A heat-wave had paralyzed the city and we couldn’t wait to get to camp, situated high in the Catskills, with a swimming pool and lake. The 42nd Street Ferry Terminal was the embarkation point for Camp Bais Yaakov and fathers and mothers, gasping for air and mopping perspiration from heads and brows, were steadily arriving with their children, who were going to camp for the first time.
The counselors, all from Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Teacher’s Seminary, were instructed to line up their bunks. Mothers delivered last minute instructions, counselors were briefed on family histories and habits, and bombarded with intimate details and schedules.
We were huddled together in excited planning. We were going to be staff, a rung above the campers. Rosie was going as a waitress, I as a silverware washer – both sponsored positions. While there were regular positions in camp: counselors, junior counselors, waitresses and chambermaids (for the guestrooms in the Main Building), Rabbi Neuhouse wanted many girls to have opportunities to be in camp. So, he got people to sponsor them. We would have a salad maker, a potato peeler, corn husker, assistants to the cooks, assistants to the bakers and assistants to the assistants.
It was a great responsibility to make all of this work and it wasn’t until years later that we knew about the sponsors. Rabbi Neuhouse got his camp, we got our jobs, the sponsors got their mitzvos and mothers were able to stop worrying about how to keep their kids off the streets when there was no school.
And what a worry it was. In 1944, the Orthodox Jewish educational system was a far cry from what it is today. Yeshivas for boys and Bais Yaakovs for girls were still in their infancy and there were no camps for religious children. With time on their hands, many kids would lose all that they had gained during the school year while they hung out at the movies or Coney Island.
Realizing this, Rebbetzin Kaplan opened up a summer camp for girls in 1942 and 43 in Parksville, N.Y.
I was 9 at the time and terribly homesick. The few memories I still have are of being woken each morning in a freezing cold bunk, and running, shivering to the flagpole where we hoisted up the American flag, pledged allegiance to it and then davened. There was a huge lake for swimming and boating and the cook, I think her name was Mrs. Baumgarten, would give me extra treats to make me happy, because I was always crying.
The camp was a tremendous financial burden and the Rebbetzin could not continue. So, knowing how important it was, in 1944, Rabbi Neuhouse started his own.
Our group in the ferry-terminal grew larger, the din louder, the excitement sharper. Rabbi Neuhouse, his beard strawberry-blond in the slanting sunlight, watched from a corner, his eyes flashing. Whereas everyone was perspiring, struggling to breathe through the smog, he was impeccably groomed, untouched by the heat.
A foghorn sounded, followed by great commotion. Parents gave weeping children a last hug as they started up the gangplank.
Rabbi Neuhouse began marching and singing, at the top of his voice and did not stop until all the children had stopped crying and began marching alongside him.
In full view of the stevedores and the milling crowd of travelers that fill a ferry terminal on a summer morning, Rabbi Neuhouse suddenly stopped marching, sprang up onto a baggage cart and in a booming voice greeted us:
“You are the pioneers,” he cried out in a thick accent, “to whom, one day the Jewish nation will give thanks. With your foresight and sacrifice, we will push out the walls of the tiny frum world that now exists and extend it to the far corners of the world.”
As he spoke, the terminal became strangely quiet. I looked around. Everyone seemed to be under the man’s spell.
And then, spreading wide his arms, to include us all in the historic moment, he cried out:, “Chaverot, Achdut” – “Together as one.” And, totally unrehearsed, in a spontaneous roar, we all answered, “B’achdut nichye!” – “In unity we live!”
In the stillness of the night, we could hear the gurgling of the brook deep in the forest. It reached us like a whisper, where we lay in the staff-bunk, a ramshackle wooden cabin favored by field mice. Through the holes in the ceiling, we could count the stars.
Spider-webs veiled the rafters and draped the windows. Insects crawled and flew, bats flapped around from eave to eave, from cove to cove, hardly intimidated by our shrieking.
