National | Passover

Great Adventure: How an amusement park goes Orthodox for Passover

Six Flags Great Adventure, an amusement park in New Jersey, on Passover becomes the site of an annual Orthodox Jewish pilgrimage. (Uriel Heilman)

JACKSON, N.J. (JTA) – Pinchas Cohen spent most of Monday wandering around Six Flags Great Adventure under a blazing sun, wearing a knee-length black coat and carrying a big box of shmura matzah under his arm.

An imposing, Russian-born Chabad-Lubavitch Hasid who now lives in Brooklyn, Cohen came to this amusement park in New Jersey with his 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, the two youngest of his nine children, to have some fun on the first day of chol hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover.

But when Cohen’s turn came to ride the Runaway Mine Train roller coaster, he faced the dilemma of what to do with the box of matzah, which was labeled “fragile.” A Great Adventure staffer helped him stow it in a nearby bin, along with Cohen’s hat.

Pinchas Cohen, a restaurateur and father of nine from Brooklyn, brought his own box of handmade shmura matzah to the amusement park for Passover, April 25, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)
Pinchas Cohen, a restaurateur and father of nine from Brooklyn, brought his own box of handmade shmura matzah to the amusement park for Passover, April 25, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)

“That’s my lunch,” he said with a smile as he offered a large piece of matzah to a stranger.

The Cohens were among the thousands of Orthodox Jews who flocked this week to the popular park about 90 minutes from New York City in what has become an annual Passover tradition.

“I used to come every year when I was a kid,” said Yocheved, a 35-year-old mother of two from Teaneck who was at the park on Monday with her husband, kids and two nieces from Sharon, Massachusetts. “I can’t turn the corner without seeing someone I know.”

Kid-friendly amusements all around metropolitan New York tend to be jammed with Jewish children on Passover, from the Bronx Zoo and botanical garden to the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut.

The Orthodox Union's youth organization sold more than 4,000 tickets to Six Flags Great Adventure on the first day of chol hamoed, Passover's intermediate days, April 25, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)
The Orthodox Union’s youth organization sold more than 4,000 tickets to Six Flags Great Adventure on the first day of chol hamoed, Passover’s intermediate days, April 25, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)

But nothing compares to the annual Passover pilgrimage to Six Flags, which some years is open exclusively to visitors from the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the organizer of the program.

Passover at Great Adventure, a mainstay since 1983, is also the year’s biggest fundraiser of the year for NCSY’s New Jersey chapter, which usually raises more than $100,000 after expenses. NCSY buys tickets in bulk and resells them for 30 percent off regular admission price, markets the program, organizes busing to the park and coordinates with park administrators to accommodate Orthodox needs. The park offers kosher-for-Passover food concessions, and NCSY puts on a concert featuring a popular Orthodox singer. This year the entertainer is Baruch Levine.

“Every kind of Jew ends up coming here during Pesach. Depending upon the time of year, we bring public school kids together with Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, kids with kippot, kids without, poor kids, rich kids, special-needs kids,” said Rabbi Ethan Katz, the director of New Jersey NCSY and coordinator of the Passover program. “It’s a tremendous kiddush Hashem” – sanctification of God’s name – “for so many Jews to be together in one place for such an amazing event.”

On Monday, a beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the high 70s, more than 4,000 park visitors bought tickets through NCSY, Katz said. That comprised more than one-third of all visitors, according to a park representative, and many more Jewish visitors came on their own.

At the 150-foot tall Ferris wheel, wig-wearing mothers in ankle-length skirts and commandeering double strollers lined up surrounded by broods of children dressed in identical outfits. At the 15-story giant swing, modern Orthodox teens in jeans and T-shirts who had taken off their yarmulkes for the ride seemed in no hurry to put them back on. Near the kosher food concession, a group of men held an impromptu afternoon prayer service.

Yeshiva students from the nearby Orthodox stronghold of Lakewood congregated around the basketball throw, removing suit jackets and ties to take shots and drawing cheers from casually dressed general-admission visitors when they sank their free throws.

At the gondola that ferries visitors around the park, an Asian-American staffer named Josiah did his best to wish Jewish visitors a happy holiday.

“Are you guys Jewish?” he bellowed, offering a mangled version of a Yiddish-Hebrew Passover greeting when they nodded in assent. “Did I say it right?” he called out as the gondola rose into the air.

Staffers practice some deference when it comes to asking visitors to remove hats and yarmulkes on rides — though only an act of God could save one’s head-covering from flying off on rides like Kingda Ka, a roller coaster that goes from zero to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds.

Pam Nuzzo, general sales manager for Six Flags Great Adventure, said that after doing Passover for so many years, staffers are familiar with Orthodox needs.

“Passover is part of the park’s history. It’s one of our bigger special events throughout the year,” she told JTA. “It’s good for the park. It brings a lot of people.”

NCSY also brings groups throughout the year, including on the intermediary days of Sukkot. But Passover, when Jewish schools stay closed and many Orthodox parents take off, is the biggest draw. This year, because Passover coincides with schools’ spring holidays, the park is also open to the general public.

Once when NCSY had exclusive rights to the park, Katz recalled that the administration made the faux pas of including Wonder Woman among the costumed characters entertaining visitors. The “woman walking around in her underwear” disappeared once staffers realized their blunder. NCSY also has organized all-boys days at Great Adventure’s water park, Hurricane Harbor, for those whose religious observance precludes mixed-gender swimming. All the lifeguards that day are male. (An effort to organize an all-girls day so far has been unsuccessful.)

“We work a lot on bridging gaps, especially so the ultra-Orthodox can come here and have a great experience and feel very welcome and at home,” Katz said. “It’s a very positive Jewish environment for everybody.”

Dovid Kessner, a Lakewood father of seven, came to the park on Monday along with his family and those of two of his siblings, with 23 or 24 children among the three couples. A first-timer, Kessner said he decided to come after seeing an ad in his local Jewish weekly.

“I’m not such an amusement park guy,” said Kessner, who obtained a group rate for his crew. “I usually take my kids boating or fishing on the Jersey Shore.”

Great Adventure forbids bringing in outside food or drink, and many Orthodox families picnicked right outside the gates. But Kessner said attendants didn’t give him a problem bringing in provisions.

“I told them I needed to bring in some food for the kids. They didn’t give me a hard time,” he said. “I didn’t try to sneak it in. That’s not what I want to teach my kids.”

At the Passover concession, Reuben’s Glatt Spot, menu items included $7.25 hot dogs (on Passover buns), $16 chicken nuggets, $7 French fries and 2-liter bottles of Coke for $9 apiece.

“The hot dog buns don’t really hold the hot dogs well. It keeps slipping out,” said Sarah Ifrah, who was in town from Toronto to visit her sister in Woodmere, New York. “It’s also a little on the expensive side, but we’re glad they have it. Who comes to an amusement park on Pesach and can buy some food? It’s great.”