(April 25, 2019 / JNS) A Passover program near Orlando, Fla., this week became plagued by apparent malpractice as its owner, Ben Atkin, has allegedly fled the scene, his whereabouts unknown, after failing to pay at least $75,000 for many of the vendors, causing participants to scramble for plans during the remaining days of the holiday.
“A Different Pesach Program” was in its 16th year and offered participants the opportunity to rent villas in a resort, offering “a five-star hotel program without the hotel,” as stated on the program’s website. Common areas included tents for synagogue services and a clubhouse.
Like other Passover programs, it provides kosher-for-Passover seders and other meals during the holiday, which began at sundown on April 19 and ends at nightfall on April 27.
Around 65 families were part of the program, according to The Jewish Week, which first reported the development on Wednesday.
Trouble was sensed when eviction notices appeared on the doors of villas—eight owned by the staff and three by attendees—as the vendors who rent them out demanded payment immediately. Organizers were told by the resort staff on Friday they owed $50,000 for using the common areas.
Reportedly, Atkin wrote them a check but requested that they not deposit it until Monday, which ended up happening, only for the check to bounce.
“That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg,” Brian Goldberg, one of the program’s operations managers, told the Week regarding the eviction notices.
In an email to guests, which the Week obtained, Goldberg wrote: “We have been informed by the management at Windsor at Westside and the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department that we are temporarily not allowed to use the common areas at Westside. This is an unfortunate situation for everyone involved, and we are banding together in an effort to provide the necessary essentials to our guests through the remainder of the holiday.”
“That was our first inkling that there was a problem,” Harriet Kahn, a guest, told the Week. “And that was a big inkling.”
Goldberg and Dennis Ratzker, his operations partner, seeking to right the situation, have already paid more than $15,000 out of pocket to cover fees.
“They are trying so hard to make things right,” said Kahn regarding the staffers. “They are left stuck, and they’re trying to make the best of it. They’re good people.”
“For now, synagogue services are being held in one of the villas since the large tent that had been used is now off-limits, and food is being brought in from Miami,” reported the Week.
Those affected by Atkin have reached out to a similar venue nearby called “A Perfect Pesach Program,” which is run by former employees of Atkin’s who are allegedly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by him, according to two Perfect Pesach staffers, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation surrounding Atkin.
The program, owned by Nechama Heller and Benji Silverstein—who worked for A Different Pesach and apparently never got paid and were joined by fellow staffers who were also allegedly exploited—was launched last year and has been a huge success as there are at least 600 participants this year whose families have asked the organizers how they can help those deserted by Atkin, according to the two staffers.
A Perfect Pesach has given out the many leftovers from the first two days of the holiday, which was from sundown on April 19 to nightfall on April 21.
“You want to talk about achdut [Hebrew for ‘unity’] … all the families on our program have been coming up to me, and talking to us and asking us what they can do,” especially with all the food remaining, said one of the staffers.
The staffers added that the program was sold out and, despite requests from some of Atkin’s participants, has no room for those on the “Different Pesach Program” for the remaining days of the holiday.
‘I feel horrible about what happened’
Atkin told JNS that he did not leave the premises, as he was never there in the first place, and expressed regret about what transpired.
“I am somewhere else in the Orlando area,” he said. “The program began because many, many vendors were paid, and I worked hard and thought that I would be able to pull this off and make up the deficit. I feel horrible about what happened, but I’m very proud that the team banded together and, to my understanding, they have raised some money. They have distributed the food that we had. We had three trucks full of food, and [we’re] making the best of a horrible situation.”
“At the end of the day, the buck stops here. I’m responsible. I’m going to do everything in my power to make it right,” he continued. “I’m going to consult legal counsel. I’m going to consult rabbinical counsel, and I’m going to find what I need to do and do my best to fix it.”
This isn’t the first time that Atkin has run into such trouble.
More than 450 guests were evicted from the program in 2003 following a disagreement about payment with the property owner, reported The Orlando Sentinel.