My Time at Satmar Summer Camp
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.
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.
The competition of the two teams was so cutthroat that we would avoid conversing with the other team, especially during color war and sports war. It was on these occasions, and when the now-deceased grand rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, would visit, that the creative and artistic souls among us got a chance to shine. Looking back at some of my glossy developed photos, I am in awe of the artistry and talent we exhibited. From carving fiddles and stars out of wood to pasting Popsicle sticks into miniature houses in the shape of shoes, we were prolific and creative.
In our free time we produced elaborate mock weddings, baked bread pizzas in home-bought sandwich presses and flooded our bunks with water for amusement, dancing in shower slippers and floral housecoats, until the head counselor reprimanded us.
My most vivid memories of Machne Rav Tov are of Friday night meals. For the Sabbath, most girls received pekelekh, care packages, from home. We would run over to the designated mail spot on Friday afternoons and rummage through the boxes to find our own. Some girls got moving-size boxes full of jellies and snack packs, but I usually received a small box containing two home-baked bilkelekh, which are small challahs, along with some traditional tomato dip and a bag of home-baked rugelach, among other simple food items. Every bite of challah filled me with longing and nostalgia for home. We would eat through our care packages and sing for hours the familiar hometown Sabbath songs. When one of the male figures in the camp would make his way up the lunchroom path, he would send someone to alert us of his arrival so that we could hush the singing. (Orthodox men are prohibited from hearing a woman sing, a rule known as kol isha.)
Four weeks flew by quickly. At the end of the summer, I left feeling satisfied and terribly hoarse. Despite the fact that my camp experience was not all positive (I did dread sharing my personal space with so many others), and that I was feeling rather homesick toward the end, I cried a little before I left. New friends from different towns exchanged phone numbers and addresses and promised to stay in touch over the winter. I kept up a correspondence with one Williamsburg girl for some time over the next few years.
It’s hard to believe that now I am not far off from sending my own child to sleep-away camp — where I hope he will not have to scrub toilets and floors. Although, I’m sure that would benefit his mother greatly.
Frimet Goldberger is a frequent contributor to the Forward.