For Yossi Zablocki, Kutsher’s was supposed to be there forever, as permanent as the mountains along Route 17. It was after all, for him and many others like him, much more than just a place to camp out for the summer and the holidays. It was an entire world – a brighter, greener, more tranquil world than the one he passed through each day as an attorney in lower Manhattan.
Ever since he was a small child, his family had retreated to the Monticello resort, passing the days by the lake, sometimes venturing out on the small boats that line the docks as the weather warms up. Or else they talked away the afternoon in the sprawling dining room and the nearby coffee shop, while enjoying the endless supplies of kosher hors d’ouvres and cakes.
By daylight there was the beautiful outdoors, with 1,400 acres of Catskills greenery to explore, and, after dark, the nightclub was lit up with entertainers in the old Borscht Belt style – from the Jackie Mason, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle era – who wisecracked with the kibitzers in the audience. That was how it was for 100 years, and that was how it always would be.
Or would it? Mark Kutsher began to talk about retiring, taking it easy after a lifetime of running the business passed on from his parents, and had no family available to step in and take over the operation. And so it was that Zablocki and Mickey Montal, the hotel’s caterer, saw their opportunity to run a hotel and turn daydreams into reality. Within days, the two drew up plans to redirect the hotel, focusing especially on Pesach and the spring and summer months to follow.
Arial view of the hotel
“It was a manic drive,” Zablocki recalls, as he rushed through the hours on almost no sleep, planning an entire new lineup of activities, themed weekends and special entertainment. He hired the celebrated “Glatt Boys” for the weekend of Shavuos, to be followed soon after by a Shabbat chazzanut planned for Memorial Day weekend.
And that’s just the start: plans are now in the works for a Carlebach Shabbat, an Israel festival, a Jewish learning retreat, a Catskills heritage weekend, a Yiddish fest, and dozens more, seeking to draw household names, from world-renowned rabbis and chazzanim to the leading young Jewish bands.
For the kids, he has booked carnivals, magic shows, and a spruced-up full-time day care program. As for food, Montal’s N-More Caterers provides the latest in kosher cuisine on a level fit to attract New York city’s Jewish diners, accustomed to the haute cuisine of Abigael’s and Le Marais.
Meanwhile, he is also reaching out to Jewish institutions – day schools, synagogues, organizations – with the message that Kutsher’s is the only option for retreats and shabbatons: “Why go anywhere else?” he says, by which he means: Why go through the hassle of matching a roadside hotel with a caterer, and hauling up siddurim, Torah scrolls and mechitzahs, when in one place, he says, “you have everything you need at your doorstep?” The goal of all this – “To make our Kutsher’s the center of Jewish culture,” he says. “Nothing less.”
The newly renovated Marquis Lobby
Zablocki – now sole partner in operating the resort – is driven in his efforts to promote the place by his understanding of what kept Kutsher’s in business for over 100 years. The family-based hospitality is a given, but just as important was a highly adaptive business model, which sought to change with the times as necessary.
If the hotel once attracted guests as a matter of course – “Nu? Where else do you go on vacation?” – now it will have to lure them with new attractions that meet the demands of today’s Jewish community. That means the latest in entertainment, including young Jewish comedians and television celebrities, and themes like Israeli culture, Jewish learning and music, along with magic and adventure for a more demanding generation of children.
Of course, the more familiar perks remain. The Catskills is still the most convenient vacation spot around, an easy place to catch a rural, far-from-the-city getaway without the cost and hassle of airline prices and the hunt for kosher food.
But it may not be there forever. As Zablocki warns, “if they don’t come now, in a year or two there will not be anywhere to come to.” That is because the prospect of the Catskills without Kutsher’s means more than just the final chapter for a proud kosher resort. It would signal, more decisively than any prior event, the demise of the kosher Catskills.
Kutsher’s Country Club is, in fact, the last surviving resort of its kind: that is, a 24-7 glatt kosher resort in the Catskill Mountains. Without it, where will the Jewish groups and institutions, the day schools, synagogues and organizations like the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, Hadassah and others go?
For decades, the Catskills played host to their conventions, conferences, and retreats.
For the organizers and conference planners, the decision was always easy. When it came time to plan the year’s annual convention, or Shabbaton, or shul retreat, it was understood that the institution would support the kosher upstate community that depended on it. In return, the planner got a weekend in the beautiful mountains, and no headache about having to find a kosher caterer, run a property on his own, arrange activities or put together a shul with all the religious accoutrements.
“All those advantages now add up to only one place,” said Zablocki, “At Kutsher’s, we’re giving you all those pieces right at your feet, one complete package.” Why go anywhere else?
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Isaac Stewart is a freelance writer who has covered the travel industry since 1991.