When Valori Zaslow was growing up in Philadelphia, most of her family lived nearby. Now aunts and cousins are scattered from L.A. to Detroit to Florida.
“We’re all over the place, and we don’t have an opportunity to see each other as much as we’d like,” reflected Zaslow, who lives in Penn Wynne. “So we look for reasons for reunions.”
One came last March, when Zaslow’s nephew, Shalom Henesch, was Bar Mitzvahed in Israel; Zaslow joined 26 other relatives for a weeklong family vacation, chartering a bus to explore the Western Wall tunnels and ogle the Dead Sea scrolls. They even packed food together to distribute to needy families for Shalom’s mitzvah project.
“If we weren’t close as a family before, we certainly are now, after climbing Masada together,” laughed Zaslow, who has planned dozens of B’nai Mitzvahs through her firm, ReEvent in Bala Cynwyd. “It’s wonderful to be in Israel for Shabbos, coming together as a Jewish family in the Jewish homeland.”
There are no hard statistics on the topic, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish clans are more likely to gather around an event, holiday or milestone. Stories abound of 40-relative entourages to Israel, Passover getaways with dozens of cousins, and three- or four-generation cruises for 50th anniversaries or 90th birthdays.
“Everyone’s busy, but when something big takes place, that brings everyone together,” Zaslow observed.
Bree Tomar, an executive planner at Philadelphia-based All About Events, handles a lot of requests for multiday reunions built around an occasion.
“I definitely notice people planning three or four days of pre-wedding events, so the family members can get a chance to spend more time together,” she said. “For a lot of families nowadays, milestone events like a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah is the only time they’ll get to see each other.”
Outside of a formal occasion, however, most families plan their own get-togethers, designating one or two organizers to coordinate place, date and activities. (Experts advise starting a year in advance). Sometimes the organizer also sponsors the event — typically a grandparent — but parties commonly pay their own way, especially at larger gatherings.
Tomar’s father always dreamed of taking his extended, blended family on a Caribbean cruise, and this year, he finally did it.
“I hadn’t seen my stepbrothers in about five years; our kids had never met their kids,” the planner recalled. “Suddenly, we’re all shacked up on a boat for five days together.”
Amid families in matching T-shirts, the clan soon found out why cruises are so popular for reunions — a prepaid cocoon of entertainment, ready-made meals and just the right balance of privacy and proximity. “It just seemed like a very natural way for us to all hang out together,” Tomar said. Her 8-year-old nephews became best friends, holding sleepovers in each other’s bunks; their parents took turns fussing over Tomar’s toddler.
Everybody had such a good time that the clan is now planning a follow-up reunion next summer, renting a beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The biggest proof of success? “Next year, we’re all paying for it ourselves,” Tomar said.
Many families turn to Jewish resorts for kosher catering and prayer infrastructure. At the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., “you could have an Orthodox rabbi in your family and somebody who might not be Jewish, and they’d all feel comfortable on our site,” said Simone Stallman, who coordinates family reunions at the wooded campus an hour north of New York City.
The Freedman Center is run by Hazon, a pluralistic organization that promotes sustainable Jewish communities; among its draws are an organic farm, synagogue and central Berkshires location. Stallman said the typical family reunion involves 30 to 65 relatives from around the Northeast who pay an affordable $155 per night, double occupancy, for lodging and three kosher meals (the center provides ceremonial wine, but has no liquor license; pool use requires a $25-per-hour lifeguard).
Family gatherings at the Bushkill Inn, a Poconos resort with a kosher kitchen, “are usually around a holiday or milestone,” said Ron Vogel, director of sales. “We’ll have 30 relatives reserve one part of the sukkah for Sukkot.” Observant families appreciate that the spa has separate facilities for male and female massage, as well as activities everybody can enjoy — archery, lake fishing, paintball — and glatt kosher food supervised by an on-site mashgiach.
When Kay Taub of Silver Spring, Md., began organizing a reunion of her newly acquainted grandfather’s relatives, she knew it would involve a concert.
“I’d reach out, and they’d all tell me about their musical kids,” said Taub, 64, who turned up Hollywood music producers, a Metropolitan Opera singer, a blues fiddler and numerous pianists.
In June 2017, 85 members of Taub’s paternal Weisberg clan gathered for Shabbat dinner at the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat in the countryside outside Baltimore. They were greeted by a printed-out family tree that stretched 36 feet long, “like a Torah,” Taub laughed. “People had fun pointing out where they were on the tree.”
Over the weekend that followed, the Weisbergs held an oral history workshop, played three-generation softball, bonded over yoga and art, and celebrated Havdalah on the lawn. On Saturday evening, 20 musical relatives took turns entertaining each other in a family musicale.
“It was a magical weekend,” recalled Taub, an entomologist who led an insect workshop for the kids. To her relief, everyone loved the itinerary. “It was just like camp, you know? Just wholesome fun.”
By foregoing pool costs and a venue with alcohol, the clan kept weekend costs under $300 per person. More importantly, Taub noted, a stand-alone reunion allowed the kind of flexibility impossible at more formal occasions. “When you do a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding, you have to cut the guest list off somewhere, and it’s painful,” she explained. “You do all the first cousins, or no first cousins, and then once they all have children, it gets too big.”
In contrast, anyone could join the pay-your-way reunion.
“It didn’t matter if you were six months old or 90. A reunion is everybody,” Taub said. “That’s the beauty of it.” ❤
Hilary Danailova is a freelancer writer.