Wednesday, August 06, 2014

At New York Camp, Hasidic Boys Study and Shun Sports 

Although they are at the heart of one of the nation’s largest sleep-away boys’ camps, the dozen basketball courts at Camp Rav Tov D’Satmar are crumbling from disuse, with weeds sprouting from cracked playing surfaces and hoops either sheared off or rusting.

The baseball fields, which like the courts are left from when the sprawling property was the Kutsher’s Sports Academy, are overgrown, the basepaths hard to spot, the ramshackle bleachers near collapse.

Sports like basketball and baseball are not the point of a summer at Rav Tov, a camp for 3,000 Hasidic boys that is 90 miles north of New York City in the heart of what was once the Catskill borscht belt. Indeed, those sports are forbidden.

“Our rabbi doesn’t want it,” said Zelig Parnes, 13, who was dressed on a sunny July day in a black silken coat bound by a sash at the waist and a beaver homburglike hat that framed his long sidelocks.

With similar garb, Lazer Berkowitz, 13, agreed.

“What is the goal from this?” he asked, speaking of the playing fields.

Camp Rav Tov (the name means “lots of good”) is not your summer camp of color wars, campfires and lanyards. Instead, these boys, ages 9 to 13, rise at 6:45 every morning and study the Torah or the Talmud before breakfast, eat and then study some more — a total of more than six hours throughout the day. They bend or sway animatedly over dog-eared volumes of the Talmud at long plywood desks and grapple with such questions as, in Zelig’s words, “If someone borrows a cow and the cow dies, does he have to pay the man who loaned it?” Almost no one is well tanned.

“When you’re learning you have geshmack,” said Lazer, using the Yiddish word for delight to explain why he prefers studying Gemara to playing basketball.

There is a camp motorboat and a livestock pen. But even leisure-time activities tend toward the Talmudic.

Once a summer, a sheep is sheared to show the boys the source of wool used in the tzitzit — the fringes attached to a prayer shawl or a poncholike ritual undergarment. They view a display of miniature models of the Holy Temple and other iconic Jewish sites. On the yahrzeit, or anniversary, of the death of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who established the Satmar sect in the United States with a scattering of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, the boys take buses to Kiryas Joel, N.Y., to visit his grave (according to the Western calendar he died on Aug. 19, 1979).

It was Rabbi Teitelbaum who said that those who grew up playing ball would spend time playing ball as adults.

“It’s like smoking, you get more and more addicted,” Yoel Landau, the camp manager, explained of the power of sporting activities.

The boys, like campers everywhere, savor time with friends, many of whom they know from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where many of them live. They say they love the camp food. They relish the chances to scamper across the green fields.

The cost for nine weeks at the camp averages $1,500, depending on family income, and many of the boys’ parents vacation in the bungalow colonies around Monticello.

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“When the boys are here nine weeks, they’re away from all the problems of the city,” Mr. Landau said. “The drugs, the busyness, the heat. Here they can study. Their head is more relaxed. That’s why Rabbi Joel made this camp.”

Rav Tov, which leased the property from Kutsher’s in 2008 and now owns it, is one of seven camps operated by one of the two Satmar factions. The Aroynem, which operates Rav Tov, also runs Machne Bais Rochel D’Satmar, a camp for 2,200 girls in nearby South Fallsburg. There, in addition to swimming sessions and cultural trips, the girls can spend summer days learning how to cook, shop and care for children. The Zaloynim have their own camps.

At Rav Tov, the boys swim (the Talmud instructs fathers to teach their sons to swim), hike occasionally in the woods and play Frisbee. There are races, though those too have an instructional purpose. In one, boys sprint back and forth gathering “tickets” with the names of Talmud portions that their fathers are studying. Zelig, the camper, also points out that six times a day they have to climb the stairs of the three-story pedestrian bridge that connects the clusters of bunks to the cluster of classroom buildings.

“You can lose a lot of weight that way,” he said.

But even exercise is hedged by rigorous Hasidic traditions. Men and women — the wives and daughters of the camp’s teachers and counselors — swim at separate sessions and the pool is hidden behind a tall plywood fence, to safeguard modesty. Swimming is forbidden during the nine days preceding and including Tisha B’Av, the mournful fast day that marks the anniversary of the First and Second Temples’ destruction (it began at sundown on Monday this year).

On a recent day in Rabbi Chaim Teller’s class, two dozen 10- and 11-year-olds were learning about the lulav and esrog — the palm frond and citron that combined with myrtle and willow are brandished and shaken during prayers for the Succoth holiday. Rabbi Teller asked, If a lulav is borrowed, does it fulfill the Torah’s commandment? The rabbinical debate concludes that it must be owned the first day but can be borrowed the second day, Rabbi Teller said. The boys seemed to hang on his words.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Mr. Landau said. “They don’t feel like they miss something. Their mind is busy all day.”


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