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Hip Brown hotel chain embarks on holy quest for Tel Aviv’s religious visitors

Since the Brown Hotel chain got its start in Tel Aviv in 2010, it has carefully cultivated a hip vibe, with stylish boutique hotels in city centers, giving tourists a taste of local urban culture and nightlife.

While Brown has always been all about familiarizing guests with neighborhood hangouts, that has not necessarily included local synagogues. But in a shift of sorts, several of its Tel Aviv hotels have recently turned kosher, and will soon offer sukkah huts on their rooftop decks during the upcoming Sukkot holiday as it angles for a whole new market in the overwhelmingly secular city: religious Jewish tourists.

Times have changed, said Yael Biedermann, global marketing vice president for Brown, which today boasts 39 hotels in Israel, Croatia, Cyprus and Greece, along with seaside resorts near Athens, and in Corfu and Crete.

“We expanded,” said Biedermann, “and as we looked for a more mixed clientele and slightly larger hotels, we turned some of our hotels into kosher spaces that appeal to the local audience and Jewish customers who are getting to know boutique hotels.”

Tourism industry figures show a steady increase of foreign tourists to Israel, with a 21 percent increase in August 2023 compared to last August. The industry is still 7% down from its pre-COVID peak in August 2019, when incoming tourism was at an all-time high.

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The internal Israeli tourism industry is also strong, according to industry observers. Experts say heightened numbers of Israelis vacationing in the country will remain a feature of the market; many of those Israeli tourists are observant Jews.

A peek at the Brown Lighthouse lobby in Tel Aviv, where the kitchen is now kosher (Courtesy PR)

Hotels that cater to religious Orthodox Jews are typically thought of as larger, more family-friendly affairs, with cavernous dining rooms for kosher Shabbat or holiday meals. For Sukkot, the week-long festival that begins September 29, kosher hotels often put up extra-large, thatch-covered sukkahs that can accommodate hundreds.

Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, for example, has a 400-square-meter (1,312 feet) sukkah, five meters (16 feet) high, constructed by a staff of engineers and designers in its lobby. A removable glass ceiling above the atrium ensures the mehadrin kosher-certified hut meets religious specifications.

The Brown Hotel sukkah options are far more modestly sized and appointed by comparison, more suited for a breakfast than a long holiday meal, in line with the cozier feel of its boutique hotels. While the chain already puts sukkahs in its properties in Eilat and Jerusalem, the rooftop Sukkot booths being constructed at Tel Aviv’s Brown Lighthouse, Debrah Brown and Hotel Bobo are a first.

The modest sukkah on the roof of Jerusalem’s Villa Brown, one of several Brown Hotels to have a sukkah for guests (Courtesy PR)

“We believe in pluralism and the integration of all tourists,” said Biedermann, “including Israelis, religious and secular audiences, and we have a wide variety of different hotels that also cater to the religious audience.”

The Brown Lighthouse and Bobo were made kosher nearly a year ago.

First, though, was Debrah Brown, which has been kosher since its 2021 opening and includes a synagogue on-site, but until now, no sukkah.

The property, located on Ben Yehudah Street about four blocks from the popular Gordon Beach, was originally the Devora Hotel, built by Venezuelan brothers in the 1960s who wanted a Tel Aviv hotel for religious clientele.

“The Debrah gets more of the religious crowd, and a lot of French guests as well,” said Biedermann.

It’s a hotel that tends to draw guests who have family nearby, said Biedermann, and while there is no Friday night dinner served — only the Brown Bobo has that option — “people want to sleep comfortably and not on someone’s living room couch. So they eat their meals together but stay in our rooms.”

The lobby of the Brown Debrah, one of the chain’s kosher hotels in Tel Aviv (Courtesy PR)

The redesigned Brown version of the hotel includes Dvora, a lively, chic restaurant with a menu designed by celebrity chef Eyal Shani and dishes cooked by chef Asaf Paiz and his team. (The restaurant recently hosted this writer for dinner.)

Each night, Dvora’s chefs work steadily inside the square-shaped bar to create the Shani-inspired takes on familiar dishes, such as crispy sheets of zaatar bourekas, fluffy eggplant steaks served on a cloud of tomato foam, Nablus green beans dressed in a light vinaigrette and served in brown paper bags, thin planks of salmon schnitzel and a menu full of other cleverly conceived dishes.

A single night in the Debrah over Sukkot would run a family of four NIS 1,249 (around $350), including breakfast in the Dvora. (The price is for members of the chain’s Club Brown; joining is free.)

The kosher breakfast at the Brown Lighthouse in Tel Aviv (Courtesy PR)

A slightly cheaper option is the Brown Lighthouse, a 15-minute walk away from the Debrah, where a classic (but small) room for two parents and two small children costs NIS 1,147 (around $328). For NIS 1,424 (around $407), guests can upgrade to a larger junior suite. Prices don’t include breakfast.

The hotel, somewhat less luxurious than the Debrah, sits on the corner of Allenby and Ben Yehuda, near the redone Opera Square, an area that was fairly downtrodden a few years ago but is slowly becoming more upscale.

The property is situated inside Beit Migdalor, a local landmark that was once the heart of the city’s tourist businesses, hosting the offices of a plethora of travel firms, including El Al Airlines and local tour companies.

An exterior photo of Migdalor House, home of the Brown Lighthouse hotel (Courtesy PR)

But the building became a”white elephant” said Biedermann, “huge and empty,” and the Brown took over three floors in 2018.

“We keep on taking more floors, it’s a hotel in movement,” she said.

Prices are slightly lower at the Lighthouse because of ongoing light rail construction, which is happening day and night. Still, the rooms are quiet, facing either the sea or overlooking the city of Tel Aviv, and prices generally include tours of the nearby Carmel Market as well as spa packages, but not breakfast.

Breakfast at the Lighthouse is a worthwhile add-on, though. During a recent visit, waitresses rotated small plates of egg dishes, and a buffet included delicate vegetable croquettes, fresh pretzel rolls and platters of roasted vegetables, as well as salads, fresh juices and jars of granola and yogurt.

Downstairs is the hotel’s nightclub, Matta, though there’s no shortage of other nightlife spots nearby on Allenby.

And for guests seeking something a little more spiritual, there’s the Yehuda Magidovitch-designed Great Synagogue, also on Allenby, and the North Central Synagogue, just a short walk from Debrah Brown on the northern end of Ben Yehuda.

“We’ve got something for the locals,” said Biedermann, “and for the more religious guest who wants a boutique experience.”