Tuesday, September 29, 2020

As we unpack duffels, multiple sets of plastic drawers, AC units, refrigerators, toaster ovens, hot water urns, Shabbos lamps, clothing racks, more shoes than on display at the local shoe store, raincoats, sports equipment, seforim and bedding, I can’t help but wonder how did Mesorah pull it off? This was supposed to be the summer that didn’t happen. Corona had won, the governor of New York had shut down all sleepaway camps. And yet, Deena and Ari Katz did the impossible. They gave us, hundreds of campers, lower and upper staff the summer of our lives.

In the weeks leading up to the decision to close camps in New York, we had spoken to Deena and Ari a few times to see how they were holding up. Time and time again, the same message was related—we have to do this for the kids, no matter how difficult it would be or how high the cost. Having been at home for a few months with little social interaction, the Katz’s took upon themselves the achrayus to give kids a sense of normalcy. A good, back-to-basics ’80s summer experience without the over-the-top trips, popular-musician concerts and modern distractions. This summer at Mesorah was more Parent Trap (1960s version) and less Snapchat/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. And the kids loved it.


As a guest for the entire Mesorah camp experience (my wife, Deena, ran the girls’ waterfront), I had a unique vantage point. I wasn’t part of the staff, but a grateful guest allowed to stay in the bubble as part of the protocol set up by the incredible team of dedicated doctors—Drs. Cohen, Henning and Shatzkes. Doctors that had treated many coronavirus patients and knew what the challenges were and how to safely pull off a great summer experience.

The logistics of setting up a new camp in unfamiliar territory in under a week is simply too complex to fathom. A new campus has so many challenges—both on the programming side and halachic.

The incredible new Mesorah camp rabbi, Rav Zach Frisch, had to quickly build an eruv for the camp from scratch, which was no small task with the unfamiliar territory. He spent hours researching the lake on campus and more hours on the phone with major poskim to determine its status for use as a mikvah. One of the leading mikvaos poskim in the world (well into his 70s) climbed into a kayak with Rav Frisch on 17 b’tamuz to circumnavigate the lake, followed by a trek on foot through the marsh to better understand the topography and water inlets/outlets. The kitchen had to be kashered and when the great Chef Uzi realized there was no way to keep dairy and meat separate, a full-size restaurant commercial kitchen in a shipping container was quickly brought in to maintain strict kashrus guidelines. When the warming drawers for Shabbos caused power outages, the incredible operations staff led by Coe Hill rigged a heavy-duty commercial generator to enable warm food to be served on Shabbos day. When the kollel needed more electricity to power A/C units, electricians came in to increase the amp service to avoid blowing out the power on Shabbos. Tarps and mechitzos draped the pool area to maintain tzniyus. Mezuzos and Sifrei Torah were brought in from shuls and schools that were closed since Purim.

On the programming side, as if finding a new campus and negotiating a last-minute contract (because all the askanim were certain the governor would open sleepaway camps after the day-camp announcement, and confident that the court injunction would work) wasn’t daunting enough, Deena and Ari decided to provide an option to teens (entering 11th grade) who were supposed to go to Israel for the summer by creating a new program for them in Mesorah (aka the Super Teens). Forty post-Shana Alef boys who were planning on working at special-needs camps miraculously worked with Ari at the 11th hour to create a new Mesorah kollel and brought in the stellar R’ Ben Leybovich, who singlehandedly ran the kollel and gave shiurim every day. Ah, the Kollel—it was the center and heart of camp. It was incredible to watch campers and lower staff walk through the doors of the Mesorah kollel and walk out changed for life. He took it upon himself to personally make everyone feel welcome at the kollel.

Before long, something incredible happened. Campers started to lead zemiros on Shabbos, dancing at the onegs, saying Torah at the Tuesday-night chugs. Lower staff who are flying to learn in yeshivos next week in Israel cut their hair, put on titzis and set up chavrusas with the kollel boys. Why? Because they felt the warmth of Torah. Post-Shana Bet teen counselors came up with creative ways to get their campers excited to wash nagel vasser in the morning. The transformation was incredible to observe. The Mesorah chinuch staff are some of the most creative and talented mechanchim around. Ask the younger campers about parsha skits and you’ll see why.

The summer that shouldn’t have happened became our yeshua. The social interaction, the minyanim, shiurim, sports, kayaking, art, activities and color war gave back to us what Corona has taken away—our chiyus. Our simchas hachayim. Deena and Ari did the impossible—we forgot about the outside world. We forgot about Corona. We became free again. As we return back home, to outdoor minyanim with masks, reduced social interaction, increased social distancing and the unknown with the future of school, we realize how valuable that freedom was.

Chazal teach us that we are born with our yetzer hara and are gifted with the yetzer tov when we turn bar/bat mitzvah. Sifrei penimuys explain this point further that this is because when you start with a lot of darkness, it only takes a small amount of light to push away that darkness. The past few months were dark for many of us. This summer, Deena and Ari gave us a gift of light. Hashem should continue to bless them and all of us BaKol MiKol Kol and continue to radiate his Shefa on all of Klal Yisrael.

By Avi Holchendler, MD