The below article is from 2015. See the 2019 update here.
A very large resort with beaches, public and private pools, and an on-site kosher restaurant (sometimes two) serving three meals a day as well as a shul [synaoggue] is situated on the Lifestyle Resort in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. About a 35 minute drive from the Puerto Plata airport and about 3.25 hrs in the air from the New York area will bring you to one of the best kosher vacations we’ve even been on. Read below for more details. [Part II with more details is here, when you’re finished reading this article.]
The island of Hispanola, which today holds the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was inhabited by the Taino people before their discovery by Christopher Columbus. The first Jews to step foot on the island were probably the known morranos on Columbus’s voyage followed by those with the Spanish conquest of the island. The last “pure” Taino people lasted until the mid-1800s, having died out in massive numbers due to disease brought by the Europeans. Tainos regularly mixed with the Spanish (who didn’t come with their own wives) and a small percentage of these Spaniards were Jews or known descendent of Spanish Jews. One of the Dominican Republic’s leaders in the early 20th century was descended from such Jews and a small congregation of Jews, once numbering about 1000, still exists in Santo Domingo, the capital. Today, this congregation advertises “traditional services without a mechitza” but is supplemented by a Chabad.
In more modern times, the Jewish population of the Dominican Republic was supplemented by German Jewish WWII refugees. While the rest of the world closest their borders to immigration during the depression era, Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, welcomed up to 100,000 Jews. He offered freedom of religion, low interest loans, property, livestock, and assistance to any Jew who would settle on the island. While his reasons for doing so may have had something to do with his hatred of Haitians and a desire to “whiten” his own population, the fact is that the island became a safe haven for the 600 to 800 Jews who were able to settle there. It seems among those who could leave and had the foresight to do so, they went to Israel even with closed borders. Still, some Jews made it and while many moved to Miami with a better economy in subsequent years, there’s a still a population and synagogue (now primarily a museum, unfortunately) in Sosua where Trujillo created a Jewish community. Sosua is just miles from the Puerto Plata airport and as such, it is fitting that a kosher vacation spot exists in the same area.
Today, the local tale is that while Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, the DR was spared due to it’s welcoming of the Jews. when you leave the Puerto Plata airport, a mural and information about the Jewish settlement of Sosua greets every passenger. The Dominicans seem proud of this and not only did we encounter no anti-Semitism on our trip, but rather we encountered respect with the frequent question, “Are you from Jerusalem?” or “Are you from Israel?” A security guard even had a short conversation with us in Hebrew! Most Dominicans are Catholic, and when Hugo Chavez (leader of Venezuela) made an anti-Semitic comment in 2013, the local head Catholic priest is known to have said that Chavez won’t live out the year. He was right.
Lifestyle resorts is a huge corporation with multiple resorts in various countries. They don’t seem to maintain their intellectual property rights very well, so you can find numerous websites using some variation of the “LifeStyle” name offering packages. The resort in Puerto Plata is huge – you can rent (or buy) three to five bedroom houses, often for about $500/week or less if you look on house rental websites such as homeaway.com. Each house has it’s own private pool. Or you can rent hotel rooms or suites. There are various sections of the resort each with their own style and “hashpa” (general feeling or impression). The Presidential Suites and Crown Villa areas are among the most “up-scale” of rooms, away from much of the shtuss, and closest to the kosher restaurant and shul.
The place to start is at the kosher website for Your Vacation Dreams, LLC. They are “members” of the Lifestyle resort – while you can book with the Lifestyle resort directly or through a variety of brokers, as a “guest of a member” your treated a whole lot better. There are many complaints by those who booked through “cheap carribean” or others around the internet. We also found prices ranging from $110/night to $600/night for the same thing! Your Vacation Dreams, LLC operates multiple websites geared towards different crowed, but their kosher website is very “matter of fact” and very accurate with numerous tips and recommendations about your trip. You don’t need to book through them – but we had an excellent experience doing so.
Rooms range from about $110/night (single hotel room) to $365/night (7 bedroom house). Two bedroom suites are $125/night. Add to this $150/day for kosher food which is paid based on a Jewish calendar day … dinner and the following breakfast and lunch. (Technically, it does not include lunch the day you arrive/leave but you can sort of sneak this in if you’re there.) Children are $75/day. Thus, even with two people, the food is much more expensive than your hotel room. Having said that, the food ranges from “very good” to “excellent” and we were stuffed at all times. Considering they are importing most of their food from the United States (such as the meat) and Israel (the cholov yisroel dairy products) and serving some fancy meals, $50/meal is not actually all that much for what you’re getting and where you’re getting it. It’d cost you much more for comparable kosher food, say, at a nice restaurant in Teaneck, NJ. Chicken costs them $9/pound and there’s a full-time Rabbi/maschgiach. An interesting side note – the Rabbi supervises the cow milking locally and then boils the milk himself.
The food ranges from “Ashkenazi” to “local Dominican” and there is a very big concern that the food be good. It was. More on this later, but let’s get the basics down first. When there are not a lot of people there, they put dividers in the kosher section and label it “private party.” When there are enough people, they actually take over the whole restaurant, and sometimes two restaurants. The restaurant is certified by the O-K (use the link to check if this is still the case before you go).
According to the Rabbi, a Lubovitcher who works for the Circle-K Syrian Jew was renting large numbers of rooms in Puerto Plata and started demanding a kosher kitchen. The resort administration was happy with this arrangement and welcomes Jews to the resort to whom they want to sell properties and investments. However, the renter wasn’t so good on bill payment so the administration did some research to find proper kosher certification in hopes of creating a full time kosher kitchen. They found the Circle-K who was interested, but also asked that they set aside space for a synagogue.
This synagogue can hold about 100 people but a minyan is not guaranteed. We went during a down time in the Jewish calendar and there was no minyan. Actually, there were more curious non-Jews than Jews Shabbos morning and there is no program during Pesach. However, if you want to come during yeshiva week break, that fills up about 9 months in advance, capped at 215 participants (they had 340 one year and decided that was too many). The synagogue has various siddurim and chumushim as well as a rented sefer Torah and mechitzah.
The resort has many of it’s own beaches, a smaller version of “SeaWorld” called “Ocean World” and there’s a lot more to know. Click here to go on to part II of this article.