Hasidic sleepaway camps in Catskills ask court to let them open this summer – Times Herald-Record

Posted By on June 24, 2020

Chris McKenna|Times Herald-Record

The operators of sleepaway camps in the Catskills attended by thousands of Hasidic children, from Orange and Rockland counties, Brooklyn and elsewhere, are fighting in court to open those camps this week despite the objections of state health officials.

A Jewish camp organization that sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his closure decision in federal court in Albany last week filed a motion on Monday for the judge hearing the case to issue temporary orders to let their camps open as planned on Thursday while the lawsuit is pending.

The state's refusal to let overnight camps open because of coronavirus fears has vexed Orthodox families from New York and New Jerseythat send their children to camps in the Catskills every summer for religion-infused recreation. The Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel alone has thousands of kids that attend camps in Sullivan and Ulster counties.

Camp operators had sent Sullivan County officials a letter in early May, urging them to support the opening of camps and stressing the protective measures they planned to take and their ability to "enforce a full and total lockdown" if anyone caught COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. They also noted the camps' economic value to the county.

"Camps, traditionally, pump many millions of dollars into the local economy," the letter read. "We love Sullivan County and see ourselves as partners in an economically viable and safe environment."

At least one Satmar summer camp has found temporary quarters in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania to continue operating this year. Machne Rav Tov Satmar, which is in the Ulster County hamlet of Kerhonkson and caters to girls in grades 9-11, hasrented bungalows in Wayne County, Pa., for its programs this summer, the Brooklyn website BoroPark24 reported last week.

New York has allowed day camps to open on June 29 but ruled out overnight campingthis summer. In a statement on June 12, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, said that the group settings and sleeping quarters at sleepaway camps made it too difficult to maintain social distancing and control the spread of the virus.

"In such a setting, even a single positive case in a camper or staff member could create an untenable quarantine situation and overwhelm camp health personnel that may not be able to handle a serious infectious outbreak of this nature," Zucker said.

The federal lawsuit filed on Thursday by the Association of Jewish Camp Operators and four parents argues that the prohibition violates religious rights and is inconsistent with the state letting other non-essential activities proceed. It zeroes in particularly on the large public demonstrations against racism that have taken place for weeks in New York with Cuomo's support.

The suit emphasizes the religious immersion and separation from the secular world afforded by the summer camps.

"Jewish overnight camps foster a sense of cultural identity and instill traditional religious values in Jewish children," the case read."In Jewish overnight camps, they jointly recite prayers three times a day. Part of every day is devoted to religious study. They recite blessings over the food they eat throughout the day."

Though coronavirus infections are relatively low among children, Cuomo has pointed to the risk that those who do catch the virus can develop a potentially deadly illness known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which resembles Kawasaki disease and causes organs to become inflamed.

"Nobody knows what the virus does longer term and thisKawasaki-like syndrome is the first glimpse that we're seeing that couldaffectchildren," Cuomo said in a radio interview last week.

Among the larger Satmar camps in the Catskills are Camp Rav Tov D'Satmar, a boys camp near Monticello that had roughly 3,000 campers from ages 9 to 13 as of 2014, according to an article that year in the New York Times. Also cited in that story was Machne Bais Rochel in South Fallsburg, which was attended by about 2,200 girls.

More than 40,000 kids in all attend camps represented by the Association of Jewish Camp Operators, according to the federal lawsuit. The case outlines numerous steps the camps plan to take to protect campers and staff from the coronavirus, including banning anyone with a high-risk medical history or any staffer over 50 who doesn't test positive for antibodies indicatingthey already had and overcame COVID-19.

"These health protocols will ensure that the overnight camps are as safe, if not safer, than the State-approved child care and day camp programs," the complaint read. "These protocols include mandatory and recommended practices relating to protective equipment, recreational and food activities, hygiene, cleaning, and disinfection, communication, and screening."


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Hasidic sleepaway camps in Catskills ask court to let them open this summer - Times Herald-Record

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