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Frontiers of Faith

"I guess I should have expected a normal summer zeman — but it turns out that COVID-normal is quite the experience"

Photos: Meir Haltovsky, Family photos

As told to Nechama Goldner

 

From: Esther Gross*

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Aliza Gross

<grossfam12@outlook.com>

Wed 4/22/20 10:13 p.m.

Hi Aliza,

Hope you and the kids are doing well!

We were all kind of hoping that when we turned on the news Motzaei Pesach we’d hear that all the little coronaviruses had shriveled up and died, and the governor would announce that it was back to school and business as usual.

But they didn’t and he didn’t and like everyone else, we’ve been trying to figure out how to combine a full-time job with full-time learning and full-time parenting and teaching and cooking and cleaning.

Then yesterday, during Rabbi Appel’s daily chizuk call, the rosh kollel dropped a bombshell: The kollel will be opening for the new zeman. Legally.

There’s a camp, 110 acres, that allows us to use the premises. As a group quarantining together, we’d essentially count as one household, not subject to the limits on gatherings. The men can learn, we can set up daycare — real life again! How idyllic is that?

Not.

The accommodations sound a little... challenging. “It will be a shtickel mesirus nefesh for your wives,” is how he put it. We’d be using the staff quarters, giving us two rooms per family, maybe two and a half for the biggest families. No kitchenettes, no living areas, just bedrooms and bathrooms.

It’s crazy. I literally haven’t left my apartment in three weeks. The thought of being in close proximity to 150 other people is... dizzying.

The logistics are overwhelming, and then there’s the bigger questions: Is this medically sound? What if someone is carrying COVID? It’s legal, but will it cause a chillul Hashem?

We all compared notes: Dr. Cohen is on board, he says it’s a great idea. Dr. Epstein doesn’t like it, but he never likes anything that’s not super conventional. Gelbstein’s rav wants to know if he can come be the camp rav. Schechter’s rav says assur gamur.

So, so many considerations.

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Aliza Gross

<grossfam12@outlook.com>

Thurs 4/23/20 9:46 p.m.

Hi Aliza

Sorry for leaving you hanging. So many details to work out and so little time! The zeman starts in one week. First come first serve, limited spots available — they have room for about 30 families.

And I had so many questions! What if we need medical care while quarantining in the middle of nowhere? What will we eat? Do we need quarters for the washing machines?

But the pieces are starting to fall into place. The kollel sent out an info sheet about the catered meals that will be brought from Lakewood twice weekly. There’ll be an administrator who’ll make weekly rounds picking up everyone’s mail. We got a packing list and instructions for loading the truck that will carry all our earthly possessions off to the mountains.

I’m not a camp person. I don’t have happy memories of the bungalow colony, I love my clean house and routine and privacy, and I literally cannot think of one good thing about moving to some remote campgrounds for who knows how long.

But I remember my husband’s tears and his learning. And I’m packing.

 

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Chana Pincus

<chana@apexhealthcare.com>

Thurs 4/30/20 9:25 a.m.

Hi Chani,

I can finally do those reports. My kids are in DAYCARE 🙂 🙂 :)!!!

I dropped my baby off today in the day camp building. It was actually kind of gross. I don’t think they cleaned it yet for the season — there were flies everywhere, and it was dim and creaky with the windows still boarded over.

The morah is a tzadeikes. In real life, she teaches three-year-olds, but she volunteered to help out wherever needed, so now she has the baby group. Poor kids — it’s been nearly a month of lockdown at home, and all of a sudden they’re living in a new place, going to a new morah, and meeting a zillion new kids.

Mendy is in the two- to three-year-old group, which has its share of first-day pandemonium. These 20 kids should probably be split into different age groups, but we just don’t have the manpower for that — as it is, everyone here is either working remotely, working in the daycare, or a kimpeturin (we have two newborns here).

I’ve got my two monitors set up on a table at the edge of the dining room. (There are too many people squashed into the actual camp office.) During non-office hours, I put cardboard boxes over the equipment to discourage sticky prying fingers.

So don’t expect too much overtime…

 

New messages from: Kollel Camp Chat

Shulamis: How are you bathing your little kids w/ no bathtub???

Chavi: Large Sterilite bin, you can borrow when we’re done

Tova: Moishy screams and screams if I put him in a baby tub but he’s terrified of the shower. He’ll never be clean again.

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Chana Pincus

<chana@apexhealthcare.com>

Mon 5/4/20 11:24 a.m.

