Larry Gordon and Rabbi Mordechai Jungreis

The seed of the idea was planted a few weeks ago when we realized that there was a real possibility summer camps might not be opening this season. In addition, our customary journey to Eretz Yisrael may have to be scratched from the summer schedule as well.

Hotels are closed, travel to Florida is not looking that good, Europe is just about out of the question. Staying home, well that is an obvious choice but way too easy as well as disappointing.

By Larry Gordon

Someone on the family committee suggested a summer home in the Catskills, but where do you find something big enough to accommodate the entire family? Let’s jump for a moment to the end of the story. Right now, as I type these words, I am working from a table covered by a tan umbrella at the side of a pool, with part of the family swimming the afternoon away on what has become a sultry 90-degree, second-day-of-summer afternoon.

I’ve always had an affinity for the Catskills. I spent my early years here in a bungalow colony near Ellenville, New York. As I probably mentioned in the past, this was the bungalow colony where my grandparents babysat us, as my parents spent most summers in Israel dating back to 1963.

After that period, we spent about four summers in camp, and then as we became of age, we were somewhat on our own. Fast-forward a bit and we were married with kids and back in a bungalow colony again for about a decade as the kids grew up and were being groomed for sleepaway camp.

As we sit here now, we do not know what the fate of camp is going to be for this summer. Day camps look safe for now but what about the tens of thousands of young people who anticipate spending an idyllic summer with friends in sleepaway camp?

The short version of this story is that we are back in Ellenville — Exit 113 on Route 17. We will be here for a month and then we will see which direction this virus, that is apparently full of personality, will travel. Maybe we will be able to go to Israel after all.

If you are an aficionado of the Catskills then you will say that Ellenville is in a valley and is extremely hot in the summer. Well, it had better be hot, because it’s the summer, and up here this is what we wait for all year long.

The memories of life up here are numerous, and at certain junctures, life-changing. So now that I am back in Ellenville after a few decades, let me bring you up to date about life here — that is, how I remember it and what I found so far this week.

One of the fascinating things is how some of the properties that we used to frequent have remained the same, other than the fact that they are just rotting away. The deterioration seems to take a very long time because most of the buildings as I remember them are still standing, but just barely.

Chaise lounges at the Homowack Hotel

I knew, for example, that on the way up to our summer rental we would pass the turnoff from Route 209 to Spring Glen, New York, and the site of the Homowack Hotel. If you do not remember the Homowack then you are very young. We spent Pesach at the hotel twice, Shavuos more than several times, and Sukkos as far as I can recall just once. Our son Nison’s bar mitzvah, which took place on Shavuos, was celebrated up here with 50 members of our family and close friends. I didn’t want to tell Esta that I wanted to make a quick stop at the hallowed and desolate grounds of the Homowack, so I waited until we were just a mile from the turnoff. That’s when I said, “I have to pull off the road here just to see the Homowack for a few minutes.”

I looked around the hotel grounds, at what used to be the main entrance, and at the long building that featured floor-to-ceiling glass and was once the dining room where strategically placed tables were coveted by many guests. In a nutshell, the place is silent and dead, but the memories are very much alive.

I pictured us sitting under a tree over there with friends on a yom tov afternoon. Across the road was the lake where the row boats were always in increasing disrepair as the seasons went by. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to be on a sinking boat that was it. Today in 2020, the old Homowack is just deteriorating, fading away.

The place looks like it has not been touched in the more than two decades since they closed down. This wasn’t just another hotel that closed down due to a plethora of market conditions that made it economically impossible to operate. For as long as they were around, the Homowack was a hub of Jewish life and activity. When the few hundred hotel rooms went on sale a few weeks prior to Pesach or Shavuot, all the rooms were sold out within a day. If you lagged behind in making your reservation you had to know someone in order to get in.

But now it is eerily quiet on those grounds. As I scanned the landscape, my eyes absorbed great memories and filed them away wherever those things are mentally stored.

On Monday afternoon, we drove the 10 miles to Woodbourne. That shul that has come alive thanks to the selfless around-the-clock work of the shul’s rav, Rabbi Mordechai Jungreis. Shacharis minyanim begin at 6 a.m., and the last Ma’ariv might be two or three o’clock in the morning.

We stepped onto the expansive back porch of the shul where the minyanim are held on beautiful warm days like this one. When I arrived with my grandson Dovid, there were just a few people sitting at tables and learning. A few minutes later there were 50 people wearing face masks and positioned in a socially distanced manner to daven Minchah.

It is still a little early in the season, so minyanim that are not attached to communities or bungalow colonies are a little sparse. At the main shul in Ellenville, there is no Shacharis or Minchah minyan and we had to wait about 20 extra minutes to patch together a minyan for Ma’ariv at 10 p.m.

It looks like on most mornings we will be making the trip to Congregation Bnai Israel of Woodbourne. After Minchah, the rabbi announced that this is the 100th anniversary of the shul. There is certainly a great deal of history packed into those 100 years.

Before we left, I asked what time the latest minyan for Shacharis would be the next morning. He looked straight at me and, with a little smirk, said that he received a psak, or rabbinic ruling, that the latest he can say the morning services are held is at noon. Some of you reading this will gasp, but I have heard that it is not unusual to have people davening Shacharis here at two o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, you just davened at home for three months straight; give those late risers a break.

There’s great Jewish history up here in this part of New York that was once so thoroughly Jewish, it was affectionately referred to as the Borscht Belt. If I am recalling correctly, I believe borscht was indeed an item listed on the Homowack lunch menu. But while there is still a lot going on up here, I don’t think borscht is being served anywhere.

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