Haredim high in the Austrian Alps

While some kosher tour operators advertise, the ultra-Orthodox do not. With them, everything is by word of mouth – and it obviously succeeds.

GENERAL VIEW of the town of Obertauern in Austria. (photo credit: COURTESY OF GRUBER HOTEL GROUP)
GENERAL VIEW of the town of Obertauern in Austria.
There are several places in Europe where kosher facilities are provided for Passover and for the High Holy Days. There are also hotels with an extra kitchen, which proprietors are willing to kasher for organizations with they deal with on a frequent basis. There are even a few genuinely kosher hotels.
Most of these places are closed during the off-season.
Coming to Obertauern, 90 kilometers south of Salzburg in Austria at the height of summer meant coming to a ghost town. It has a resident population of 300, but few people were visible. There’s a mini-market, but not many other shops in Obertauern. Hotels, guest houses, holiday apartments and ski huts line both sides of the main road and dot the mountain slopes, but walking around on Shabbat hoping to go window shopping was a pointless exercise.
It was breathtaking to stand at the edge of the majestic mountains covered in greenery instead of snow, but the overwhelming majority of hotels were closed with notices that they were taking bookings for winter. A few bars and coffee houses were open, but otherwise, except for traffic going to Salzburg or Munich, the place was dead. The only tourist attraction was a highway tribute to the Beatles, who in March 1965 were in Obertauern to shoot their movie Help! and stayed at the Hotel Edelweiss. For the 50th anniversary of their stay, a monument was erected near the highway featuring life-sized statues of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
For people who had come in private cars or in groups, there were attractions within easy driving distance. The closest was Untertauern, a town 15 minutes away with a wonderful family park with playgrounds, swimming pools, volleyball and tennis courts, Shetland ponies, and freely roaming animals and birds. It was strange to see a pig and a deer sharing the grassy incline. There are lakes for sailing or fishing – on the condition that one must pay for the fish one catches, barbecue them on the spot and eat them. The huge area has many paths, a waterfall, a restaurant and a hotel.
Many tourists take their bicycles with them or hire bikes; there are several bike trails in the area.
Cable cars operate during the summer months and one gets a different perspective of the grandeur of this mountainous region from the heights in a cable car.
Compared to the stifling summer heat of Israel, the weather was delightful – pleasantly warm and not at all humid. It even rained a couple of times.
The Cinderella Hotel is a gem with flamboyant, eye-catching décor and a lot of woodwork. Among the 200+ haredi guests, about 80% of whom were from Israel, the languages most commonly spoken were Hebrew and Yiddish. Their attitude was pleasant; although the clothes I had brought with me were high-necked, longsleeved and long-skirted, the fact that I didn’t cover my hair instantly set me apart. Yet both men and women were friendly. In Israel, I could not imagine a haredi man starting a conversation with me, but at the Cinderella Hotel, even men who belong to the Eda Haredit, among the most strictly observant of ultra-Orthodox Jews, chatted with me and showed me where one could get coffee and cake around the clock. One such person was third-generation Jerusalemite Rabbi Yehoshua Yitzhak Yodovich, a famous marriage broker specializing in arranging the unions of offspring of Admorim (leaders of mainly hassidic movements).
The hotel’s enthusiastic owners, Hans and Heli Gruber, are open to new ideas, but carefully study all pros and cons of a prospective project before making a commitment. When they do reach a decision, the Grubers, who own several hotels and restaurants in the vicinity and are in the process of building another hotel, get things done with amazing speed.
The Cinderella, a relatively new hotel, stands on the site of a former hotel of the same name. Hans Gruber, an engineer by profession, doesn’t like to waste time. Because the area is so popular in the winter, attracting more than a million skiers who occupy all the hotels and ski lodges, he replaced the 30-room hotel with an 80-room hotel. The old hotel was demolished on April 28, 2016. Construction of the new hotel began on August 5, and the hotel opened for business on December 16.
The Grubers work closely with Reinhard Oberholzner, a business consultant who first came to Israel in July 2015, to accompany a client selling airplane parts. He fell in love with the country and after returning to Austria told his wife that he had to go back and explore for himself. He now spends at least 120 days a year in Israel and would like to spend more. He became involved with the tourist industry in its many facets, with the aim of encouraging more Israeli tourists to come to Austria. He also found his way to Bnei Brak, where he developed a friendship with haredi tour operators and became intrigued with the idea of bringing this sector of Israeli tourism to Austrian winter resorts during the summer.