Yup, that’s what everyone wants to know: Is this legal? Everything is legit and above-board — we have permits and follow explicit guidance from the NY COVID hotline. I know arranging all of this was a ton of work, and the backbreaking labor didn’t stop with the red tape.

My husband came back late last night. Rabbi Appel went scouting and found better rooms for the day care, so he, along with the other rosh kollel, Rabbi Steinmetz, and a half dozen yungeleit stayed up mopping and talking in learning till I don’t know what time.

Huge step up — the rooms are bright and relatively clean. The rosh kollel turns on a few space heaters each morning, but we keep the kids’ coats on at least for the first hour or two till the chill subsides.

In his speech to the women, Rabbi Steinmetz said that Yiddishkeit is built on two mountains: the kabbalas haTorah of Har Sinai and the self-sacrifice of Har Hamoriah. Coming up to the mountains with mesirus nefesh for our husbands’ learning, he told us, we united the two peaks that the Torah is built on.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

The toys ordered for the 2–3 yr playgroup should be coming on Thursday’s truck. Can’t wait!

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

Hey everyone, our fresh delicious shnitzel sandwiches had a flat tire and won’t be here till close to six. Lower Staff House people, can you please pass on the message to the ladies who don’t have text?

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Mommy Bernstein

<cbernstein455@gmail.com>

Wed 5/6/20 8:19 p.m.

Hi Ma,

This place is awesome if you’re coming for camp, with a staff who’ve been preparing for weeks to feed and entertain your family. If you are trying to maintain a semblance of your normal routine… not so much. It was built for enjoying the great outdoors, but in early May, the outdoors are cold and wet and rainy.

We keep reminding each other that people actually pay to stay in tiny bungalows, and that our accommodations are pretty nice by camp standards, but it’s still a rough landing for most of us.

We were cooped up when we were at home too, but we had space and toys and books. We’re going stir-crazy here. We need the rain to stop, the sun to come out, to pack away our winter gear….

Getting to the dining room means negotiating a really steep hill with a double stroller, so in bad weather I have Chaim bring food up to the rooms. The past few lunches weren’t so edible, so we’re doing a lot of fish sticks and grilled cheese. With everyone plugging in toasters at the same time, every few minutes throughout bein hasedorim the power blows.

Everything is encrusted in mud.

And the hardest part is not knowing if we’re going to stay a week or a month or a year.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

WHO DO I CALL IF THERE’S A CHIPMUNK IN MY ROOM?

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Mommy Bernstein

<cbernstein455@gmail.com>

Thurs 5/7/20 9:31 p.m.

How we manage in two rooms: Chezky and Mendy are used to sleeping in the same room, so that’s not really a problem. We put the baby to sleep in the bathroom (it’s big and has a window — not as bad as it sounds) and transfer her once everyone is sound asleep. On bad days, when the boys are rowdy and keeping her awake, we put her in our room, and I have to spend the rest of the evening on the porch.

The biggest issue is having nowhere to be. If all the kids are awake, they can play on the floor in between their beds, but if someone is still asleep, or if they just aren’t in the mood, they’re in our (slightly more spacious) room. I change my linen at least weekly because of the muddy footprints of their Natives and the cracker crumbs and drips of ketchup from when they sit on my bed to eat on our folding table.

Do I sound kvetchy? I have it really good. My neighbor’s apartment flooded on Erev Shabbos, they were literally sloshing through an inch of water to get to their beds. They didn’t mention it until after Shabbos, because why bother anyone?

And then the other building didn’t have any hot water — and nobody called maintenance for like three days, since each assumed it was just them or just temporary. My friend boiled water to fill her baby’s bath. People gotta complain more, you know?

 

New message from: Malky Cheifetz

Are either of your boys still up? Ready to go to sleep but there’s a stinkbug over my bed, and my husband’s not gonna be home for a while.

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Aliza Gross

<grossfam12@outlook.com>

Sunday 5/10/20 12:04 p.m.

Hi Aliza,

Hope you’re appreciating your Israeli heat wave.

Friday night, the power went out about 3 a.m., taking the baseboard heaters and most of the space heaters with it.

I took Sarala into my bed with me and huddled with her to keep her warm. The glass louvers on the window are designed to let fresh summer air in, not keep freezing winter wind out. With every gust the curtains flapped open, but I was too cold to get up and try to find a less-exposed spot.

When I finally got out of bed, our thermostat was reading 43. We heard later that it’d been a real-feel of 22, a record-breaking low.

