GREER FAY CASHMAN discovers an idyllic Austrian hotel which is attracting masses of charedim
There are several places in Europe where kosher facilities are provided for Pesach and for the High Holy Days.
There are also hotels with an extra kitchen, which proprietors are willing to kasher.
Most of these places are closed during the off-season.
Coming to Obertauern, 90 kilometres south of Salzburg in Austria at the height of summer meant arriving in a ghost town.
It has a resident population of 300, but few people were visible. There’s a minimarket, 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 shops 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 film 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 the Fab Four.
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 condition you pay for the fish you catche — 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 bikes with them or hire them. There are several bike trails in the area. Cable cars operate during the summer months.
The Cinderella Hotel is a gem with flamboyant, eye-catching décor and a lot of woodwork.
Among the 200-plus charedi guests, about 80 per cent of whom were from Israel, the languages most commonly spoken were Hebrew and Yiddish.
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 establishment.
The old one 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 aircraft 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.
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 charedi tour operators and became intrigued with the idea of bringing this sector of tourists to Austrian winter resorts during the summer.
Because these tour operators have repeat guests, they are always on the look out 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. Lev Travel has its own stock of dishes 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, working surfaces and dishwashers.
Shmuel 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 arrived 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 charedi 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.
Shternbukh, who has stayed at quite a few hotels over the years, said that the Cinderella was the nicest that she had been in.
Tour operator Dov Kalmann stayed at Cinderella 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 marvelled at how Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Zionists and anti-Zionists; chassidim and Litvaks could all joyfully sing Shabbat songs and dance together.
The wonderful atmosphere was strange to him. It had not occurred to him that his colourful 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.
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 yearround kosher hotel replete with a mikva and chuppa. After all, many charedim 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.
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 charedi clientele and just as strange that many of the people who come to Obertauern are descendants of Holocaust survivors.
Why would Oberholzner want the hassle of what catering to a charedi 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 charedi clientele.
When other charedi 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 charedi 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 charedi tour operators.
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 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 colourful 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 — in Austria, and elsewhere.
“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.”