, singing, and team games, again geared towards about the 2.5 to 8 year old crowd. I should mention, since it’s not self-evident given the sort of hotel options that do exist with childcare – everything is in English.
Update November 2015: I returned and the children’s program was much improved. They had organized activities like games of duck duck goose, projects, and walks to the playground. The babysitters were much more involved.
As you may have read above and may have surmised from the travel part of the blog in general, I do like to travel and especially take my wife and kids to various destinations. This was no different – for me, this was one more destination to try. About halfway through Shabbos I finally let it sink in that the reason they have this hotel, isn’t for the “hotel” and the “I just want go to away, eat and do activities” crowd. They have to teach Torah. The lectures, in general, were very good and a worth attending.
One of my favorite tidbits … Rabbi Shmuel Dishon spoke about the need to have appreciation. If we don’t appreciate what we’re given and think something worth $1 million is really worth only $250, we’ll be shortchanging ourselves and what we really have, as well as think less of the person who gave us the $1 million gift, thinking they only gave us something worth $250. This, he says, is why many people become less or non-religious … they don’t appreciate themselves, so they don’t appreciate G_d either, who gave them the gifts. He told a story of a man who had a bone stuck in his throat, feeling like he was going to die. He went to the doctor on Shabbos, when payment after Shabbos isn’t always as “required” and the doctor took the bone out of his throat. The doctor grabbed his tweezers and removed the bone. “Wow, thanks doc … how much should I pay you?” The doctor answered, “Only half as much as you would have paid me just a few minutes ago [before the bone was taken out].” Appreciate what you have … your children, your life, your … stay at a fancy hotel where you pause to think about the door sensors and camera before exiting the front entrance, and then remember, “oh yeah, I’m in a kosher hotel – no Shabbos issues here!”
Monsey, NY is one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. This will be in a future article by itself, but suffice to say, you can find large Jewish bookstores (e.g. Tuvia’s), excellent kosher food (KYO Sushi and Steakhouse), and even entire Jewish shopping centers with kosher supermarkets (Shopper’s Haven and Evergreen), women’s clothing, and toy stores. Within ~10 miles you can find Harriman State Park for camping and shopping in both the Palisades Mall and Paramus, NJ malls (the latter are closed on Sunday).
I may not write about too many more kosher hotel experiences on this blog simply because I found what I have been looking for. There are plenty of other articles I’ve been meaning to write on this blog, but if you’re looking for a proper kosher hotel experience where you can take the family, be in a Shabbos environment, be in a nice place, and have full minyanim and kosher food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, in the United States, this is what you’re looking for. Most of the price is also tax deductible as it’s a donation to a non-profit institution.