My Time at Satmar Summer Camp

Cleaning, Competitions and Crushes Dominate the Experience at the Hasidic Girls Camp

Fiddlers on the Roof: Four 11th-grade girls announce the beginning of color war, one of the many competitive activities at Machne Rav Tov in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. More than 1,000 girls from the insular Satmar communities in Williamsburg and Monroe attend the camp each summer.
Frimet Goldberger
Fiddlers on the Roof: Four 11th-grade girls announce the beginning of color war, one of the many competitive activities at Machne Rav Tov in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. More than 1,000 girls from the insular Satmar communities in Williamsburg and Monroe attend the camp each summer.

By Frimet Goldberger

Published July 06, 2014, issue of July 11, 2014.
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Recently my 9-year-old son came home from school demanding I sign him up for sleep-away camp, which, he insisted, his best friend is attending for the entire summer. I nearly fell off the chair imagining my kid, who often forgets to remove his pajamas before he puts on his shorts on summer mornings, fending for himself.

As it turns out, his best friend is going for only the Sabbath, to a camp with round-the-clock adult supervision. It’s a camp, I am sure, unlike the one I attended for four summers of my life — four summers of wonderful memories captured in the snapshots I keep in a maroon photo album.

Machne Rav Tov, alternatively called Zupnick Camp, was the first Satmar girls camp. Situated off a narrow road in Kerhonkson, New York, a small hamlet in Ulster County, Machne Rav Tov was an expansive facility, with rows of green, white and yellow brick bunks lining dirt paths, paved roadways and stretches of sun-stained grass.

The camp hosted 1,000 Satmar girls, ranging in age from 10 to 18. In addition to the campers, members of the administrative staff and their large families occupied bunks around campus, instilling the grounds with the familiar feel of home.

I was in seventh grade when I first attended camp for four weeks. I don’t recall much from that first summer, but I distinctly remember crushing so hard on the 10th-grade bunk counselors I did not want to say goodbye. They were from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg; we were from Monroe, or Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York. Monroers, as we were dubbed, were mostly yuntchy — Hungarian Yiddish slang for “dorky and unsophisticated” — and therefore inferior to the more sophisticated city girls, or the Williamsburgers, as we called them.

Crushes were commonplace, usually occurring across the city/suburban line. Most crushes were petty and childish, but some developed into full-blown emotional or physical affairs. Although I never experienced or witnessed one of these same-sex couplings, friends tell me they occurred occasionally and that there were covert spots around campus where lovers would hide out. (I must have been terribly clueless then, since I never caught on to any illicit affairs.) This is not surprising, given the sheer number of hormonally charged adolescent girls and their latent sexual desires. For some girls, Hasidic camp was the place where they had their first intimate encounter with another human being.

On the first day of camp, I was dropped off in the back of the Kiryas Joel shopping center, with three cardboard boxes full of my belongings, labeled and triple taped for the bumpy ride. My mother and I spent weeks shopping for camp — an essential part of the experience. I matched shelf liners with cosmetic bags and storage containers to ensure that my locker was the sleekest-looking in the bunk. I packed a clip-on fan, along with a big bowl and cup for negel vaser, the ritual washing of hands before getting out of bed; I folded and refolded the washed-out beige floral linen, repurposed for camp usage from my parents’ beds, and filled the gaps in between clothing and towels in my luggage with copious snack bags. I also packed a hefty box of powder Tide detergent for doing laundry, a chore I helped with at home, but one for which I would be solely responsible at camp.


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