March 24, 2005
A Swiss Family Bind—No Hotel Heirs
In Switzerland, resorts like St. Moritz and Arosa are second only to chocolate and cheese fondue in popularity. But these two disparate destinations, more easily accessible by train than car, both offer something rarely found in other Swiss mountain retreats -- kosher hotels.
The Hotel Edelweiss in St. Moritz and the Hotel Metropol in Arosa are Jewish sanctuaries for observant tourists, offering everything from kosher dining and space for simchas to daily religious services and snow-melt mikvahs. They are family-run havens that inspire fierce loyalty in their guests, sometimes drawing generations of families from countries like England, Israel and the United States.
As the hotels prepare for the big Pesach rush that marks the end of the winter season, the couples that run the Edelweiss and Metropol are looking forward to returning home to Zurich. But they are also wrestling with doubts about the future of these kosher hideaways, and one question looms: Who will take over the family business?
In glitzy St. Moritz, women don fur coats as they window shop stores like Gucci and Armani, and the ski instructors suit up in Prada-designed uniforms. People flock to the town's spas and nosh in its tea rooms, or they turn to funicular-accessible Corviglia for skiing and hiking.
A short walk from the central area of St. Moritz-Dorf brings guests to the Hotel Edelweiss, a family affair that has served kosher-conscious consumers since 1883. Leopold Bermann grew up in the hotel, which catered to Jewish American soldiers after World War II. He is the third Bermann to run the Edelweiss, having taken over for his father at 22 in 1953. His British-born wife, Rita, has worked alongside "Poldi," as his family calls him, since 1960.
"All of our children have been married here," said Leopold Bermann, referring to his four daughters and one son.
Now 73, Bermann continues to operate what he says is the world's oldest-operating Jewish hotel, but he has no clear successor. Only one of his five children, Shoshana, still lives in Switzerland, and while his son, Josef, bought the hotel a few years ago, he leaves the management up to his parents. His son has expressed no interest in returning to Switzerland from Israel, so the Bermanns are pinning their hopes on the grandchildren.
Their 20-year-old granddaughter from Jerusalem, Rachel Bitton, spent her first season working at the hotel this winter. She's looking forward to starting a family, but she's not sure if she wants to do it in Switzerland.
"For now, I still want to live in Israel," she said. "I'm really connected to the hotel, and I feel like I need to be here, but I don't know."
Rita Bermann, who left London to be with her husband, hopes Bitton will make a similar choice to carry on the family tradition.
"She's the best to take over," she said.
A half-day rail trip shared by the Glacier Express and Rhätischen Bahn takes travelers through Graubünden's glacial valleys. It's clear when arriving in Arosa that the resort is the polar opposite of St. Moritz.
"St. Moritz is high society. Here is a place where everyone is welcome," said Marcel Levin, owner of Arosa's Hotel Metropol.
One main street is the focus of all activity in this sleepy hamlet, where parents take their bundled-up babies out in sleds rather than strollers, and couples snuggle ensconced under thick blankets in horse-drawn sleighs.
Levin, 52, was born and grew up in Arosa. He talks glowingly of non-Jewish friends carrying schoolbooks for him on Shabbat and putting up a sukkah in more than a foot of snow. His father purchased the Metropol in 1949, and Levin took over the hotel in 1975, one year after he married his Israeli wife, Lea.
Levin happily shmoozes in the dining room, talking with guests as they eat, while his wife works behind the scenes with the staff. But this jovial man turns serious when he talks about the Metropol's future. Jewish tourism is changing in Arosa, he said, and more people are starting to rent homes, turning to his hotel only for religious services and meals. It's a sentiment echoed by the Bermanns in St. Moritz.
"Everything is going to private apartments, so we're a bit scared," he said.
Levin said none of his six children have expressed interest in taking over the hotel, but he still has some time on his side before he retires. "Maybe one will take it over," he said, shrugging his shoulders.
In the meantime, Marcel and Lea Levin say they still take full advantage of their seasonal stays in Arosa. A few times a week at noon, they walk to the Weisshorn and take a tram to the halfway point, the Mittlestation, to enjoy the view of towering snow-covered peaks and take in the crisp mountain air.
"We're new people after half an hour," Levin said.
For more information about the Hotel Edelweiss, call 011-41-(0)81-836-5555. For more information about the Hotel Metropol, call 011-41-(0)81-378-8181 or visit www.levinarosa.com.
For Swiss travel information, call (877) 794-8037 or visit www.myswitzerland.com. Switzerland Tourism paid the writer's travel expenses.