If I would have been able to forget the hornet’s nests above my pillow, the snakes wiggling around in my slippers, the field mice that had invaded the nosh supply in my suitcase and the rain that soaked through everything each time the “windows of heaven” opened, I might have imagined myself in paradise.
The day started with davening at the flagpole, followed by breakfast, clean-up, and shiurim. Until lunch there was swimming and at least one activity. After lunch came rest period, during which we each had to write at least one postcard to our parents. The kids who thought the staff read all the postcards would write that the food was awful.
My job was more fun than work The kitchen was a noisy, crowded, happy place. Everyone was always on the run, scooping steaming portions out of giant-sized pots for the waitresses to bring into the campers. The mashgiach was always fighting with the head cook – both he and she thought themselves the ultimate authority on kashrus.
Inside the dining room the campers were always singing at the top of their lungs as Rabbi Neuhouse organized competitive songs as guests watched in amazement.
Every day was filled with fun: arts and crafts, swimming, athletics, rowing, hikes, campfires. More than that, though, there was a feeling of being part of Klal Yisroel.
At every occasion, Rabbi Neuhouse would give shiurim, telling us of the churban going on in Europe. His stories seemed unbelievable to us. And his purpose, for us to understand the responsibility we had to build up Jewish life in America as the frum world in Europe was being destroyed. Hearing Rabbi Neuhouse speak made you feel as if you were the only person who mattered, as if you were more important that you thought. He was so compelling that I could actually sense all those around me stretching to fill his expectations.
We were all so happy to be in camp, to share in his joy of frum kids being in a happy and safe place.
The highlight of the summer for me, though, was my sister Rosie.
From the moment we came together at the terminal, we answered the call for unity, b’achdut nichye. 13-year-old Rosie would take every chance to stand tall and, with arms outstretched, call out chaverot achdut, exactly like Rabbi Neuhouse would and we would all answer b’achdut nichye in a roar. She became the camp-darling and was the one to get the fun started.
One day, Rosie suddenly discovered a knack at mimicry. Rabbi Neuhouse immediately became an inexhaustible source of material. Throwing all restraints to the wind, she gave wreckless impersonations of him at night activities. With his tremendous words, that we had already stopped looking up in the dictionary, his crazy syntax, his haphazard sentence-structure, the accent that seemed to be getting thicker all the time, she had the camp rolling.
When Rabbi Neuhouse did all these things, we controlled ourselves but when Rosie got to work, the camp exploded in uncontrolled acclaim of her daring. And when, in conclusion, she spread her arms wide and shouted: “Chaverot Achdut” we were beyond control.
But nothing equaled the hysteria that developed, when in the distance, Rabbi Neuhouse himself was seen approaching, in robe and slippers, the shrieks and laughter having forced him out of bed to discover the cause.
From then on, nothing Rabbi Neuhouse did escaped Rosie’s attention. If he ever made up a new English word, it immediately became part of our own special language, with a royal reception that only Rosie could give. And throughout it all, we had the strangest feeling that Rabbi Neuhouse might be enjoying it as much as everyone else.
Shabbos was the highlight of the week.
On Friday night, after Kabalat Shabbat, Rabbi Neuhouse would walk up and down the aisles holding the hands of his two youngest children as he greeted the Shabbos angels. He didn’t smile, he just kept walking past the tables set for Shabbos, singing Shalom Aleichem and nodding at each person individually. Its what helps me remember those Shabboses with love and joy.
The atmosphere was electric. You could feel the holiness of the day, the joy of the day. It was the one-day of the week no one ever wanted to miss. There is one Shabbos that I remember clearly all these years later.
A virus was going around the mountains and it hit our camp. Most of us got over it after a week or so, but there was one ten-year-old who wasn’t responding to any of the medication. After calling the child’s mother, the staff decided to send her home and I was elected to go with her.
