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.

(page 2 of 3)

We were grouped with our classmates from school, 30 or so girls per bunk sharing 15 cast iron bunk beds that had spongy mattresses. There were Williamsburg bunks and Monroe bunks, sprinkled with foreigners from Montreal, Belgium and other Satmar satellite communities.

There was a distinct hierarchy, both within the bunkhouses and without. Each bunk had four to six counselors — 10th-grade Satmar girls who were in charge of maintaining the bunk. Above them were the head counselors who came to check on the bunk’s tidiness once or twice a day. For the nighttime bed routine, counselors we called ODs (those who served “overnight duty”) would turn off the lights and check on us every half-hour until their bedtime, moving from bunk to bunk with an air of importance. Outside the bunkhouse we were grouped in classes for the entire stay, with two or four teachers, who were 11th-graders, per class; in these groups we would play sports and engage in other activities together.

Above the teachers were two head teachers, 12th-grade girls. Above them was the administrative staff, including one tough man I remember only as Viggy, whose voice froze the girls in fear. He would sometimes resort to draconian measures to get the girls in line: If campers were late for Friday night gefilte fish plating duties, he would demand they hand over prized possessions. At the bottom of the heap were the logos (Hungarian for “bum”, understood in Hasidic Yiddish as “good-for-nothings”), 11th-grade girls who did odd jobs around camp, working in the kitchen or the bakery. Often they were the ones who had the most fun.

Domestic chores were part of the camp experience. If you arrived at camp without knowing how to launder your clothes or scrub a toilet bowl, you left there a pro. From the seventh grade we were responsible for bunk maintenance, a task unheard of at other ultra-Orthodox girls camps. After we unpacked our things and met our counselors, we were each assigned a basic bunk chore, with the 15-year-old counselors in charge of the heavy-duty scrubbing. We had to keep our towels folded and color-coded, with the detergent containers lined on top of the lockers: big Tide next to medium Tide, and big Downy next to medium Downy. The counselors were meticulous about the bunk’s appearance, often competing against other bunk counselors in neatness and in color coding. When I became a counselor in the 10th grade, I toiled away to make bedspreads to spruce up the dingy bunk, measuring and cutting the blue-and-white polka-dotted material that I had purchased with the other bunk counselors.

I remember waking before dawn to use a machine in the camp’s washroom. Saving a washing machine was tricky. There were only a few machines for the entire camp, and most everyone was in on the secret that rising early was the best way to secure one for the day. When you were finished with the machine, you made sure your friend got to use it next, and she did the same for her friend.

Competition was at the core of camp life. The ninth-graders, who were the oldest campers, were divided in two teams, the Williamsburgers and the Monroers. Seventh- and eighth-graders were then assigned to either team, but generally ended up with their hometown peers. The two teams were assigned Hebrew names and competed against each other in everyday sports, such as elimination dodge ball (or what we called “lemination”), as well as in the two major summer festivities: color war and sports war. Whatever the occasion, whatever the time of day, we screamed our throats dry trying to out-cheer the other team. We jumped and clapped and yelled till our voices were hoarse. For the majority of our activities, we sat in the shpilhoyz, a gym with rows of bleachers and a stage, screaming as if Derek Jeter were hitting a game-winning home run in the last at-bat of his career.



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