You probably know this particular South Florida hotel from the disturbing news a few weeks ago. At the time, apparently, a family waiting for a crib to be delivered to their room by housekeeping had two small swastikas sloppily scribbled on the baby mattress by someone handling the baby equipment in the delivery process.
That experience is shocking for a number of reasons. While whoever committed this seemingly antisemitic act likely has no idea what the swastika conjures up for Jewish people, they know at least one thing — that it sends a historically chilling and hateful message that is disturbing to all.
The facility is the Grand Beach Hotel on Collins Avenue and about 94th Street, in an area of Florida known as Surfside, a small zip-coded area sandwiched between Miami Beach and Bal Harbour. Last week we spent a few days at the Grand Beach, this time for several reasons.
The fact is that when we’re in Florida, this has become a favorite spot of ours to spend a few days. Its right near The Shul and just a short walk to more than a few excellent kosher restaurants, simply making it a great and attractive place to locate oneself.
Just for the record, once we arrived and settled into our room, I looked for some of the security personnel to ask about the baby crib mattress incident. So far, all I heard from unofficial sources at the hotel was that the incident is still under investigation, and it does not seem to have disturbed anyone, based on the casual observation that the Grand Beach is overwhelmingly populated by frum couples and families.
The Grand Beach today is a magnet for frum people for the above-listed reasons plus the fact, I believe, that, as the cliché goes, “birds of a feather flock together,” in a manner of speaking. Interestingly, this phrase is usually stated about people who have similar characters or interests, especially ones of which you disapprove, and who often spend time with each other.
That said, I am not really sure what that means other than the fact that when we are out of our usual routine, sometimes there is a level of comfort that is achieved when we are with one another but also, at the same time, away from one another.
Realistically, if you really want to get away from a familiar type of lifestyle you can travel to Punta Cana or Cancun, not Miami Beach. But if you want to get away but at the same time not have to deal with drastic change except for not wearing a sweater or winter jacket, you go to Miami Beach or possibly a few other similar types of locations around the globe.
For now, and not to digress too much, I have to say that one of the more interesting, informative, and even entertaining experiences occurs in the elevator going up to your room at the end of the day or when heading outdoors in the course of the day.
Another matter of interest is how the vision and foresight of the Chabad movement over the last half-century and more has facilitated the ability of observant Jews to travel with greater ease and comfort. That is one of the key reasons why the Grand Beach Hotel in Surfside, at the edge of Bal Harbour, is such a popular place for frum people to stay. It is just a short block away from The Shul, the Chabad mega center that is currently being expanded and will shortly be twice its current size. It draws hundreds of visitors for minyanim three times daily.
The Shul was founded decades ago by Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, a New Yorker and old friend from our days in Crown Heights. Now he is a hands-on spiritual leader providing for the religious needs of his congregation, which includes people like us several times each year.
On the way down to Minchah one day last week, a few of us were chatting in the hotel elevator during the 45-second trip down from the ninth floor to the lobby. One person asked the other where he was going to daven — there is also a Young Israel nearby — and he said that he was heading to Chabad because they have non-stop minyanim. That might be true at 770 in Crown Heights, but that’s not how it is in Surfside. There is a minyan or two for Minchah and then another two or so for Ma’ariv and that’s it.
So I’m listening to this brief conversation, and one of the men says he davened at Chabad in the morning and that there was a minyan at 10 a.m. I remained silent, committing the exchange to memory with the intent of recording it here this week. After all, what was I going to say — that they could not travel the way they did without knowing Chabad was there? That they would not have a free sumptuous Kiddush on Shabbos, and often Shabbos lunch, if Chabad was not there?
And just as the elevator was slowing down as it approached the lobby level, the other man’s wife said about Chabad, “Yeah, they do whatever they want.” I sensed that this was intended to be a criticism, but the reality is that precisely because that may be the case, we are all better off.
The next day we were riding down in the elevator and it was just me, my wife, and another young lady. There was the usual elevator code of absolute silence being observed, which I always like to shatter in some way because it is a little nonsensical to be riding with people we have so much in common with and remain absolutely silent.
I asked the young woman if she was going out to dinner as it was about 6 p.m. The fascinating thing about breaking that kind of unnatural and even uncomfortable silence is that when you begin a brief conversation there is like an instant comfort and even relief among most of those present.
With my opening question, she immediately became a wealth of talkativeness and information. She told us her name, where she was from, who she was with in Florida, where she was going to dine later on, and so on. She added that she was part of a prominent Chassidic family from Brooklyn and that she was down south with her teenage daughter who had an abbreviated vacation from high school.
I asked her how she like the Grand Beach, and she said that she thought it was a beautiful hotel and that she enjoyed the location. But she then added, “The only thing is that there are too many chassidim.”
Wow, I thought, what an interesting observation from the “birds of a feather” playbook. How fascinating: we want to be together, but not this close. We want good kosher restaurants nearby, but don’t want to see so many other people like us there. We like the crowded, almost heimish, set-up at the Grand Beach, but not really.
Any analysis of frum life during the winter months in South Florida would be incomplete without analyzing the dynamic at the hotel swimming pools and on the beach. As far as I can tell, most of the folks, at least at the Grand Beach, do not patronize the swimming pools at this hotel, though some do.
It seems that the restrictions on the beach, at least up here in the more upscale Surfside and Bal Harbour areas, are a bit more relaxed. No, not ignored or neglected — I did not say that — but relaxed. The beach is more sparsely populated up here and there can easily be wide distances between couples, groups of friends, and families in these parts. Most of the people are here for the warmth, the change of pace, and a different scene than at home.
At this point in our year we are reading the Torah portions dealing with the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert. The question is why so much of the Torah is dedicated to the painstaking details of this construction of a temporary edifice that, unlike the Beit HaMikdash, will not be rebuilt.
The lesson as it applies to the theme of this essay is that just like the Mishkan was built by the Jewish people deep in the barren environment of the Sinai Desert, in our modern times, when we are out there, far from home, stepping out of our usual routine, it’s still incumbent upon us to be mindful of who we are: a people apart, dedicated to the details of Jewish life, not dissimilar to our ancient ancestors who also found themselves far from home, though not exactly on vacation, and remained mindful of and dedicated to Jewish observance.
It’s always nice to get away, just not too far.