No Holy Day is an island &mdash grand backdrop for Rosh Hashanah

Though renowned for its long and rich history, the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island seemed like a recent upstart in 2004. For the first time in its 117-year history, the resort celebrated the Jewish New Year — and the Jewish Sabbath.

Instead of celebrities, lobster risotto and horseback riding, 50 people — a good chunk of whom are Orthodox Jews — are spending their time on the island with rabbis, High Holy Day services and the traditional blowing of a ram’s horn to mark the start of the new year, deep into the sixth millennium.

The price tag, though, was a very 21st-century $800, plus tax and tips.

This elegance-meets-apples-dipped-in-honey excursion was the brainchild of Jewel Kosher Catering owner Phil Tewel of Southfield, Mich., who later joined forces with the Southfield-based Jewish education group Aish HaTorah.

“On occasion, we’ve worked with special groups with special or unique needs,” said Ken Hayward, the hotel’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ll be creative and work with Mr. Tewel. Guests won’t realize any difference whatsoever. The whole point of coming to us is the great food, the fine service and the resort experience.”

An observant Jew himself, Tewel was familiar with the rules and customs that had to be accommodated. A Grand Hotel kitchen had to be thoroughly cleaned to make it kosher. Meat and chicken slaughtered by trained rabbis had to be shlepped to the island. No key cards to rooms could be used because on holidays and the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews do not use electricity. But that proved to be no problem, as the historic resort still uses regular keys. Evening and afternoon activities had to be planned, as traditional Jews do not play sports, ride in any sort of vehicle or handle money on their special days.

But a new Mackinac Island ferry rule almost derailed the whole outing. Tewel’s staff wasn’t allowed to bring aboard the blowtorches they had planned to use to sear clean even the smallest pores of the hotel’s kitchen. Scrambling, they secured smaller torches on the island and only cleaned one oven. For the surface space that the chefs would need, the crew covered one countertop with tin foil to separate the surface from the kosher food.

“I think there’s an advantage for the holidays because there are no motorized vehicles, so we’re not watching cars on the holiday,” Tewel said.

Blending the Grand Hotel and Jewish heritages, Tewel’s menus included not only elegant meats and pecan pie, an ode to the hotel’s famous pecan balls, but also traditional holiday food, like brisket, gefilte fish and apples with honey — a Rosh Hashanah staple, symbolizing a sweet new year for all.

While Tewel handled the bellies, Rabbi Alon Tolwin took care of the brains.

Aish HaTorah’s director of development ran services three times a day and planning classes on topics ranging from the High Holy Days to relationships and goal-setting. And like Tewel, he had a rather unusual to-do list: Remember to pack prayerbooks, handouts for the classes, a ceremonial wine glass and candles, extra yarmulkes, a shofar and a Torah scroll. Borrow portable screens or potted plants from the hotel to delineate the women’s and men’s sections of the conference room-turned-synagogue.

“Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal, a commitment to spiritual growth, and part of the appeal of the island is it’s a step back in time,” Tolwin reflected. “We’re freeing ourselves from all the shackles of time, going to a hotel which is well over 100 years old. It’s the grand style of the late 1800s. All the pomp and grandeur associated with a sense of American history and a sense of grandeur associated with Rosh Hashanah and God.”

Mackinac Island and the holiday observance were a perfect match. The Rosh Hashanah crowd got a milieu for meditation, a hotel that has been in the same family for 53 years and whose other formally dressed dinner guests won’t think their holiday finery odd. And the Grand Hotel scored several dozen reservations for the slower, post-Labor Day denouement of its season.

But Tolwin and Jewel had have a captive audience. Literally.

Because their attendees don’t travel on holidays or the Sabbath, these guests weren’t able to check out until Saturday night after sundown.