Torah and Tourists in the Sunshine State
Are you one of the many heading to Orlando this Pesach?
There’s a website you should know about: RabbiOrlando.org.
If you already visited Mickey’s part of the Sunshine State during winter break, you may likely be familiar with the site, which offers information on everything from lodging and shul information to koshering services and discounted theme park tickets. You may also have been part of a WhatsApp minyan chat facilitated by the same organizers.
So who’s the driving force behind all this help?
Well, there is the simple answer: the Orlando Torah Academy. And then there is the longer back story, of a fledgling school started by dedicated bnei Torah seeking to bring Jewish values to a community that lacked a Torah education center of its own.
Torah Finds a Home
For Rabbi Michoel Rennert, running the Rabbi Orlando site and minyan chats, and fielding the many calls, texts, and requests from tourists, has become a full-time job.
When he moved to Orlando with his young family in the summer of 2014, he was ready and eager to join deans, founders, and fellow alumni of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Wachsman and Rabbi Yehuda Schepansky in assisting and building Torah in the Orlando Community. At the time, the school had about 40 students – but no building. The school had outgrown its former home in a Conservative synagogue, but four days before school started they still had not found suitable accommodations. Rabbi Wachsman and Rabbi Schepansky ran out to buy air conditioners for the private homes that would welcome individual classes until they managed to find suitable space for the entire student body. Three days before school started, a school parent reached out to heris boss to find out if he’d rent empty space in a building he owned, to the Academy. The boss agreed, and just in the nick of time, the Orlando Torah Academy opened its doors in a building large enough to comfortably accommodate its students and staff.
There was one major glitch in the plan: the building’s owner wanted to sell the property, and in the fall of 2015 he got an offer from a potential buyer that was hard to refuse. Once again, the Orlando Torah Academy was about to lose its home, and this time, it would be very difficult – if not impossible – to find equally ideal housing. The building was centrally located, enrollment had gone up to about 50 60 students – and it was still growing.
Rabbi Wachsman and Rabbi Schepansky consulted with daas Torah, and did something drastic: they offered to buy the building.
“We had no idea how they would buy that building,” says Rabbi Rennert. “And truly, there was no teva (natural occurrence) involved. It was a complete nes that we managed to do it.”
In late January, by which time they had raised just a fraction of the money needed, Ira Zlotowitz, founder and president of Eastern Union, visited Orlando and spent Shabbos at the Wachsmans. Rabbi Wachsman told him all about the school and the efforts to procure the building. Ira swung into action, creating a plan that included lenders and crowdfunding.
Orlando Torah Academy closed on its new building on April 16th.
The Launch of Rabbi Orlando
“Ira got very invested in the community,” says Rabbi Rennert. “He opened an Eastern Union branch in the area and purchased two homes near the Jewish community to be rented by visitors.”
But that wasn’t enough for Ira.
“Ira said, ‘You guys have to invest more in tourists,’” recalls Rabbi Rennert. “At that point, we had already begun selling park tickets, but Ira felt that there was so much more we could do to help visitors and fundraise for our school.”
In the fall of 2017, they launched the Rabbi Orlando website, liluy nishmas Ira’s father. They blasted out links to the site – and invitations to join pop-up minyan chats – before the winter crowd descended upon the city. It wasn’t long before Rabbi Rennert took over its management.
“It’s a huge job,” Rabbi Rennert says. “I get anywhere from three to ten phone calls a day, with peak time from December through February and then again for the months before Pesach. People want to know about kosher food, minyanim, zmanim, and mikvaos. They want to know where to go.”
Some would say Rabbi Rennert is like a concierge.
When people call to find out if there will be minyan in a specific development, Rabbi Rennert connects them with others seeking places to stay to make that minyan happen. Sometimes, the minyan-seeking crowds are overwhelming. On Shabbos Chanukah, there were seven minyanim in Champions Gate alone; Reunion had six minyanim.
In January of this year, a woman reached out to Rabbi Rennert and told him that she had posted online, offering to host a minyan in her Champions Gate villa rental for the weekend of the 25th. “She told me,’I don’t know what to do,’” Rabbi Rennert recalls. “So many people had responded that she needed to arrange multiple minyanim in her villa. She was so stressed about it that she was considering cancelling her vacation.”
Rabbi Rennert had a better idea: he rented a villa to house the minyanim and charged a minimal fee to attendees just to cover the cost of the rental. That Shabbos, 25 men showed up for neitz; there were 130 men at the 9 A.M. minyan.
Orlando Torah Academy provided the sifrei Torah along with 100 handheld Chumashim for that Shabbos. “Some people don’t think about these things until the last minute,” Rabbi Rennert says.
Orlando Torah Academy has had some interesting moments with tourists.
Last year, 100,000 people attended a kitchen and bath expo in Orlando; there was a large contingent of frum attendees. The owners of a large cabinet manufacturer wanted to invite their frum clients for catered kosher meals, but all the local hotel facilities were booked. 250 people ended up packing into the Academy’s lunchroom, enjoying kosher hot food which had been frozen and stored in the school’s warehouse prior to the event. “The primary language spoken those nights was Yiddish,” recalls Rabbi Rennert , who enjoys every opportunity to bring people into the school.
