Preserving the Jewish legacy of the Catskills is a "holy" task for Phil Brown and others who spent many of their formative years there.
Brown showed images of the gateposts of the Catskills’ defunct, demolished hotels and bungalow colonies, comparing them to the Jewish admonition to write words of remembrance on the doorposts of our homes. In a reference to Dvarim, he added that it was only after 40 years of wandering in the desert that we were once again to have doorposts and gates.
But despite the years of decline, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), Jews are still in the Catskills.
In the old days in little towns across Sullivan County, synagogues took root – some simple, some truly elegant.
Jewish farmers arrived in the 1890s, but synagogues were few and far between, so groups of farmers jointly hired teachers for their children. The teacher lived with each family for a month in turn. Families traveled long distances for kosher food, and could barely gather a minyan for the Holidays. HIAS also sent teachers.
Some families kept Torah scrolls in their homes for as long as 10 years, and welcomed tiny congregations into their houses until permanent structures could be built, and itinerant rabbis led services.
Mountaindale’s shul was built in 1919, South Fallsburg in 1920 and the elegant Livingston Manor congregation in 1924. Brown showed slides of the Ellenville congregation, of the Liberty Street shul in Monticello, and of Beth El in Kauneonga Lake. Few knew that the last was named Beth El because Kauneonga is in the town of Bethel.
Some 11 of these synagogues are on the National Register of Historic Sites, and details include large stained-glass windows, fan windows, and so-called Mission-style architectural elements which, says Brown, were really taken from details of Polish wooden synagogues.
Into the 1950s, some congregations kept their minutes in Yiddish, while larger hotels published their own prayerbooks and had their own wine labels on Shabbat bottles. Some had dedicated rooms for synagogues, while others held services in card rooms.
Commenting on the increasing trend of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidim coming to the Catskills, Brown said that because these groups have large families, long-distance travel is often impractical. They also require organized communities for ritual observance and learning, as well as large housing units.
In some ways, says Brown, these new groups resemble the original Jewish settlers in 1890 and later vacationers in the 1940s-1950. They are observant and are building communities. The downside is that these major religious communities are exempt from taxes and, according to conference attendees, Sullivan County residents now have increasing taxes to pay for county services.
A new development drawing people to the Catskills is the magnificent new Bethel Arts Center on the Yasgur Farm/Woodstock site. On Saturday night, the Boston Pops performed to an audience of 12,000.