While some kosher tour operators advertise, the ultra-Orthodox do not. With them, everything is by word of mouth – and it obviously succeeds. They work with Israeli clientele and with haredim from Europe, the US and even Australia. Of the two haredi companies that joined forces to bring tourists to the Cinderella Hotel, the proprietor of one was related to an Australian haredi family who had been friends of mine since my youth – proving again how small the Jewish world is.
Because these tour operators have repeat guests, they are always on the lookout for new venues, so when Oberholzner suggested Obertauern, Avremy Feldman of Big Ben Tours and Zvi Quitt and Dudi Levkovich of Lev Travel thought it was worth looking into. They found the Grubers to be cooperative, even to the extent of putting a tent over the outdoor swimming pool so that no one’s modesty would be compromised. There were separate hours for men and women.
All the kashrut and other halachic arrangements were made in consultation with Rabbi Avraham Yona Schwartz of Vienna.
Levkovich is Quitt’s brother-in-law. The Levkovich family was famous in the Galilee for the Hungarian kosher restaurant it operated for decades in Safed. As a youngster, Dudi Levkovich used to hang around the kitchen and help. What started out as hobby became a profession; he is a superb chef. The food was outstanding, a joy to the palate and to the eye. The presentation was worthy of any luxury hotel. Lev Travel has its own stock of dishes, flatware and kitchen utensils, so that nothing in any hotel that they take over for the summer or a Jewish holiday period needs to be kashered, other than stoves, ovens, sinks, counter-tops and dishwashers.
“Big Ben” seems to be an odd name for a haredi travel agency. Feldman explained that when his father Shmuel was a yeshiva student and wanted to visit his aunt in England, he went to buy a reduced price ticket at ISSTA, which was authorized to sell such tickets to students. He discovered that authorization was limited to university students, not yeshiva students. Viewing that as discriminatory, Shmuel Feldman set up his own travel agency, which eventually was able to sell discounted tickets to yeshiva students as well. According to his son, he was one of the first haredi travel agents, and because his career choice had been inspired by what he had experienced when going to London, he decided to call his enterprise Big Ben.
Feldman and Quitt took over the hotel for nine weeks. Some guests came for a week, some for a few days, and some just for a weekend so that they could celebrate Shabbat in the right environment.
Among those who came for a weekend was Rabbanit Shulamit Shternbukh, an Israeli living in Switzerland for 35 years because her husband taught at a yeshiva there. This year they returned to Israel. For 18 years, she has been taking American haredi girls from affluent families on a three-week trip through Europe to pray at the graves of the righteous and to visit Nazi death camps. She thinks that it is very important for young women to come face-to-face with contemporary Jewish history. Of the three weeks, they spend a week in Poland going with an experienced guide to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek. Of the 45 girls who traveled with her on this occasion, 38 were granddaughters of Auschwitz survivors and all 38 were profoundly affected by Auschwitz, where they gained a deeper realization of the suffering that their grandparents had endured.
Shternbukh, who has stayed at quite a few hotels over the years, said that the Cinderella was the nicest that she had been in. She is well known in American haredi circles, and parents entrust their daughters to her care. Many of the girls are initially strangers, but quickly form strong friendships that often endure after they return home. Shternbukh said she derives great satisfaction from the bonding that takes place and from being able to impart a greater understanding of the past in these young women, while giving them a spiritual experience.
Chabad emissaries Moshe and Tova Starik, who have been living in Vienna for 12 years, came to Obertauern with six of their seven children. They rented an apartment because it would have been too expensive for all of them to stay at the hotel, but they came to the hotel to schmooze and eat. Tova, originally from the US, came to Israel as a child; Moshe was born in Mea She’arim. In Vienna, he works as a counselor at the Lauder Business School, where there are Jewish students from different parts of Europe. Some are observant; others not, but most want a Jewish spouse, and don’t always have the opportunity to meet suitable candidates.
Three years ago, they formed an organization called Bayit, which organizes retreats and seminars across Europe, so that young Jewish men and women who want to establish a traditional – not necessarily Orthodox – Jewish home, can meet each other. There have been several weddings as a result. In one, the groom had been married to a non-Jewish woman that he loved and had children with, but he felt the tug of his heritage and wanted to move back into the fold. Judaism was meaningless to his wife; she told him that she loved him but couldn’t go along with him. After they divorced, he met a Jewish woman at one of the retreats, married and started a new family.
Tour operator Dov Kalmann arranged for two journalists to come, one each from The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom. Kalmann came with us to Austria, stayed for Friday night dinner and returned to Israel on Saturday. For him this was a totally fascinating experience bordering on the exotic. He had no religious background whatsoever and marveled at how Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews; Zionists and anti-Zionists; hassidim and Litvaks could all joyfully sing Sabbath songs and dance together. The wonderful atmosphere was strange to him. It had not occurred to him that his colorful sports shirt would stand out in strong contrast to the sea of black kapotas, but they pulled him into the dancing and he had a great time. When he telephoned his daughter in Israel to tell her, she was nearly hysterical, fearful that he was becoming religious.
