B lue poured into summer blue
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower
The roof of the silo blazed and I knew
That part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds leaves snows
Order their populations forth
And a cruel wind blows.
(from “End of Summer ” by Stanley Kunitz)
You don’t really see silos around the frum summer camps and bungalow colonies of Sullivan County New York but the impending return to the city shows itself in other ways: the storewide clearance sale at the Woodbourne seforim store the softest of sighs couched in every word.
It’s somewhat heartening to pull up to Camp HASC in Parksville New York against the depressing thought of summer’s end because there you hear a different poem a song that tells you summer isn’t the exit but the gateway to the new year.
Moments after I park a young boy goes speeding by on a small red bicycle his smile seeming to float behind him like a ribbon off the handlebar. A counselor keeps step urging the boy on as he pedals frantically as if he might never get this chance again.
“Kol hakovod” enthuses HASC executive director Rabbi Judah Mischel. Though he’s of average height Rav Judah’s bushy beard and exuberant walk give him an outsize appearance. “Wow wow ashrecha ashrecha….” he exults.
This camp is more than four decades old the pioneering program for the Jewish special-needs community. The HASC summer program has served thousands of children and adults but there’s nothing here that feels rote or institutional.
Counselors and campers come pouring down the large hill and it takes me a moment to process what I’m seeing — then it comes in a flash. They are all matching: duos dressed in “Na-Nach” attire Elmo T-shirts Chabad yarmulkes Mets jerseys. Many girls are wearing dresses to match their counselors.
Rav Judah as he’s known on these grounds gives insight into the annual HASC minhag of Matching Day. “You know how the Arizal says that a rebbi and talmid are connected from before time? It’s the same thing here. There’s a real shidduch between a camper and his or her counselor.”
Matching clothing is cute. Matching souls is what makes this place special.
A teenager carrying an empty hot-water urn rushes by peyos flying.
“Hey ” Rav Judah says stopping. “Amazing. A vasser treiger [he uses the Yiddish shtetl term for water carrier] with peyos. What could be better?”
There was another “matching day” that I missed. “Oh man I wish you’d come here on Visiting Day!” he exclaims. “You feel the glory. You have parents and counselors in this beautiful slow dance needing each other so badly. They come from Kiryas Joel and Boro Park and Englewood and Scarsdale and suddenly they’re all on a level playing field. We really should call it Ashreichem Yisrael Day — there’s this fire of ahavas Yisrael burning that feels so right.
“That’s what I mean”—a note of intensity creeps into his voice—”that summer is the start of a new year. They see things in themselves and now they need to move forward. We always tell the staff at the end of summer ‘In some ways it’s easier to be patient and generous with those who so obviously have less than you but in truth everyone has their own special needs. Go translate what you learned this summer to the rest of the year. That everyone is special.”
The mandate gives Judah Mischel a 12-month-a-year responsibility the task of shaping and developing the gifts his staff members display over the summer. He and his wife Ora live in Ramat Beit Shemesh and many of the staff members spend the year learning in Israel. Yet he’s back in the US before the summer to interview and hire and prepare his staff and then after the summer to help them process the growth and apply it to their lives. Throughout the year he travels to America on camp business or to serve as scholar-in-residence for various communities and events around the country.
Sometimes, people are able to use words to generate ambience, the sheer persuasiveness of their rhetoric creating an illusion of fun. And sometimes, words can only ruin things.
Children and adults with special needs, smiling, singing, radiating the particular chein of people testing their own limits and triumphing, creates a magic more effective than any hype. Counselors cheering and prodding and sharing each second and its million struggles form the backdrop.
And the décor doesn’t hurt either; it’s all bright colors and attractive landscaping.
When Rav Judah and the new board of directors moved in six years ago, it was one of the first things they implemented. “Everything was neat and clean, the bunks were all painted red and white. That was it. So we sent copies of Dr. Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go! to the ground staff and they really did an incredible job of recreating the look here. We hired a creative director, and repainted all the porches and doors Tzfat-blue.”
