New York State Judge Glenn Suddaby decided late Monday that it was not in the interest of the health of New Yorkers for sleepaway camps to be open this summer. The long-awaited decision is a great disappointment to tens of thousands of Jewish families whose children look forward to spending an educationally important summer in the healthy and idyllic environment of the Catskill Mountains and other areas in upstate New York.
In rendering his decision, Judge Suddaby acknowledged that his action was a violation of the campers’ First Amendment rights of freedom of religion, but he wrote that the potential risk of a health crisis up there outweighs the usual need to protect those rights.
It seems that the one factor that moved the judge in the direction of not allowing sleepaway camps to open was the thin and very wanting healthcare system located in the Catskill region, one that could instantly collapse with the most minimal outbreak of any type of disease. He pointed out that two hospitals in the Catskills have only 160 beds and 15 ICU beds.
While that was the judge’s strongest argument, it was also his weakest. It was surprising that the attorneys representing the coalition of Jewish camps did not point to the sophisticated and efficient health network that Catskills Hatzalah has built over these many years and how they feature a great number of well-trained paramedics and EMTs to respond to any type of urgent health situation.
It should have also been pointed out that Hatzalah has developed outstanding relationships with New York City hospitals that are less than two hours away, not to mention the Westchester Medical Center that is an hour away.
If the judge’s major consideration was the potential burden on the health system upstate he could have been swayed in the other direction when made aware of the above reality.
As far as the local Catskills hospitals’ ability to perform under even routine circumstances it has been common knowledge for decades that the healthcare dispensed by the local medical facilities does not match up to the care in New York City hospitals. That the local hospitals would not be able to effectively handle a COVID-19 related emergency should not have been the factor that made the judge lean in the direction he did.
Finally, it is always dangerous when the judicial system finds a way to subvert our First Amendment freedoms and especially religious freedom. If the decision is appealed, it is likely that the appeals court decision would allow our summer camps to open considering the healthcare precautions they were ready to take. However, with the camp season as short as it is, it may be too late for that.
If Jewish life these days is at a crossroads, then Orthodox Jewish life may be at a dangerous intersection. Israel once again is on the verge of implementing a nationwide lockdown due to the re-emergence of COVID-19, and that is troubling on a number of levels to us all.
Here in the U.S., many of the givens of Orthodox Jewish life, such as summer sleepaway camps and yeshiva openings, are no longer absolutes, leaving many families’ lifestyles somewhat up in the air.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Allen Fagin, the immediate past executive vice-president of the Orthodox Union whose retirement from the helm of the organization took effect on July 1, after six-and-a-half years of service. There are few people in Jewish life who have a better view of the challenges that face Orthodoxy in these modern times.
It is impossible to interview a prominent Jewish leader these days without asking about the impact of the COVID-19 virus on Jewish communal life. The impact has been both varied and dramatic.
One of the many things that the OU provides to its national constituency is synagogue services. There are shuls around the country that proudly identify themselves as OU synagogues, and one of the matters that they find themselves unexpectedly confronting is how to react or what policies to adapt in view of the coronavirus.
To that end, I asked Allen Fagin if there is any kind of uniform policy that the OU was able to recommend to their shuls or if this was one situation where adapting such a policy was just not possible. He said. “It is vital that each rabbi or rav along with their board develop an appropriate policy on shul policy as it applies to the virus and the terrible damage it has done to so many.”
As our shuls begin to open with restrictions, however, the next big consideration is what happens when it comes time for school to start and for our yeshivas to open. Mr. Fagin says that he believes schools will be able to open, albeit with new policies and schedules that maintain social distancing and continue some aspect of the distance learning that has dominated our educational process since March.
As Allen Fagin retires from the daily grind of running a massive organization like the OU, his plan is to remain very much involved. He says that this is the second time in his life that he is retiring. Prior to joining the OU from 1976 until 2013, Allen was with the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP. He was the firm’s chairman from 2005 to 2011. During Mr. Fagin’s years at the firm it grew to 750 lawyers and more than 1,500 employees.
He retired in 2013, not to relax, but to pursue his passion of making a contribution to Jewish communal life. Two people will fill his shoes: Orthodox Union executive vice president Rabbi Moshe Hauer and executive vice president and COO Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph. We need all the luck and all the talent that we can find.
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