Ohr Meir, an organization which provides incredible trips for children dealing with serious illnesses, made headlines this year when it created a full-fledged Toys R Us in a hotel for the gleeful children who were flown into Orlando for the occasion. What few people know is that for a full month before the event, pallet after pallet of toys were delivered to Orlando Torah Academy where they were stored in every available space. “We arranged for a truck to deliver the toys to the hotel when the ‘store’ was ready to open,” says Rabbi Rennert. He laughs. “I think we still have a classroom full of leftover toys.”
Preparing for Pesach
Pesach is extraordinarily larger and more concentrated than the winter months. Visitors are much more nervous about their accommodations and food. “This year, we have people are in Champions Gate, Reunion, Solterra, Storey Lake, Windsor at Westside and Solara – among others. I don’t know the numbers but there are more than 10,000 and that’s not including the hotels like the Hyatt,” says Rabbi Rennert. “We were involved in putting up eruvim in developments with programs . We receive packages for a large program – all those shipments are housed in our school. We have their pots and pans in our warehouse. I even once went to an auction and got commercial kitchen equipment for a caterer.”
Rabbi Rennert fields all kinds of concerns around Pesach time. Some worry about obtaining an extra fridge or freezer (rentable through the Academy). Others are concerned about the eruv. Some want to know where they can toivel keilim – and if they have to be worried about alligators in the water.
There are also some comical moments. “Some people assume that Orlando has a large Jewish community,” Rabbi Rennert says, chuckling, “because when they come there are frum people all over the place; they don’t realize they’re all tourists. On the Champions Gate chat, someone once asked if Krispy Kreme is chalav yisrael; It’s not even kosher! People have also asked where the matzah bakery is!”
Although hot food is offered during the busy seasons of the year, during Pesach, that’s simply too much for the fledgling school community to take on. “We’re a young community,” explains Rabbi Rennert. “The oldest child here is 14. People ask about finding bachurim for Shabbos, or Pesach cleaning. We haven’t yet reached that stage.”
In addition to help with matzah, kashering, eruvim, park tickets, tables, chairs, and extra refrigerators and freezers, Rabbi Rennert helps with villa rentals and even Chol Hamoed ideas beyond the parks, directing visitors to places like Silver Springs and Cape Carnaeveral.
Is there anything Rabbi Rennert wants Pesach visitors to know?
“Frum people produce a tremendous amount of garbage during Yom Tov,” he says. “They don’t realize that some developments will fine you for that. Find out what the garbage arrangement is in the place you are staying. Some programs offer extra pickups, but in others you may need to find out where to dispose of it yourself, or you may need to store it in the garage for some time until it can be picked up.”
And of course, there is always the opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem by showing appreciation. “Winn Dixie puts in a huge effort to please the frum community,” Rabbi Rennert says. “They try very hard to keep up with the demand. You know, the first time the manager decided to order Pesach food, he placed his order Chanukah time. Pallets of food arrived, and they sat around for ages. His coworkers jokingly referred to those pallets as his graves – meaning, he was sure to be fired for pulling that stunt. That manager ended up getting an award, because sales went up 2000 percent that year.” The number of shoppers that flock to the stores add to the sales, but they can also make things stressful at times. Expressing thanks to those hardworking and eager to please employees goes a long way.
“I live here for the school,” says Rabbi Rennert. “There is only so much we can pull from tuition. We receive thousands of visitors over the course of the year.”
The school is home to almost 100 children from all different backgrounds.
Are most visitors aware of the Academy and what it does?
“At the Shabbos minyanim we help arrange, they do make an appeal for the Academy, and with the thousands of tourists a year, those Aliyohs are very helpful,” says Rabbi Rennert. “But people are here on vacation. I don’t talk much about what we do; I want to let everyone enjoy their vacation.”
Despite his involvement with the throngs of tourists, Rabbi Rennert is still a major force in the school. “It’s not a big school, so everyone here is very involved,” he says. “I’m still involved with tuition and building maintenance. When our internet was down, I fixed it. I’m based in the building.”
As the community grows, slowly but surely, Rabbi Wachsman, Rabbi Schepansky, and Rabbi Rennert glean nachas. Orlando Torah Academy’s hachnasas sefer Torah, held in February of this year, was emblematic of that. The Torah was written liluy nishmas Rabbi Raphael Wachsman, zt”l, father of Rabbi Avraham Wachsman, yibodel l’chaim, the beloved founder of WITS, (Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study), in Milwaukee. The sefer Torah, the Academy’s first, was a fitting tribute to the exemplary mechanech whose generosity, dedication, and interest in every single talmid was legendary. The Torah was sponsored by Rabbi Wachsman’s family, friends and talmidim, who span the globe and number in the thousands. 250 people attended the hachnasas sefer Torah.
“Many from our Orlando community had never experienced anything like it,” reflects Rabbi Rennert. “There’s a unique joy at a hachnasas sefer Torah. Torah is our nitzchiyus, and handing it down to the next generation in a tangible way is truly a sight to behold.”
For someone who arrived on the scene to a tiny school that was without a home, Rabbi Rennert is amazed at the growth that continues each year.
“Like I said, b’derech hateva (according to the laws of nature), all this never should have happened,” Rabbi Rennert says. “There were times when we didn’t know what time would bring. But baruch Hashem, we are here to stay, and I know we’ll see many more great things.”