And, in a sense, this is where they learn about the places and how far they can go — and what makes Judah Mischel’s role so unique. Though he was never a counselor at HASC, he’s come on the scene and, together with the board of directors, has managed to blow a new wind through the camp, creating a year-round energy — almost like a movement. If it had a slogan, it would be something about giving teenagers their due, seeing the power and potential of this post high-school army. And they’ve proven that ultimately, when the staff is thriving, the campers are the big winners.
“We look for simchas hachaim and a desire to grow, but most of our staff has no previous experience with individuals with special needs. Some of them come out of a sense of altruism and some come because it’s the thing to do, but they all end up loving it. Something happens to them here. They see the good in themselves, their capacity for giving, loving, being big, and being moser nefesh for others. They find the happiness in producing that way, and end up building themselves as well.”
It’s not such a radical idea.
If man is left alone in the forest for several days, he will find something to repair — for being creative is essential to his happiness. He takes a broken piece of wood and begins to enhance it, stripping off the rotten exterior, engraving it with pictures — and this makes him happy.
Then, another person approaches and asks what the point is: clearly, the second person has no concept of the dimensions of man…. (Page 63, Divrei Chachamim B’Nachas)
This is the sefer that Rabbi Judah Mischel gives me when we first meet, the Torah of his rebbe and mentor, Rav Avraham Tzvi Kluger, rav of Beis Medrash Nezer Yisrael in Ramat Bet Shemesh and one of today’s leading teachers of chassidus, known for his fusion of Chabad and Breslov principles.
There are other influences as well. Rav Judah carries a supply of sugar cubes with him, a tribute to the tzaddik Rebbe Shayele of Kerestir, who would distribute the sweet cubes to suffering souls. On Shabbos Nachamu, he presides over a hamtakas hadinim (sweetening the judgment) tish, which features not kugel or fish, but candies — gummy bears and licorice and jelly beans. On the 5th of Av, he leads a spirited yahrtzeit tish for the Arizal — he who revealed the inner core of Torah nearly 500 years ago — on Camp HASC’s front lawn.
For sure, Rabbi Mischel is heavily influenced by the chassidic masters, but there’s another layer as well.
“The Baal Shem Tov taught us that the greatest thing is to give of yourself for another Yid. At Camp HASC, we have these teenagers; they’ve got it all, they’re young, cool, carefree. They can be doing anything. And they choose to give these months away to others, to feed Yidden, to be there for them emotionally, to help them get dressed and clean them. That’s chassidus,” Rav Judah says. “That’s the bottom line.”
No Playing with Us
The connection with the mystical, profound world of the Baal Shem Tov didn’t start when Judah took the HASC job, or even when he formally connected with chassidic thought.
It started way back, as a child with his books in his Monsey bedroom.
“I was on the Altalena, in the concentration camps, a beggar in an Elie Weisel story. I lived the characters of these books, completely swallowed up by their stories.”
Judah’s parents, who were recent baalei teshuvah, transmitted a very activist Judaism, a strong sense of identity.
“They wanted us to know who we are. Sundays were spent volunteering in the community and standing outside the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside the United Nations protesting for Russian Jewry. I was named Yehudah for my great-grandfather, but my parents called me Judah, to reinforce that point. They didn’t expect me to go by Yehudah, but with a secular name like Judah, you can’t wander too far, you know? My parents were sincere and committed, but we didn’t know very much about the wider chareidi community around us. The neighbors thought we were strange. We played ball on Shabbos and dressed differently and listened to weird music.”
Rav Judah breaks out into a huge smile. “I gotta tell you a story. There was a family next door and they were wary of us. They made a meeting with other neighbors to discuss if we were kosher enough to play with their children. In time, they came around.”
Eventually, he recounts, the Mischel children went their way, and the neighbor’s children went theirs. Not long ago, a young American student at the Mischel Shabbos table mentioned that his grandparents had lived in Monsey. “I’m also from Monsey. What was their name?” asked Rabbi Mischel.
The young man was a grandson of the neighbor, the one who’d been suspicious of the Mischel children. In time, the student became very close to Rav Judah — so close, in fact, that he flew Rabbi Mischel to America when he got married.
At the chasunah, Rabbi Yehuda Mischel was called up for a brachah. The chassan’s mother, under the chuppah, looked on in amazement. “You’re my son’s rebbi — the boy we weren’t allowed to play with!”
