As wise King Solomon teaches us in Megilat Koheles, there are times when it’s preferable to separate and times when it behooves us to come together. In each of our lives as well as in the lives of our Jewish communities, there are those events that unite us and those that seem to pull us apart. We all are familiar with the often polarizing conflicts that have arisen in the recent Jewish past between various factions, organizations and individuals: left vs. right, Mizrachi versus Agudah, Yeshivish vs. Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, and Haredi versus everyone else. Then there have been the geographical divisions: Litvak versus Galiztianer and Yekke vs. non-Yekke. Finally, an historic schism came to these shores as an import via Ellis Island: European Jews brought us Chassid vs. Misnagid. It would seem from the foregoing list that Orthodox Jews have throughout American history been at each other’s communal throats more often than not. The following tale emphasizes, however, a happier time in the past when achdut, unity and togetherness, prevailed in Modern Orthodox American Jewish life. It also illustrates that opportunities occasionally present themselves to learn lessons from our fellow Jews even if we have to cross age and geographic barriers to do so.
Prepare to consider one of those special times of the year in the Jewish-American calendar when Jews unite as a community; it as known as: summer vacation!
Yes, summer vacation has been that time of year in America when Orthodox Jews seem to bury their differences in the interests of ensuring they can find a minyan to pray in, kosher food in reasonable proximity and comfortable accommodations for large family groups. Once found these locations are returned to year after year, friendships renewed with people you only socialize with when on vacation. Between July 4 and Labor Day, your fellow vacationers become steadfast neighbors. If you’re lucky, summer week after summer week you can forget about where you come from and put away all September thoughts until you start reciting Ledavid during davening. Some of these summer escape destinations have taken on an almost utopian aura, lifelong memories of happy moments and rites of passage that only become more firmly fixed in one’s recollection as time passes. Every so often one or two of these locations rises to the level of legend, where historic figures in Jewish history rub elbows with commoners, the learned with those who still have lots to learn. My story is about one such place, a sleepy hamlet tucked under tree-lined mountains about 128 miles from New York City.
The village of Hunter, New York stands 1800 feet above sea level at the foot of the second highest mountain in the Catskill Mountains, Hunter Mountain. For approximately 150 years the area around Hunter Mountain, at an altitude of 4,000 feet, has attracted visitors for its natural beauty, cool summer nights and hiking possibilities. The last 50 years have seen the development of all-year skiing facilities that set the standard for the southern part of New York. Most interesting, however, for our purposes is the fact that Hunter’s virtues have attracted Orthodox Jews for more than a century. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places is the historic Hunter Synagogue located on Main Street. It was constructed between 1909 and 1914 through the efforts of among others the noted Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist Harry Fischel who built a stately seven-gabled home in Hunter for his extended family to spend their summers away from New York City. Accompanying him was his son-in-law, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, founder of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan and inspirational leader of the fledgling Modern Orthodox community. Without the lifelong efforts of these two men the Orthodox world as we know it today would be much different. R’ Goldstein was the only man to serve during his lifetime as the head of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the now defunct Synagogue Council of America. He introduced many people to the idea of kosher food supervision and innovated the now very familiar OU kosher certification. He was also instrumental in creating the concept of the Jewish Community Center. By the 1930s, Hunter was R’ Goldstein’s summer refuge from his busy communal schedule as it was for his father-in-law, Harry Fischel. When the latter passed away in 1948 neither he nor R’ Goldstein had any idea what Hunter and its shul would come to mean within a generation to a broadly diverse Orthodox Jewish community.
By the 1960s Hunter had become a summer haven for Jews who wished to find a place to relax with fellow Jews, but who wished to avoid the large, boisterous hotels of the Borscht Belt of Sullivan County. The latter establishments claimed to be located in the “heart” of the Catskills. As any amateur geographer (or anyone who could read a map!) knew well, those hotels were not anywhere near the Catskill Mountains, which ranged from the Hudson River west and terminated way short of Sullivan County. The “real” Catskills were truly mountainous, rocky with fast-moving streams and major reservoirs serving even far-away New York City. Hunter, and its twin village of Tannersville, began to attract a new sort of Jewish visitor, namely those hardy folk who followed the traditions of Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch and the Frankfurt, Germany community: the Breuer’s community of Washington Heights. Leading this group to Hunter was Rav Naftoli Friedler, his wife and large family. Rav Friedler had been responsible for the founding of the Beis Midrash of the Breuer’s Yeshiva/Mesivta and become its first Rosh Yeshiva in 1958. Originally trained at Gateshead Yeshiva in England, Rav Friedler brought many Breuer’s families north to Hunter each summer for at least a decade.
Alongside the Breuer’s group came members of the growing YU family of teachers and students. Included among them were future Roshei Mesivta, among them notable Talmud scholars such as Rabbi Yehuda Parnes, later Rosh Yeshiva of Lander College, equally adept at helping a student understand a complex Tosfos or on occasion assisting his sons on a baseball diamond or basketball court.
Alongside Rabbis Friedler and Parnes, the Hunter summer community was blessed in particular with the annual presence of a true Chassidic great in the person of the Bluzhever Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Spiro (Shapiro) (1891–1989), notable Holocaust survivor and leader of a vibrant Brooklyn community. His presence in the Hunter shul every summer day was inspiring to young and old, of which more below.
