Behind the Matzah: Tales From the Pesach Lecture Circuit

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Features

Participating in a Pesach program at a hotel can feel a little bit like being on a cruise: the 24/7 gourmet kosher for Passover food, the exciting entertainment, and staff willing to go the extra mile. Scholars in residence also feature heavily in several Pesach destinations, and many hail from our own community.

Like many speakers, Dov Zakheim of Silver Spring, Maryland, first got into the Pesach circuit by invitation. His first engagement was after he left the Pentagon in 2004, and he’s been making the rounds ever since.

Zakheim has been working in the national security arena his entire professional career. He was Undersecretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under Caspar Weinberger, and he served and continues to serve as a consultant to the Department of Defense when he is not employed within it. Zakheim has also has published works about halacha (Jewish law) and national security, and mines his extensive travels in the Middle East and conversations with contacts in both the Arab world and Israel for lecture material.

This year, Zakheim will be speaking in Cancun as part of the Presidential Kosher Holidays Program. He’s been involved with the program for several years, mostly speaking in the Phoenix area.

Zakheim revealed there will be a strong Kemp Mill Synagogue (KMS) presence at his program: Fellow congregants and “world-class people” Erica Brown and David Makovsky will also be speaking, and Maryland Hillel Director Rabbi Ari Israel will be the rabbi-in-charge this year.

Brown is director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and has been lecturing at Pesach programs for 23 years. “Generally, we have traveled with different outfits for many years in a row,” she said. “For example, we spent four years at Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos until that program closed, and were with Afikoman for eight or nine years and traveled with them to Puerto Rico, Aruba, and Palm Springs, California.”

Covering different topics at different programs, or even over the course of one program, helps keep the circuit interesting for Potomac, Maryland, resident Joshua London. Co-director for Government Relations at Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), London's areas of expertise include U.S.-Israel relations, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the global war on terror, and issues related to foreign and domestic anti-Semitism. His “sideline,” as he calls it, is writing about wine and spirits, so that is his second available subject. Finally, he had a book published in 2005 about the Barbary pirates of Africa titled “Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation.”

“It’s about the first interaction between the United States and the Muslim world, and there are huge parallels between everything that’s happened since between the United States and the Muslim world,” he explained.

Most programs ask London for lectures on each of the three topics rather than focusing on just one subject for the duration of the holiday, he said. He joked that his favorite part of these programs is “finding I’m competing against the rabbi, and winning.”

Don’t think the Passover circuit is all gourmet smorgasbords, beautiful beaches, and validation from strangers, however.

“Being a Passover speaker is a lot of hard work,” said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian who served as a senior White House aide and Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. “You have to prepare four to six one-hour lectures and engage with a high-level, well-informed audience.”

Troy, who is married to Kol HaBirah Senior Editor Kami Troy, also lives in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring. His lectures explore Jewish involvement in American politics, with a focus on the presidency. “I also talk about my experiences in politics and how lucky we are as frum Jews to be able to engage in government at the highest levels,” he said.

The preparation is all worthwhile, Troy said, not only because he enjoys speaking but also “because the time away with my family creates so many great memories that we share together.”

Kami Troy said she is usually in the audience for all of her husband’s lectures during the Pesach programs they attend, “which I don’t do when we are home.”

“Here, I usually have things to do when he’s speaking, or it’s [in DC] and I don’t want to schlep,” she said. “But at the hotels, I can just stroll over from lunch and really listen.”

Some of the challenges for families of speakers include that most Seders aren’t spent with extended family and jet lag can hamper the ability of participants young and old to enjoy the first night of the program. Overall though, the Troys are big fans of the Passover program experience.

“It’s really turned into our main family vacation for the year,” said Kami Troy. “The kids generally have a great time at the kids’ and teens’ programs, hanging out with kids they meet at the hotel, going on trips with the family, and eating really well.” The kids aren’t the only ones who have fun: Their father has already ascertained that there will be indoor tennis courts at this year’s destination, a Passover program called Upscale Getaways on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. After all, it’s still cold in Niagara this time of year, he said.

Curacao: Not a bad spot for a working vacation. (Photo credit: Brittney Goldberg)

“It’s wonderful to go into Passover relaxed and ready to put energy into the Seders and into learning with people to make the holiday more meaningful rather than having to focus on preparing, cleaning, and cooking,” said Brown. “It’s a real vacation when you don’t have to worry about food. I spend a lot of time reading when I’m not teaching, and talking to guests. We’ve made some lifelong friends on these programs, another blessing.”

For London’s children, who are on the younger side, he said the best part of these gatherings are the kids programming and the freedom of movement. Things can get awkward though when he is searching for a place to change a diaper and a guest tries to engage in a serious conversation about one of his lectures.

“How often is it that we go to someplace where everyone around you is religious and in the spirit of the chag [holiday] at a wide spectrum of levels?” London mused. “It’s an odd environment removed from day-to-day life and people just kind of go with the flow.” Pesach programs present opportunities for Jews of different backgrounds and from different parts of the U.S., or even the globe, to mingle over the course of the holiday.

Of course, that intermingling doesn’t take place without the occasional friction. “I tend to talk more about history and try not to get caught up in current partisan disagreements,” said Tevi Troy, but “one year, for reasons unconnected to anything I was talking about, two people in the audience started screaming at each other about their different views on climate change.”

It was getting pretty heated until a wise person in the audience screamed really loudly, ‘Lunchtime!’ and the audience dispersed,” he said. “The one thing people like at Passover programs better than the lectures is the meal times.”

By Rachel Kohn

 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.