I figured we needed to get out of there as fast as possible to find someplace with heat, so I bundled cranky kids, still in pajamas, into their coats, and hustled them down the hill to the dining room, which still had power, and was therefore heated, at least in theory.

Malky Cheifetz and Dina Brenner were already there, feeding their kids Shabbos cereal. The dining room was cold too; none of us took off our coats. But here at least the windows kept out the breeze. I let the kids have as much kokosh cake and Fruity Pebbles as they wanted.

I wasn’t sure where to put Sarala to nap, because our room wasn’t habitable. In the end I put her Pack ‘n Play in the five-year-old boys’ camp room, where there was a radiator plugged in.

Rabbi Appel showed up an hour or two later looking more dead than alive. He’d gone out in his pajamas at five, fetching Russell the groundskeeper. Russell spent a while flipping fuses without much success, then set up the remaining heaters in the most insulated end of one dining room.

After the seudah (hot cholent was never so welcome!), we put the older kids to work, bringing all the toys from the playgroup rooms. We spent the afternoon in the dining room in our coats, shifting our chairs to catch the warmest air currents from the heaters, while our kid played with magna-tiles and Cozy Coupes, oblivious to the cold.

Rabbi Appel spoke to us before Minchah, while the men watched the kids. The midrash says that tzaddikim see the yetzer hara as a mountain. Mountains are tough obstacles, but when you climb, you end up on a higher plane. The trick, he said, is embracing the climb, enjoying the difficulty; challenges are not your enemy but your best friend.

When he walked into the dining room this morning expecting mutiny, he said, he saw relaxed mommies joking and rolling with the punches — enjoying the climb. I’d never particularly thought of myself that way, but I guess it’s true; we turned out to be a resilient bunch.

During shalosh seudos, we saw our first snow of the season. It came down thick and heavy and the kids danced and laughed and let it cover them.

I told my husband that we were leaving if the heat wasn’t totally fixed on Motzaei Shabbos. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. But instead, an army of yungeleit descended on each room with black garbage bags, flattened cardboard boxes, and packing tape. A lot of packing tape. The end result was a building full of sealed rooms that could have withstood a direct hit from a chemical warhead.

That night we were warm. In the morning, the men headed off to their 7:15 Shacharis, tired, content, and ready for another day of learning.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

VERY IMPORTANT, Shragi is trying to fix the main breaker and there are live wires, DO NOT touch anything, even if the fuses blow again.

 

From: Esther Gross <esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Chana Pincus <chana@apexhealthcare.com>

Wed 5/20/20 1:07 p.m.

BH, things are looking up here. This is the weather that people come to the country for!

Spending weeks cooped up together in such close proximity, we’ve really bonded by now. There’s always someone who is offering to hold your baby or lend you the medicine you need or put up a commercial-sized soup pot for everyone to share.

The kids have forgotten which families they belong to. With the food and logistics finally more streamlined, we can relax, play with our kids in the sun, and enjoy what’s turning into a vacation.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

Whoever has a towel load in the second machine, it’s finished, can you pls take it out.

 

From: Esther Gross <esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Aliza Gross <grossfam12@outlook.com>

Sun 5/31/20 8:06 p.m.

We had a guest! A supporter of the kollel came for sheloshes yemei hagbalah to experience “hevei goleh l’makom Torah.” He couldn’t understand how we managed to persevere with such simchas hachayim under these conditions, but by now we were mostly like, “What conditions?”

The Erev Shavuos truck brought us flowers, which we set up on picnic tables outside our rooms so we could eat by the porch lights while our kids slept.

The Shavuos atmosphere was super-charged. Thinking of the many back home who were learning alone added an urgency and a sense of exaltation to the already-elevated atmosphere. Many of the men stayed up both nights.

The plan was to hold a neilas hachag on the basketball courts, where the men’s voices would carry to our porches.

We tucked our kids in and waited expectantly outside while the sky grew darker and darker. Then we realized it wasn’t nightfall — those were rainclouds. As the bochurim began to shlep tables, the first drops fell.

We saw the men stop, look up, hold out their hands tentatively. But the wind picked up and the rain fell harder, and the men retreated to the dining room, leaving us crestfallen.

It was just about the zeman, time to head in to clean up, when the men began to emerge from the dining room. Maariv time. But then — but then! They started to stream down the steps, away from the beis medrash. Onto the court. Minutes later, the camp shook with pounding feet and raised voices, “Ashreichem talmidei chachamim,” and “Toras Hashem temimah,” on and on into the night.

All down the line of staff quarters, doors opened, women appeared, some with bleary-eyed children in tow.

