Ellenville is a depressed town. Many of the stores are closed and boarded up. There are a lot of auto-parts stores and McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts shops. The coffee at DD is sometimes pretty good but other times watery and tasteless. I’ve concluded over the few times I’ve taken my coffee there that the taste is contingent upon who is working behind the counter. In other words, either you know how to make coffee or you don’t.
The once-active shul in Ellenville also looks like its best days are somewhere in the past. After many years under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Frank, Chabad has taken over in the last few years and the rabbi is now Shloime Deren. He told me that he has been here about five years and has plans to revitalize the place but is just not there yet.
I davened Shacharis there once or twice and Minchah-Ma’ariv a bunch of other times. It is a large edifice on a huge property. The photos of the shul accompanying this article are fairly good-looking, but once you’re inside it’s a whole other story. There are a few Chabad families who are here for the summer and who are in walking distance to the shul, but not enough to make a minyan on any day, including Shabbos.
Still, for Minchah and Ma’ariv on the 17th of Tammuz, I counted over 30 people in the shul. About 24 of the men present were from Satmar communities like Williamsburg and Monroe. For now they are temporary residents of Ellenville; they and their families live near one another and daven in the Chabad shul.
The short story of why they are here is so that they can qualify for federal housing subsidies that are available out here but not in their home communities at present time. After a year of living here, they qualify for the subsidy that then follows them anywhere they choose to live going forward. At that point they return to their home communities and then a new group moves into Ellenville. They get their housing subsidies, and Chabad has a consistent minyan.
Rabbi Deren says he has plans to revitalize the Ellenville shul complex. He is planning on opening a yeshiva on the premises, but that would need a considerable investment in updating the structure and creating dormitory facilities. According to some of the locals here there is a mikvah project currently under way that will cost about $100,000.
Rabbi Frank, the rabbi emeritus, has lived here more than 35 years. One evening between Minchah and Ma’ariv we had a few minutes so we began talking. My main question was: What does a man living all his adult life here in Ellenville do? I can say one thing about all these years up here. Rabbi Frank has a calm and relaxed look on his face. A few times these past four weeks I heard him daven for the amud. His chazaras ha’shatz is beautifully deliberate and paced slowly enough to push anyone from the city in the direction of a little edginess.
Last week on the 17th of Tammuz, by the time Rabbi Frank finished reciting the Shemoneh Esrei aloud there was a discussion about whether we could say Tachanun because it was already after shkiyah. A compromise was worked out and we skipped Tachanun but recited Avinu Malkeinu.
It turns out that Rabbi Frank — who was in my brother Yossy’s class at Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway — has been a chaplain for many years at a maximum security prison facility not too far from Ellenville. You can observe by the way he talks about it that it is fulfilling work. He is at the prison five days a week, and several days a week he is there late into the evening.
I asked him about the Jewish prisoners, and he responded with a grin that thankfully there are not too many. As to what type of crimes these men had committed he says that he does not check into their personal files. He does not want to judge them but prefers to deal with the here-and-now reality of their imprisonment and assist in uplifting them spiritually.
I’m listening to him and I’m thinking that you do not meet people like Moshe Frank every day. I had to find myself in this corner of the Jewish world in order to meet him and get to know him. I asked about his children, who are all adults today, wondering where they are living, as I assumed not in Ellenville. I was not taking any notes since our talk was impromptu, but I recall him saying they’re in Lakewood, Dallas, Israel, and Brooklyn, plus a few other spots around the globe.
There is a full-time Jewish community here, but it is scattered and only minimally observant. Rabbi Frank says that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they draw about 100 people. I assume that is without the Satmar chevrah.
A few days ago, I took one more drive around the mountains to look for the locations I’ve been aiming to revisit from the beginning of our stay here. It was the afternoon of the fast day and we would not be eating before about 9:15 p.m. The two locations of this brief itinerary were Pine View Hill bungalow colony in Ulster Heights and the Pioneer Country Club in Greenfield Park, both just a few miles from Ellenville.
As the reader knows, I found Pine View Hill a couple of weeks ago but did not leave the car because of the heavy rain. This time the sun was shining brightly, and I walked around the grounds trying to conjure up old memories of a once 8-year-old boy.
The bungalow colony was not just built on a hill but rather on an actual mountain. To get anywhere here you had to climb steps. Kids do not think anything of steps. We hopped, skipped, and jumped, as well as walked or ran up no matter how many there were. And I think I remembered those steep stone stairways. Now they were mostly covered over with grass or weeds, but they have withstood the test of time the way most mountains do.
I walked up to the top of the stairs to survey what once was. Off to my left, as I mentioned previously, was the dilapidated wood structure that was our grocery and shul. Now it is a building that sits in silence. A little further up was a home that looked abandoned but like it was once a large bungalow. But that was the only other structure that remained up here. Everything else was gone.
Undeterred by the passage of all this time, I consulted with my brother Binyomin and asked how I could find the Pioneer. There is a road not far from where we are living this month called Old Greenfield Road. Before I consulted him there was something about that name that stuck in my head. I have never previously driven down such a narrow, bumpy, and unkempt road like this. There were a few houses here and there but mostly there was nothing, not even signs of previous life.
Binyomin told me that the Pioneer was in a hamlet known as Greenfield Park but that it was located on Mountaindale Road. If you ever try to put the name of a hotel that closed four or five years ago into Waze you can be certain it will not be there.
The next clue was the clincher. Binyomin said that Camp Horim was located on the grounds off the old Pioneer Country Club. The camp is listed in Waze so there was hope. We drove down Mountaindale Road a bit, and then suddenly there it was: A sign for Camp Horim. Due to the pandemic the camp is not operational this year, so all I could do was stand outside the locked gates to see if I recognized anything.
I spotted some of the old buildings that I think I recognized. The buildings had a brown trim around the windows, and I think the buildings were mostly maintained; it looks like the color scheme, if there ever was such a thing, was also the same.
The history of the Pioneer Country Club is in some ways reflective of the evolution of Jewish life here in America. But that is an elaborate theory and even longer story that we will leave for another week.
For now, the idea to grapple with is whether a broken-down, branch-strewn country road can really take you on a ride through memories of the greatness of what once was. Had you asked me that at any other time, I would have been uncertain. But after last week’s excursion, it looks like not only is it possible, but we definitely proved that it can be done.