Chasidim and soldiers mix in a friendly setting.
Most of the 250,000 Jews who summered in the Catskills this year have boxed up the insides of their bungalows. Seasonal stores are shuttered. In the last nights before Labor Day, a local paper reports that in western Sullivan County the folksy Callicoon Center Band wrapped up its annual (since 1934) summer series with the old wartime ballad, “Till We Meet Again.” Over at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, writes the Times Herald-Record, on the site of Yasgur’s Farm, across a lake from the relics of summer, 71-year-old Bob Dylan sang with a snarl, either about himself or these mountains, “You think I’m over the hill? You think I’m past my prime?” The crowd of 7,000 shouted “No!” And then, reports the paper, Dylan “did a soft-shoe shuffle.”
Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club may be older than Dylan, but it’s just as nimble. Yossi Zablocki, Kutsher’s director of operations, tell us that on the weekend before Labor Day the kosher hotel simultaneously hosted 15 to 20 chasidim; Temple Beth Abraham, a Westchester synagogue offering Conservative and Reform services; 39 West Point cadets of various backgrounds and the Cantorial Council of America, a Modern Orthodox group. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” says Zablocki, “be a friendly place for the entire Jewish community.”
The lobby may be a friendly place, but the hotel needs separate shuls. So Kutsher’s is offering two Rosh HaShanah services, one Orthodox, one not. The Orthodox minyan, explains Zablocki, will be somewhat quick, “Young Israel-style,” led “by someone who’s been with us for several years, Chaim Kiss. He’s a ba’al tefillah, not a professional cantor but someone with a sweet voice who knows the service.” The non-Orthodox but “traditional” service, says Zablocki, will have “mixed seating, more English, the announcing of page numbers,” and a traditional professional cantor, David Pressler, backed up by “a choir comprised of Jewish opera singers from the New York area.”
Pressler is “well-versed in both Broadway and cantorial,” says Zablocki. “If you go on YouTube, you can hear him singing Broadway tunes. He tours the country doing shows with his wife. We had him performing one night at Kutsher’s over the he summer.”
At Kutsher’s, Zablocki balances not only the davening but the entertainment. On the one hand, he books full afternoons of serious lectures — that’s entertainment, for some — and, on the other hand, he presents Catskills staples such as Bingo, Simon Says, the Not-So-Newlywed game, “and even something we call Human Horse Racing,” presumably without whips. On Friday nights, there’s an Oneg Shabbat, with singing, more speakers, and cake, naturally. “But we’ll also have a comedy act without a microphone in one of our nightclub-style rooms,” says Zablocki, “so anyone can go, but it would still be Shabbos. We’re allowed to laugh on Shabbos, right?”
In fact, the differing guests laugh and mingle across the boundary lines more than some might suppose. “If you could only have seen havdalah,” says Zablocki, “the chasidim were dancing with the cadets! The whole dining room stayed to watch, a scene like you wouldn’t believe.”
There are usually about 60 or 70 Jewish cadets at West Point, “ranging from Orthodox to those who are ethnically Jewish,” says Susan K. Schwartz, a retired Navy captain beginning her 12th year at the United States Military Academy, and her ninth as faculty adviser for Jewish programming. “We have non-Jewish cadets come by, as well, “because they find the atmosphere at our Jewish chapel to be very welcoming and warm, and there’s good food.”
Every Wednesday — at 6:30 a.m., instead of the mandatory breakfast – several of the cadets get together for breakfast with the full-time Jewish chaplain, Major Henry Soussan, to “discuss different topics or the Torah portion,” says Schwartz, who is also director of the mandatory freshman course on information technology in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department.
“I have a wonderful relationship with the cadets and they are worth the time we put into them,” says Schwartz. “It’s pretty phenomenal that they volunteer to come to West Point at a time when they know it means going to war. When you’re with these young people, you wouldn’t know that there’s a problem in the world. We can only hope that everything is resolved before this group moves on.”
In mid-summer, the plebes (freshmen) arrive at West Point for six weeks of preliminary training, but on the last weekend before classes begin, the various campus groups go off on their separate “plebe retreats,” what the army calls “R-and-R” (rest and relaxation). This year, 39 Jewish plebes (28 men, 11 women), traveled to Kutsher’s, accompanied by Schwartz, the major, and some upperclassmen.
The cadets are “always willing to try new experiences,” says Schwartz, “so if chasidim grab their hands to start dancing, the cadets “are ready to have a good time.” The men cadets danced with the chasidic men, of course, while Schwartz says she and the women cadets happily danced in a circle all their own.
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