Someone said baruch hamavdil and turned on the court’s floodlights and the celebration exploded.

We got our nachas.

P.S. George, the sweet fellow who mops the dining room, put it best. He came over to my husband on Isru Chag and told him, “I no understand your religion, but last night very, very nice.”

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

  1. What’s worse than finding a live snake in your room?
  2. Not finding it when help finally arrives to get rid of it.

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Mommy Bernstein

<cbernstein455@gmail.com>

Wed 6/3/20 10:13 p.m.

Hi,

No, I really don’t have any more inside info than you do whether sleepaway camp is opening. The manager says we need to pack out because they are opening on time no matter what and need to prepare the grounds. But seeing as Governor Cuomo hasn’t issued any guidance yet, the feeling here is that it’s wishful thinking.

It’s actually the hot topic (pun intended) while we sit on the grass in the afternoons. We chase the shade across the field while the kids play. And it’s the same question again and again: If the owners let us stay, would you? For how long?

Invariably someone says, “We’re sitting here without a care in the world at 5 p.m., watching our kids happily scoop sand while our husbands learn, and in ten minutes we’ll gather our kids and head to the dining room to eat delicious sesame chicken that we didn’t cook — I’m moving in. You couldn’t pay me to go back to Lakewood.

And then a kid will dump sand on another one’s head and we’ll think, No bathtubs and the perpetually gray gritty linoleum and institutional food served on Styrofoam plates and we’re ready to go back to civilization.

The thing is, anyone who actually does visit civilization comes back reporting that it’s overrated. Here, you can forget that there’s a pandemic and a lockdown out there. Out there, I keep hearing, everyone is stressed, restless, and struggling to keep their heads above water.

And yet… the things we miss. Malky just wants to be able to bake muffins with her kids in her own kitchen. Kaila is newly married and wants to visit her parents. I want a room at night or in the early morning that doesn’t have sleeping people in it.

Everything is on hold. We’re pushing off any appointments that aren’t critical. My husband hasn’t carried his wallet or cellphone in weeks. Our kids don’t have summer clothes, we’re shabby and dusty, and nobody could care less. We’re away from our creature comforts and the rat race and we’re all fine.

We are away, so very away, in a little functional bubble with nothing but our kids and our husbands’ Torah.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

Anyone available to assist in the 2–3 year olds tomorrow and/or Thursday from 11:30–1?

 

From: Esther Gross

<esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Chana Pincus

<chana@apexhealthcare.com>

Tues 6/9/20 9:58 a.m.

Hi,

Still no guidance from the governor, so Thursday is moving day. Even if he still cancels camp, it will be too late for us — the trucks are ordered and we are packing.

It’s bittersweet, but it’s time.

Schools are opening classes and shuls are holding minyanim. Lakewood, here we come.

See you in the office on Monday! We’ll catch up more then, assuming we can hear each other through the sneeze guards.

 

New message from: Kollel Camp Chat

Attn everybody, Kamp Kollel Kuties will be performing their very exciting Shabbos play in the stage room at 2:50 tomorrow (right after Minchah). Can’t wait to c u!!

 

From: Esther Gross <esther@apexhealthcare.com>

To: Mommy Bernstein <cbernstein455@gmail.com>

Thurs 6/11/20 6:44 pm

Hi Ma,

Here’s a picture of the kids from last night’s siyum, our last night in the camp, and we were all joking that we should be giving out middos certificates and best-in-bunk awards.   Everyone pitched in to set up and serve, and we went all out for our send-off evening.

We fed the kids early and sent them over to the next room, where the Ballooner Rebbe had them enthralled. The idea was that we should be able to hear the speeches, and it was maybe 60 percent effective.

But that was okay, because it was the dancing that brought tears to our eyes. How to describe the elation of a chevreh of yungeleit who just went through a six-week long Shavuos? Six weeks without a newspaper. Six weeks without stepping into a store or bank. Six weeks of putting Torah at the center of our lives, the sun around which everything orbited.

If I hadn’t known there was no alcohol at the siyum, I’d have said they were drunk. I guess they were — completely drunk on Torah.

Chavrusas danced together, the yungeleit danced in front of the hanhalah, and kids rode their fathers’ shoulders. There were pekelach and gifts and grammen.

When we pulled out this afternoon, we all left a piece of our hearts behind on the steep green hills of New York. But when we get home, we’ll still have a little piece of our remote enclave inside ourselves.

 

*All names changed save for Rabbi Appel and Rabbi Steinmetz

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 700)

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