Faith groups bolster Berkshire tourism as area destinations make themselves accommodating — and see bump in business
Photo Gallery | Jiminy Peak a vacation haven for Orthodox Jews
HANCOCK — On a late August morning, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort is alive with children and adults exploring the myriad activities at the resort's mountain adventure park.
An adult is slowly venturing up the climbing wall. Youngsters attached to a swivel harness jump, flip and bounce on the Euro-Bungy. A boy stands high above the ground on a platform attached to the aerial adventure park.
It's a scene that took place at Jiminy Peak virtually every day this summer. The only difference on this day is that most of the adults and children are wearing yarmulkes, many are clad in formal dress, and the members of this group are required to stop what they're doing three times a day to pray.
These visitors are Haredi Orthodox Jews, also known as Hasidim, and they are part of a number of faith-based groups that have found the Berkshires to be a perfect travel spot.
They are not alone.
Every spring, thousands of Catholics travel to the world headquarters of the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge to attend ceremonies associated with Divine Mercy Sunday. They also regularly visit the shrine throughout the year, usually on day trips, said Brian Butterworth, the senior director of business development, community and industry relations for Main Street Hospitality Group.
Adelphi, a Jewish educational group, recently stayed at Eastover Resort & Estate in Lenox, where they were served Kosher meals in the resort's dining room.
The history of religious groups in the Berkshires is also woven into this region's DNA: One of the county's top tourist attractions, Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, is located on the site of one of the first North American settlements of the Shakers, a Christian sect formed in England that came to America in 1774.
"The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts is a great — and perhaps undiscovered — destination for tour operators or group leaders planning travel for faith organizations," according to a statement published in the Berkshire Visitors Bureau Group Tour newsletter.
Nationally, 37 percent of the National Tour Association's 700 tour companies offer faith-based travel and services. The NTA formed the Faith Travel Association in 2014 to help deal with the volume.
1Berkshire, the county's leading economic development organization, doesn't keep statistics on the number of religious groups that visit the Berkshires versus other types of groups, said Executive Vice President Lauri Klefos. The Faith Travel Association also does not have statistics specific to the Berkshires.
"But group travel is a really integral part of how our attractions and hotels get through the offseason," said Klefos, who headed the Berkshire Visitors Bureau before that organization was absorbed into 1Berkshire in July. "Group business is a really important part of how we market this area."
Group tours in the Berkshires fall into three categories, Klefos said: religious and faith based groups; alumni groups from different schools, camps and organizations; and the traditional tour groups.
The last group, she said, are typically bus tours.
"We do a lot of that in the fall. It's not strange to see a bus pull up in front of the Red Lion Inn with visitors from Oklahoma," she said. "The off season business really markets itself that way because when the groups are traveling they're looking for a discounted rate."
Tour operators account for 10 to 15 percent of the total tourism revenue in the Berkshires, Klefos said.
"Depending on the individual properties, it's 20 percent," she said.
Like the Orthodox Jews who travel annually to Jiminy Peak for summer vacations, Klefos said groups tend to settle on places where they feel comfortable and can provide for their individual needs.
"Groups have special needs, and once they find a property that helps them it's not unusual for them to focus on a specific place," she said.
Orthodox Jews began visiting Jiminy Peak for summer vacations about eight years ago, according to Tyler Fairbank, CEO of the Fairbank Group, which owns the resort. The majority of the Orthodox visitors to Jiminy Peak come from Hasidic communities in New York and New Jersey, he said.
"It was an interesting market segment for us," Fairbank said.
But cultural differences soon developed "that began taking a toll on our staff," Fairbank said, "and not understanding those differences became a big challenge for us."
For assistance, Fairbank reached out to Rabbi Levi Volovik of Chabad of the Berkshires in Pittsfield. Chabad is a worldwide Jewish movement that cares for the spiritual and material needs of Jewish people around the world.
"The Hasidim are very strict in modesty and they tend to be more insular because of that," Volovik said. "Sometimes there can be a language barrier."
Three years ago, Chabad of the Berkshires established a kosher cafeteria at Jiminy Peak. Part of that area is used as a prayer room and study hall where Talmud classes are held at night. Many of the Orthodox visitors stay at the resort's base lodge, where kitchenettes are available in every unit.
The changes have made, "the transition to both worlds easier," Volovik said.
"He did a wonderful job of helping us get a broader perspective of what Hasidic Jewish culture is like," Fairbank said of Volovik.
The Orthodox visitors feel comfortable at Jiminy Peak.
"It's very nice," said Mendel Teller, who is from Monsey, N.Y., outside of New York City. "It's enjoyable, and the kids like it, too. It's not too noisy and there aren't too many people."
"The kids are enjoying it," said Fred Engelman of Lakewood, N.J., who said he had just arrived at Jiminy Peak. "There's nothing crazy. I know we have a prayer room here."
"This is kosher entertainment," said a 56-year-old man from Spring Valley, N.Y., who declined to give his name. He had come to Jiminy with several generations of his family.
"There's no walking around in bathing suits," he said. "We wouldn't go to a water park."
As he spoke one of his grandchildren stood above him on a platform on the aerial adventure park. He was asked if he was worried about his grandson's safety.
"When they fall," he shrugged, "you don't look."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.
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