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Be My Guest

David Damen, Austria

He has a surprising repertoire of Yiddish words, and the chassidishe guests at his hotel are amazed at his proficiency in halachos of Shabbos and chareidi communal politics. What’s the secret behind the charm of Stefan, the strapping non-Jew from Saalbach-Hinterglemm, that brings Rav Wosner and the Toldos Aharon Rebbe to visit him every year?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

 hotelSecurity officials at Ben Gurion Airport are constantly on eagle-eye alert for pro-Palestinian human rights agitators who enter the country on European tourist visas, so when the charming blond, blue-eyed young man with an Austrian accent presented his documents to passport control, he was pulled aside and questioned about the purpose of  his visit.,

“I’ve come to visit Toldos Aharon,” replied the affable tourist to the wide-eyed official.   The Austrian was then subjected to intensive questioning; soon, however, his story was verified and he was released and on his way toJerusalem.

Stefan Sommerbichler made his way to Meah Shearim, where he clambered onto the crowded bleachers at the Friday night Toldos Aharon tisch; he then spend time in Bnei Brak before returning to the Alpine town of Saalbach-Hinterglemm and to his prized family business — a kosher hotel he created that has become a popular chareidi vacation spot.

Stefan was born in this town and began working in the family hotel from the time he was a kid. And although he didn’t have too much direct familiarity with Jews, he says he always felt a certain attraction to the Jewish religion. “Like many Israelis, I spent a period of time inIndia. I also worked inIsraelfor a while in the Austrian Hospice, and I took a significant interest in the various religions,” he relates.

As he became more heavily involved in the family business, Stefan tried to convince his brothers and sister to build a kosher hotel designated for religious Jews. The idea didn’t go over too well with them, and Stefan himself was still quite ignorant about most aspects of religious Jewish life. “I didn’t know much about Judaism beyond the terms ‘kosher’ and ‘treif,’$$separate quotes$$” he relates. “I knew nothing about religious culture — not about Litvaks and chassidim, nothing. And the friends with whom I consulted, some of whom were Jewish, tried to discourage me from going ahead with this plan. ‘You have no chance of getting a hechsher,’ they said in an attempt to frighten me.”

Ultimately, not only did Stefan build a Jewish hotel, but he got his hechsher too. Today the Aplen Karawanserai resort hotel is under the kashrus supervision of Rav Avraham Yonah Schwartz of Vienna, whose kashrus agency is known for its high standards. “It wasn’t easy,” Stefan admits, “but I was a serious nudnik. Anyway, everything is bashert,” he says, as if he always spoke yeshivish.

The Jewish hotel took shape, and Stefan’s knowledge of Judaism also grew significantly. Over the past decade, he has accumulated knowledge of hundreds of halachos, minhagim, and other Jewish facts.


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