The night before Passover, the Waintraub family checked into the Villa Roma hotel and, with candlelight and a feather, symbolically searched their darkened room for chametz. But not all flames in the hotel were as quaint.
Even as the Waintraubs were searching, shortly after 10 p.m., over in the bakery within the hotel kitchen a fire of unknown origins had begun devouring the 62-year-old resort, one of Sullivan Countyís few remaining grand hotels, where some 500 guests were expected to arrive by the next nightís seder.
Their chametz search concluded to satisfaction, Ariel Waintraub, 16, looked out the window and saw the fire, still modest, across the courtyard. The smell of smoke wafted into the guest rooms. ìWe reported the fire,î said Waintraub, ìand knew we had to leave. My little brother had just gotten into the shower, and we rushed him out fast. We saw the fire getting bigger.î
They left their clothing, just unpacked, and Waintraub realized he had left his tefillin behind as they fled the building.
In a surreal exodus none of the guests could have imagined, the Waintraubs were among the approximately 65 guests who fled the burning Villa Roma and were then among several hundred forced into uncertainty just hours before the seder. Ultimately, all were accommodated at nearby hotels.
It was a cold Catskills night, in Callicoon, N.Y., and the Waintraubs, along with the other early check-ins, stood on the lawn and watched the orange flames top the tree line as thick smoke hovered over the main building. The fire could be seen for miles, said firemen. To escape the strange alchemy of icy air and the heat of choke-inducing smoke, the Waintraubs retreated to their car in the parking lot, watching through the windows as more than 20 volunteer fire companies from across the Catskills tried to save the Villa Roma, the Catskillsí leading Italian hotel that was undergoing a glatt kosher makeover for the eight days of Passover, the fifth year the Villa Roma had done so.Inside, it was all on fire or feared to be, awaiting inspection: the makeshift synagogue; the curtains for modesty at the indoor pool; at least 15 guest rooms and the sofas in the main lobby. There was smoke and singe in the beauty spa.
By 3 a.m. even the parking lot wasnít safe. The firemen were retreating, and the shocked guests were ordered into the Lodge, a clubhouse all the way out near the golf course. The Waintraubs and others guests were sent to time-share units, still further from the flames that seemed beyond boundary or control.
Morning came and the sun diffused in the smoky clouds, as the fire was brought under control even if still crackling after eight hours through sections of the hotel. Several firefighters, working through the night, now collapsed in exhaustion onto the Adirondack chairs on the hotel lawn. Some were treated for smoke inhalation. The Waintraubs davened. They learned that their original room hadnít burnt, and with the help of a firefighterís flashlight and guidance, were able to retrieve their belongings, including the boyís tefillin.ì
My father took the bag of chametz from the night before,î said Waintraub. ìWe had to burn our chametz, you know,î and his father just pitched it into the hotelís flames.
Guests who hadnít yet checked in were telephoned and advised that arrangements had been made for the Villa Roma patrons to have Passover at other hotels in the area: Sullivan Countyís Nevele Grande, Ulster Countyís Homowack Lodge and Westchesterís Rye Town Hilton.ì
My parents were freaking out about what weíd do,î said Waintraub, ìbut the Nevele had 100 open rooms, and we drove over there at about 11 a.m. The Nevele must have put up more than 200 of us and hired some of the waiters from the Villa Roma, too. We were a little traumatized at first, but Pesach has turned out to be very, very nice. We feel blessed.î
Rabbi Moshe Fuchs of Lasko Tours, which runs the Passover program at the Rye Town Hilton, explained that he got a Wednesday morning call right after the fire from Leisure Time, the group running the Villa Roma, ìasking if we could help out. We [filled] about 20 rooms from the Villa Roma, about 60 people.î
How did they manage to accommodate that many just hours before the seder? ìEtzba Elokim,î said Rabbi Fuchs, referring to the miraculous ìfinger of Godî evoked in the Passover story. ìAnd we always have extra food so that worked out fine and kol dichvin,î the Haggadahís famous declaration that anyone who is hungry is welcome at any seder.
The Villa Roma plans to rebuild. It was not totally destroyed nor all its workers displaced. A hotel spokesman said the golf course and clubhouse were untouched and an Easter brunch was held there last Sunday. In May, the Sullivan Pride Awards will be given out at the clubhouse, celebrating the countyís best.But Sullivan Countyís proud history of its great Jewish hotels, dozens of which were open every Passover, is now almost at an end, surely at its lowest tide since Jewish farmers first took in boarders almost a century ago.Barry Lewis, columnist for The Times Herald-Record, the largest newspaper covering the Catskills, wrote, ìItís hard to believe there is only one resort hotel in Sullivan County open this year for Passover,î the Nevele. ìOnly one left where the grandparents, Bubbe and Zayde, come up to the mountains with their family,î for the food, the camaraderie, the stories ìthatíll last until the next seder.î
Guests can be moved, waiters and busboys will work other tables, but said Lewis, ìforever lost to the county are the special connections made at those bygone resorts of its golden era.î n