February 20, 2024
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February 20, 2024
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Hunter Expulsion of 2023 in Context: In Defense of Hunter

At least two articles and many social media posts recently went viral alleging that a large multi-generational Orthodox Jewish family of over 30 people at a hotel in the historic Catskill Mountains town of Hunter, New York, was expelled on a Shabbat because some children were deemed noisy.

The hotel has put out a statement claiming that its mass eviction on the Sabbath was merely a response to noise that caused other guests to check out early, as well as their concerns for the safety of the children. However, the statement (1) didn’t deny that the hotel was notified in advance about the intended presence of many children; (2) didn’t describe any of the dangers the children purportedly faced or posed; (3)did not address the claim that the hotel rejected an offer by the parents to stay in their rooms with their children for the balance of the Shabbat; (4)failed to address the point that if the objecting guests had already checked out on their own, the children could no longer have bothered them. The hotel now says that all are welcome and its administration is working with community leaders to demonstrate that this is the case.

This writer will let others deal with the follow-up, andwill just discuss the fallout, to put it all in perspective and to assure everyone that the town of Hunter should always be remembered for its wonderful role in Jewish history rather than for the recent occurrence, which should not besmirch the good name of the town and most of its residents. Hunter should continue to be visited for the reasons that have made it a special place for so many Jews for over a century, for its wonderful Jewish vacationers to associate and interact with; and for its historic synagogues – past and present.

At the turn of the century, Hunter was the place to be every summer for many of the elite traditional Jews of New York. It is situated at a higher altitude than “the other side” of the Catskill Mountains – notably Liberty and Monticello – and has been likened to Switzerland for its scenery and fresh, cool mountain air, even during much of the summer.

My great-grandfather, Harry Fischel, the well-known Orthodox Jewish philanthropist of his era, built in Hunter what was reputedly the first free-standing synagogue in the Catskills in 1906. (Photo appears opposite page 60 in the biography published in 1928 and was augmented in 2012, also on a commercial postcard; see photo below.)

Harry Fischel also renovated a huge private house around that time, adding a built-in mikvah and sukkah. The building is now a nationally registered historic place (though “the Fairlawn” as it is now known, is currently a boutique first-class bed and breakfast without the mikvah and sukkah). The synagogue across the street was built in part with construction material he donated.

This postcard depicts the original shul built by Harry Fischel, not the current shul to which he merely contributed. The postcard was issued some time in the first half of the previous century, and on the back it says “SOUVENIR POST CARD CO., NEW YORK. PRINTED IN GERMANY.” [Hunter was known even in Germany, presumably before the Holocaust. If only more Jews would have known…!]
During the Holocaust, my grandfather, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein (subject of my book The Maverick Rabbi, 1984, 1986) who had vacationed in Hunter even before he met and married my grandmother, one of Fischel’s daughters, delivered sermons there. (What else is a rabbi to do on his “vacation”?) He is most noted, to this day, for his appeals in the 1940s for hatzalah, which in those days referred to saving Jews from the Nazis rather than transporting Jews to hospitals and applying first aid – not to denigrate the need for this, of course. (My grandfather also made appeals for many other organizations from that pulpit, then and in later years. Helping individuals and charities when occupying pulpits seems to have been in his DNA.) In the 1960s, Hunter attracted leaders of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (the Council of Leading Jewish Torah Sages), notably Rabbi Shmuel Shmaya Wiesner OBM of the Wiesner House, the Bobover Rebbe, zt”land the Bluzhever Rebbe, zt”l along with many less notable personalities. Among the many other families that vacationed there in those days were those of Rabbi Naftali Friedler of Breuers of blessed memory, Rav Dovid Singer OBM of Borough Park, and l’havdil ben chaim l’chaim, Rabbi Yehuda Parnes of Yeshiva University and then Touro, as well as some of my childhood friends, including Abie Rotenberg before he became a world-famous composer, and his cousin Joseph Rotenberg OBM, my classmate and part-time Hunter baal korei who wrote a book entitled Timeless Travels (2017), with a moving and meaningful chapter about Hunter (“A Call for Unity – The Hunter Shul”). Not everyone was traditional, but all were welcome – and still are.

The president of the shul in my youth was Israel Slutzky of the Slutzky brothers who built the Hunter Mountain Ski Slope and pioneered artificial snow to supplement what nature provided. I had the privilege of serving as gabbai of the Hunter shul during my teen years, with the responsibility of giving out the honors and making sure there was a suitable bal korei and chazzan for all the services. I also composed the announcements for the president to read Shabbat morning. I’ll never forget how the president slightly altered the text I prepared for the Shabbat when the Chief Rabbi of England was present. Mr. Slutzky announced, “We welcome the father-in-law of Michelle Tauber, and the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire” (who was then Lord Immanuel Jakobovits),identifying these two people in that order!

One of the landmarks in the Jewish community in Hunter was the gated mini-community known as Margareten Park, named for Horowitz and Margareten, one of the “big three” matzah companies for decades. When young boys took turns collecting coins for the charity box at every weekday service, Mr. Fred Margareten would have us come to him every Sunday morning, open the charity box in his presence, and he would match the total for that morning (the largest haul of the week). At the end of the summer, he would ask me (and later my brother) for the names of 10 of the most consistent boys who attended the daily minyan, and he would mail each a box seat ticket to a Yankee baseball game plus spending money, with a meaningful cover letter. The summer visitors were and remain clearly more traditional than the yearly residents, but for 35 years the gap was bridged on the High Holidays by the charismatic Rabbi Jonathan Krug and Rabbi Benzion Sheinfeld.

Rabbi Neal Harris continues to serve as an anchor for the summer and year ’round communities. He has a small bed and breakfast in Hunter and hosts a website as well, Huntershul.com, to serve the needs of the community.

Coming full circle, I continue to be impressed by the warmth and spirit of the religious vacationers who share positive childhood memories, and whose families therefore keep returning, for generations, along with complete newcomers. Nobody should be deterred by the infamous incident that allegedly took place recently, or the response or over-response that triggered this article. To reiterate, the hotel’s official position is that all are welcome.

Update from Rabbi Neal Harris:

“I am pleased to report that a meeting was held with the town supervisor and members of both the Hunter and Tannersville Jewish community regarding the incident at the Hunter Lodge. [The hotel was not represented at the meeting.] The meeting was both positive and productive. Future meetings are being planned to address our concerns. I wish to thank those that participated for their time and efforts on our behalf.”

Rabbi Reichel is an attorney, administrator, and author. This article was written as his personal response to the incident described. He does not claim to know all the facts involved, as they are still being gathered and analyzed.

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