Oberholzner had been to several Friday night dinners and even donned a kippa and joined the Friday night synagogue service. His two grandfathers, decorated Nazi officers, would have turned in their graves. Oberholzner insisted that he wasn’t doing penance, he just likes Jews and Israelis.
Gruber had a deeper interest, possibly because he’s seriously contemplating opening a year-round kosher hotel replete with a mikve (ritual bath) and bridal canopy. After all, many haredim who grew up in Europe know how to ski.
One of his nearby hotels, the Schutz, sits on a large plot, half of which is vacant. If he goes ahead with the idea, the extra land will be used for the mikve and bridal area.
Gruber’s background is different from that of Oberholzner. His grandfather refused to serve in the Nazi army, so he was imprisoned and all his assets were confiscated. Gruber’s father, 15 at the time, became the family provider and worked as a ski instructor.
With the upsurge of antisemitism in Europe, it seemed strange that someone not Jewish would want to build a hotel for a haredi clientele and just as strange that many of the people who come to Obertauern are descendants of Holocaust survivors. Some, when asked whether it bothered them, replied that they didn’t really think about it, because wherever they went in Europe, they were in a totally Jewish environment and they didn’t think that anyone would make trouble for them in a tourist village.
When the question of antisemitism was put to Oberholzner, who wants to build not just a haredi hotel, but a haredi village in which the surrounding population will voluntarily interact with the haredi visitors, his reply was “we Austrians are the better Europeans when it comes to antisemitism.”
Even so, why would he want the hassle of what catering to a haredi lifestyle entails?
“It’s not a hassle,” he retorted. “It’s a challenge.”
He believes that there’s a big demand for a year-round kosher hotel with all the amenities that are required by a haredi clientele. When other haredi tour operators heard about the summer sojourn in Obertauern, they were angry that it had not been offered to them, said Oberholzner.
On the other hand, if the Grubers’ rivals, who turned their noses up at opening for the summer and converting their premises, see how successful the haredi operation can be, assuming that the Grubers go ahead with it, others may decide to follow suit and then there will be room for several haredi tour operators.
However, if the Austrians want more tourists from abroad, they will have to be a little less chauvinistic. Hardly any of the tourist literature in the hotel was in a language other than German, and this was also the case in the various tourist attractions that we visited.
On the way home, via Salzburg International Airport to take a connecting flight to Vienna, we had a long wait. Jonathan Socher of Israel Hayom decided to go into town and couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. I went to the nearby ultra-modern design center, which has displays of the latest fashion, accessory and houseware creations by the most outstanding European and American designers and features all the top brands. The signs were overwhelmingly in German; only international words such as ‘Sale’ were in English.
The spacious Design Center, a five-minute walk from the airport, is a great place to kill time.
In addition to people sitting around in the coffee shops, some of the customers in the fashion stores were wearing black burkas. When I went back to the airport, I considered buying a magazine or newspaper, but few of the titles in the newsagent’s store in this international airport were in English.
When Oberholzner was attempting to convince us that no kosher hotel could compare with the Cinderella, mere mention of the fact that there have been wonderful kosher vacations in Bulgaria and Italy lit up his short fuse.
“Don’t talk to me about Bulgaria when you’re in Austria,” he snapped. Austria certainly has a great deal of beauty as well as some very quaint and colorful areas, and pollution-free air in the mountains at an altitude of 1,740 meters, but there are other places that can compete.
Jerusalemite Rivka Zeivalv has been going to these summer retreats for 20 years – sometimes in Austria, sometimes elsewhere; sometimes through Lev or Big Ben and sometimes with other operators.
“All the hotels are luxurious and all the operators try to please and to give you the best time possible with tours and very high standards of catering,” she said. “Most of the hotels are in the middle of nowhere. We don’t come to tourist areas and we don’t come to shop. We want a change of atmosphere and we want to enjoy each other’s company.” She admitted that there are places in Europe that she hesitates to go to because they carry vivid reminders of their Nazi past.
Given the huge quantities of food and the daily tours available, the package deal for a week’s stay that included air fares, transfer to the hotel, tours and meals, the price was fairly reasonable: €3,900 for a couple and €1,950 for a single.
Feldman told of a charitable organization that brought 40 widows who experience extreme hardship in their daily lives who were grateful for the respite that had been given to them.
There was fresh food every day and there was much left over. Quitt explained that hassidim came daily from nearby Switzerland to take leftover food to the poor.