A Pesach program in Orlando, Fla., which attracted many guests from the tri-state area, descended into chaos this week after the owner of the program, Ben Atkin, failed to pay at least $75,000 for goods and services provided by the resort, workers, and vendors, according to the program’s remaining staff.
Described as “a five-star hotel program without the hotel” on its website, the “A Different Pesach Program” has turned out to be quite different, indeed, from the rewarding experience promised. It offered rental of private villas with shared common areas such as a synagogue tent and clubhouse, and provisions for kosher seders and meals throughout the eight-day holiday.
The program was started 16 years ago by Atkin, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He appears to have vacated the premises, leaving his remaining staff to contend with hundreds of shocked and disgruntled patrons.
Unlike Passover programs held in hotels, at Atkin’s, and others like it, guests rent spacious, multi-bedroom houses to accommodate large and multi-generational families in popular vacation areas.
It is believed that about 65 families were staying in the resort-operated gated community in Atkin’s program.
Staff at the Passover program said they were unaware of any financial problems until last Thursday, when they first learned that a housing vendor was owed $6,000.
“That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg,” said Brian Goldberg, one of the program’s operations managers, in an interview with NJJN on Tuesday.
Guests and staff found out on Sunday that money was owed to the vendors who rent out the private villas. One guest, Harriet Kahn, said when she returned to her villa after synagogue services on Sunday morning, she found a notice on the door stating that the codes to the doors would be changed if payment was not made immediately.
“That was our first inkling that there was a problem,” she said. “And that was a big inkling.”
At least 11 families — eight staff, three customers — found similar notices, according to Goldberg.
There were other signs that the problems extended far beyond payments for the villas.
On Friday, the resort staff informed the Passover program staff that $50,000 was owed for use of the resort’s common areas, including a kitchen and space for a dining tent. That began, in Goldberg’s words,
At that time, Atkin promised to pay the resort by check, which was due by April 1, but he had asked that the management wait until this past Monday to cash the check. When the check bounced on Monday, the resort staff called the police to remove the Passover program staff and equipment from the premises. In addition, Goldberg said he learned that the program owed $11,000 to a tent rental company for tents used for synagogue services and a dining area.
According to emails obtained by NJJN, guests were informed on Monday evening that they would be barred from using certain parts of the resort. “We have been informed by the management at Windsor at Westside and the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department that we are temporarily not allowed to use the common areas at Westside,” wrote Goldberg in an email to guests. “This is an unfortunate situation for everyone involved, and we are banding together in an effort to provide the necessary essentials to our guests through the remainder of the holiday.”
With Atkin’s whereabouts unknown, Goldberg and Dennis Ratzker, his operations partner, have taken the lead in ensuring that guests have adequate food and supplies for the remainder of the holiday.
Goldberg said the guests came to a meeting on Monday evening to help plan how to get through the last days of the holiday, which ends on Saturday evening. Ratzker said several guests pledged to help cover the debts still owed by the program to vendors and workers. Goldberg and Ratzker have together paid more than $15,000 from their own pockets to cover costs.
“Not only are we owed money for the work we’ve done,” said Goldberg, “but we’re also in arrears for things that we’ve personally paid [for].”
“They are trying so hard to make things right,” said Kahn of the program staffers. “They are left stuck and they’re trying to make the best of it. They’re good people.”
Though the total debts unpaid remain in the range of $75,000, according to Goldberg, he said he expects to uncover more debts as the holiday progresses. “We’re going to need more propane, and I assume the credit card” that was given to management “is not going to work. I think we’re going to discover more unknowns.”
For now, synagogue services are being held in one of the villas, as the large tent that had been used is now off limits, and food is being brought in from Miami.
This is not the first time that Atkin has gotten into trouble with a Pesach program he operates. In 2003, more than 450 guests were evicted from Atkin’s program in Polk County, Iowa, after a dispute with the rental property owner over payment, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Goldberg said he was unaware of Atkin’s previous Passover problems until Monday night when a guest informed him. But he said he was not shocked after the revelations of the past few days. “I feel like I got into bed with the wrong guy,” he said.
Goldberg said he hopes that guests will help to pay at least $13,000 still owed to the program’s staff. He said he expects a class-action lawsuit will be brought against Atkin, though he added that for the moment, he is not thinking past Saturday night.
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.