Contrasting with these rabbinic lights were those Jews who lived observant lives, but didn’t necessarily consider themselves as steeped in learning or training. From the 1920s, for example, the Margareten family of matzah fame called Hunter their summer home, as did members of the Slutzky family, owners of the well-known Nevele hotel. The Slutzky family not only developed the Hunter Mountain ski lodge and lifts during the 1960s, but were the main year-round supporters of the Hunter Synagogue. Rounding out the summer community were several dozen families of ba’al habatim without any particular affiliation who were simple Orthodox Jews from the New York metro area, happy to join in this annual summer escape.
The net effect of this varied Kehillah was that on an ordinary summer Shabbos morning in that synagogue you might find the author, a 15-year-old Ba’al Korai, grandson of Gerer Chassidim, reading the Torah with a German trop to a minyan consisting of, among others, the Blushever Rebbe, Rav Naftoli Friedler of Breuer’s, R’ Parnes of YU, the Margaretens, Rabbi Reichel of the West Side Institutional Synagogue and members of the Slutzky family. Jews of so many different stripes were all praying together in tranquility on those days with mutual respect and devotion and a real sense of community.
The most meaningful of the rituals performed over those summers in the Hunter shul were undoubtedly those special situations that took place mid-week when the teenaged and young adults of the community were called upon to participate in greater numbers than on weekends. The weekly routine of fathers leaving Hunter after the weekend and returning to the city to go to work put the onus of daily minyan attendance squarely on the younger male residents and the relatively few older male members who remained in Hunter during the week. In 1965, I recall a particularly memorable mid-week Tisha B’Av Eichah reading that brought the younger elements in Hunter directly in contact with the Bluzhever Rebbe, one of the few adults to attend the reading that night. His inspiring presence itself bridged any gaps that might otherwise have existed between the different types of Jews who attended. It was as if the Rebbe saw each Jew as equal and his wartime experience led him to consider all external, factional “labels” meaningless.
That particular August evening the small group that gathered at the end of Ma’ariv
to hear Megillat Eichah moved to the front of the shul where the Bluzhever Rebbe sat in his familiar Mizrach seat. The Rebbe spoke mostly Yiddish and most of the boys did not. He smiled in their direction and indicated they should approach him and be seated. The young man chosen to read the megillah knew little of the exploits of the Rebbe during the war, how the Rebbe had witnessed countless horrors unfolding in front of him and had lost his wife and children. Throughout years of incarceration the Rebbe had often lifted the spirits of his fellow inmates by secretly performing important Jewish rituals and ceremonies. Many have recounted how the Rebbe obtained matzah, lit the menorah and pronounced blessings in Bergen-Belsen at great risk to his life. To the young Jews who sat before him that night, the Rebbe seemed a passive figure, smiling and nodding in their direction. What thoughts must have crossed his mind of Tisha B’Avs long ago, of skeleton-like figures surrounding him, tears in their eyes as they recalled ancient and present losses of incalculable measure. Now in 1965, the Rebbe saw before him a different audience: young, strong Jewish men who knew no oppression, who knew the return to Zion and who venerated their elders who had suffered through the bitter war years. Did the Rebbe in any small way feel redeemed by the experience of hearing the haunting melody of the reader, the poignant words of Yirmiyahu enunciated by free Jewish voices in a country that had granted him refuge? Or was it simple thanks that he felt to Hashem that he had survived to reach that day? No one spoke much after the Ma’ariv Kinot were completed. Whatever he felt at that moment, clearly the Rebbe saw only fellow Jews before him—not Chassidim, Misnagdim, Ashkenazim or Sephardim. The Rebbe wished the reader a “Yasher Ko’ach,” walked slowly down the aisle of the shul and was helped into a car that took him to his bungalow.
The high degree of humility and modesty that characterized the Bluzhever Rebbe is further illustrated by an anecdote recently told to me by my cousin from Toronto. Apparently, my uncle Alex, the best fisherman in Hunter, had been planning a fishing trip to a location not far from town, a spot that had, in the past, never produced a satisfactory number of fish. Alex approached the Rebbe prior to starting out on his outing:
“Rebbe, can you give me a blessing so that I might have a successful fishing trip?”
The Rebbe thought for a while and then responded to Alex with: “Viyidgu larov bekerev ha’aretz” (…and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land).
Alex thanked the Rebbe for his blessing and headed out to the reservoir. Hours later Alex arrived at the shul for ma’ariv. Following the service, he approached the Rebbe.
“So how did it go, Alex?” the Rebbe asked in Yiddish.
“Don’t ask, Rebbe, I didn’t catch a thing!”
The Rebbe without hesitation said: “That should show you just how much my blessings are worth!”
Maybe Hunter wasn’t a utopia for all the numerous Jews who called it their summer home, but sharing time there with the Bluzhever Rebbe and others certainly raised the awareness of many to the common features of their existence as Jews and the superficial, and ultimately insignificant, nature of their differences. It can be safely said we need more “Hunters” in the future and fewer divisions amongst our people.
By Joseph Rotenberg