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LimmudNY: The Recap That Didn’t Happen

It’s Monday, January 19, 2009. Right now, I should be on a bus on my way back from a rewarding, interesting three-day-long conference, LimmudNY, held at the Nevele Grande Resort in bucolic Ellenville, New York. However, I am not on a bus. I am on my couch in my apartment in Brooklyn. And instead of doing what I was assigned to do – writing a recap of my experiences at LimmudNY and reporting back on how many interesting seminars I went to and how many hot Jew couples hooked up – I’m writing another kind of post.

At 7:00 AM on Friday, January 17, the day I was scheduled to leave for Limmud, I woke up to the sound of my cell phone ringing.When I answered it, I was treated to an automated voicemail message letting me know that the Nevele had a problem with their boiler and the resort was currently without heat or hot water. They promised to make an official announcement by 11 AM regarding whether the boiler was repaired and if the conference would go on as scheduled. However, the bus schedule (mine was departing from the Manhattan JCC at noon) would not change. I live about an hour via subway away from the JCC, so there was no way I could sit home and wait for the 11:00 announcement. I grabbed my suitcase and headed for the train.

By the time my colleague Hayley Kaufman and I made it to the JCC, the lobby was full of people – those, mostly families with young children – who had been scheduled for a 9:00 bus and had been waiting at the JCC all morning, as well as the newcomers who were slated to leave at noon. At noon, someone – I’m not clear whether she was a Limmud volunteer or a JCC employee, although I suspect she was the former – announced that the boiler had, indeed, been repaired, but it would take half an hour ‘for the heat to reach the building.’ At 12:30, she announced that everything was just fine at the hotel and we had gotten permission to leave. Hayley and I, frustrated by the lack of information, had considered leaving at noon when no one had clear answers, but against our better judgment we hopped on the bus. Two and a half hours later, our bus pulled up in front of the Nevele, and perky volunteers from Limmud hopped onto the bus to make announcements. We were told that the hotel was ‘still a little cold’ and ‘taking awhile to totally heat up,’ so we were advised to keep our coats on while we waited in the lobby to check in. The volunteers were correct – it was a little cold. So cold, in fact, that while we stood in the hour-plus-long line to get our room assignments I couldn’t feel my toes. When it came our turn to check in, a Nevele front desk clerk informed us that our room was in the section of the hotel that had been closed off due to the lack of heat, and they’d ‘work on’ trying to find us a room. We were dispatched to another line, full of fellow roomless travelers, to await our fate. Four hours later, not any warmer, and with no room assignment in sight, I went up to the front desk and started asking about the closest MetroNorth or bus station. The employee claimed not to know anything about transit options and suggested I warm my hands over the Shabbat candles [side note: Shabbat began while we were all in line hoping to get room keys. Many observant Jews were forced to choose between holding a spot in line for a room assignment or attending one of the Shabbat services in the hotel].

Thanks to Hayley’s iPhone and a long phone call with my boyfriend, a native of New York state, we decided we’d take a taxi to Poughkeepsie, more than 45 miles away, to catch the last MetroNorth train back to the city. The cab driver, the very awesome Patrick of Ellenville Cab Company (we told him about this post and promised him a shoutout for all the help he gave us on that crazy night) didn’t think we could make it to Poughkeepsie in time, and suggested we drive toward the closer town of Middletown, which had a bus station. I called the bus station and found out the last bus to the city left at 7:50 PM, giving us about 40 minutes to make it. Patrick got us there with enough time to grab diner food – the first actual meal we’d had all day, since the Nevele offered only coffee, tea, and cookies to the busloads of hungry people who had expected to make it there in time for lunch – before plopping onto the bus, exhausted but happy to finally be somewhere warm.

It seems that Hayley and I made the right decision to leave when we did. My friend Dan Sieradski, who arrived Thursday evening in order to prepare for seminars he was going to teach and was put up in a nearby hotel when the Nevele’s boiler died, has been blogging and updating his Facebook page semi-regularly over the weekend. On his blog, he wrote:

As of Saturday evening, only some bedrooms had working heat (attendees have been squeezed into a limited number of heated bedrooms, with, in some cases, 5 to a room) and most classrooms are being heated by electric space heaters.

By visual estimate, more than half the participants — including featured presenters — have either left of didn’t bother showing up. And on Friday, event organizers sent frigid Shabbat-observant participants home with whole roasted chickens to compensate for the time they would not have to prepare dinner.

The kicker? Dan also noted that Limmud organizers – who are entirely volunteers – have stated that no one will get a refund for the lost weekend. I don’t think that’s going to sit well with the disappointed attendees who simply wanted to spend a weekend socializing, participating in panel discussions, and taking classes – and it certainly doesn’t sit well with me. According to Patrick, we weren’t the first people this winter who had called from the Nevele in a panic asking if he could get them to the bus station in time. In fact, there’s an entire website devoted to complaining about the Nevele’s poor service and outdated amenities. It also seems that a lack of heat is a semi-regular occurrence there.

"We arrived on Friday night and left on Saturday morning because of the filth — everywhere, multi-legged creatrues walking around in my room, no heat and a "too bad" response from "management," food which makes hospital food look like a 5-star restaurnant [sic], and a sense that the people working there really don’t care about the place or the guests."

"We were on the third floor and the elevator sounded and acted so terrible that we walked up and down 42 steps all week. Everyone staying there seemed to be very upset. There was no heat and then when we finally got them to turn it on it was very very hot and the rooms could not be controlled. We finally gave them a 2 day notice that we were leaving but when it came time to check out they refused to give us our last day back that we had paid for and were extremely disrespectful to us."

"This was by far my worst hotel experince [sic] ever. I have been giving ski trips for a couple of years and this was my first time using this hotel I can honestly say I have never been so disgusted. First of all the building we stayed in (the Vacationer) had no staff. There was not heat in most rooms. Also no hot water. When called about the hot water we were told to heat it up in the microwave that the rooms did not have."

Seems like Limmud’s organizers might have benefitted from some thorough Web searching before they chose the venue for their 2009 conference. After all, who wants to spend a winter weekend in a hotel with a reputation of poor heating?

I’m disappointed that something I was really looking forward to wound up being a total bust. But moreso, I’m disappointed by the trip organizers and hotel employees who signed off on letting people come en masse to the hotel when they weren’t sure the heat was working.  Furthermore, a lot of the angry and hurt people might have been less so if the hotel’s staff had been more helpful or understanding. I’ve never gone to a hotel – or even a crappy, second-rate backpacker hostel – in the world that didn’t have staff trained to give you directions to the closest highways, train stations, or other points of transport. It’s hard to say whether it was the hotel’s fault for having a broken boiler or Limmud’s fault for allowing people to come to the conference without being 100 percent sure if there were enough heated rooms to go around, but it’s clear that the weekend was a huge waste. And you can be sure that I won’t be attending next year, even if the conference is held in the Ritz-Carlton.

Repeated calls to Limmud’s office at the Nevele were all rerouted back to the hotel’s front desk. Jewcy’s Project Manager was able to speak to a Limmud event coordinator who, when asked about whether dissatisfied attendees would be able to get refunds, said, "I would hope that no one would do that to Limmud, which is a fundraising organization." As for their official website, the only comment on the homepage is "Limmud NY 2009 has ended. Thank you to everyone in our community for an amazing and memorable experience."

Well, "memorable" is one word for it.

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