I packed up all her clothes, got her two aspirins and water for the two of us and Rabbi Neuhouse took us the the bus. Her mother would meet us at the terminal in New York,
By the time we got to the city and the child was safely returned to her mother, it was too late for me to get back to camp in time for Shabbos. I spent Shabbos at home. My parents were so happy to see me and it was wonderful to be with them after so many weeks. However, as beautiful as Shabbos with my family was, I longed for Shabbos in camp.
Night activity was the highlight of each day – each bunk had its chance to show off its creativity.
There was one night-activity though that wasn’t successful. Every night-activity had a theme, otherwise how could the bunks prepare for it? That night it was called BABY-NITE. There were girls in baby clothing, sucking pacifiers, drinking from baby bottles, talking gibberish, being wheeled around in carriages and high-chairs – cute, but nothing outstanding. And then, just as we started getting bored, two waitresses wrapped in toilet-paper that read Delsey Twins came tripping in unrolling the contents of the Delsey Twin packages of toilet paper they each held. The cheers and laughter were horrendous. Now, that’s what you call creative everyone said holding their sides. Delsey Twins was a blue and white package containing two rolls of toilet paper, whereas most brands contained only one roll in a package. The two waitresses were dressed just like the twins on the toilet paper package – makeup and all. We all shrieked in laughter.
Hearing the noise, Rebbetzin Neuhouse came running. It was unusual for Rabbi Neuhouse not to be around, but that night he wasn’t there, and I suppose she felt responsible in his absence.
When she saw what the laughter and shrieks were all about, she went to the front of the room and waited for us all to quiet down.
Then, in the quiet way she always spoke she asked, “Girls, have you forgotten that we are now in the Nine Days? All the shiurim this entire week have been about the churban Bais HaMikdash and the hunger and thirst that the Yidden suffered then. And this,” she asked lifting up her two hands, “this, when our nation suffered destruction and hunger and thirst?”
She didn’t have to say more. We all looked down, totally ashamed of ourselves. We had simply forgotten. Silently each counselor led her campers back to their bunk and the incident was never mentioned again.
Tisha B’Av in camp was an unforgettable day.
As soon as we finished eating the Seuda Hamafsekes, we changed into sneakers and sat on the floor of the dining-room reading Megillas Eicha by candlelight. At the side of the room, Rabbi Neuhouse and a minyan of men took turns reading aloud the lamentations in weeping voice.
There was something so compelling in the atmosphere, as though we were right there in the besieged city of Jerusalem, suffering thirst and hunger, filled with the fear that the enemy might suddenly appear. We tried to imagine ourselves as the once exquisite daughters of Zion, spoilt and finicky creatures, now eating the flesh of their own dead children. We would shudder in horror and could not, would not, believe or try to understand how such a tragedy could have befallen G-d’s chosen people.
The sputtering flames of the candles were the only sound in our terrified, grieving silence. And Rabbi Neuhouse would give us answers to the questions we dared not ask.
He spoke about basics in Judaism: reward and punishment, justice and mercy, the price of sin, and that, even when we think we have the answers, we cannot understand G-d’s ways. He listened to what we had to say, challenged our ideas and forced us to think.
Imagine, we were only schoolgirls. Many of us had just turned twelve, and were fasting all day for the first times. Throughout the day the discussions continued. While stomachs rumbled from hunger, brows drawn together in fierce concentration, we were determined to find the answers to questions that the greatest thinkers had still not found.
After Mincha, the discussions with Rabbi Neuhouse continued out on the main lawn until it was time to break the fast.
Those were the unforgettable moments when our love and devotion to Klal Yisroel and Eretz Yisrael took root and when each one of us had to seriously examine our relationship and responsibility to both.
In 1944, in that first year of Camp Bais Yaakov, we learned to mourn our nation’s losses, to feel the suffering of another Jew, to awaken ourselves to the suffering of the Shechinah. In that first year, we learned that all Yidden are connected, that all Yidden are one. We learned that every individual, every single person, carries responsibility for whatever happens to the Klal. We also learned that each one of us has the power to make “nachamu, nachamu ami” come true even today.