He’s still grinning. “See what I mean, that life is really just a Baal Shem Tov story?”
There were all sorts of books in Judah’s childhood — but none like the one given him by Tuvia Rotberg, Monsey’s legendary bookseller. Tuvia knew the talented child from shul, and gave him a volume of the Soncino Shas. “He said finish this one and I’ll give you the whole thing. And at my bar mitzvah, he did. He gave me a Shas.” Rav Judah pauses, then says it again, “You hear? He gave me a Shas!”
Judah went through the Modern Orthodox system, ASHAR for elementary school, then Frisch for high school. “But when it came time for the year in Israel, my father wanted us to experience a real Israeli program, to do it right.”
It was in Shaalvim that the floodgates of avodas Hashem were opened.
Flood of Sunlight
“I didn’t yet have a formal path, but I knew that my life had changed in a significant way. One of my first rebbeim was Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, via the ArtScroll biography. I remember reading how he was sitting with talmidim in Liberty, New York, during the summer, and he suddenly lifted a large rock. Hundreds of tiny ants went scurrying out, reacting to the sudden exposure of sunshine. That, Rav Shraga Feivel said, is what man will be like when Hashem reveals His light to the world. I felt that way from learning pnimiyus haTorah, like I was being exposed to the bright sunshine.”
Back in America, where he was a student at Yeshiva University, Judah felt a gaping void. “We were guys who needed chassidus, learning Nesivos Shalom. But besides for a weekly chaburah with Rav Hershel Reichman and a bunch of tapes of Rav Moshe Weinberger, there was nothing formal. I would go to the mikveh in Dombrov, the only shteibel in Washington Heights, near YU, and there would be a few Emunas Yisrael devotees, too, but that was it.”
Ever attuned to spiritual opportunity, Judah saw two worlds about to converge. “There were people like me who’d been turned on to Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael, with this huge hole in our hearts and no one to fill it.”
He recalls circulating among the various chassidic courts of the time.
“They were all beautiful, but twenty years ago, it wasn’t like today. Now, if you come in off the street, someone will say shalom aleichem and make sure you have a seat. But then you got odd glances.”
There was an exception.
“You know that scene of Rav Shlomo Bobover’s mitzvah tantz in the documentary about chassidim, A Life Apart? I watched it, like, fifty times. When I actually saw him, I was transfixed. His son and successor, Rav Naftul’che, got it. I walked in and he made me feel welcome. He spoke to me in English and made sure I could see. I remember standing in Bobov with tears in my eyes, thinking, ‘I want this in my life.’ ”
When Judah got engaged, his kallah, Ora Marcus (daughter of Rabbi Jay Marcus, rabbi of the Young Israel of Staten Island for over 30 years and founder of Reishit Yerushalayim), bought him a gift: the picture of Reb Shlomo’le sitting with arms outstretched, as if marveling at the great rebirth. “Later, I bought another picture of the Rebbe with his face in his hands, as if in pain. You don’t get the first picture, rejoicing with other Jews, without the second — feeling their pain.”
Mischel earned a degree, a Master’s in public administration. “My father called it an MBA for dreamers, and he was so right.”
He spent a few years teaching at Frisch, his alma mater, but Judah was dreaming, big-time.
The Open Gates for Us
Eventually, Judah and Ora settled in Eretz Yisrael, where he joined the staff at Reishit Yerushalayim, Ora’s family’s yeshivah.
“I loved it, loved working alongside superb rebbeim, with these excited, open American kids coming for their year in Israel and suddenly being exposed to the light. We were all like those ants under the rock in Liberty.”
Ora, a special education professional, always wanted to return to Camp HASC, where she’d worked as a teenager. When Judah was offered the position of camp rabbi, her wish came true.
He quickly perceived that what was happening to the staff members at the camp was life-changing, impactful, and profoundly spiritual. If further cultivated, it could prove seminal.
“Imagine, you have a 17-year-old kid from Five Towns who doesn’t pick up his own socks, and suddenly, he’s bathing a camper with autism, literally tending to the basic needs of another human being with a physical or intellectual disability. That’s not kindness or compassion, it’s called nishmas Yisrael and its wow. It’s called avodas hamiddos, a mitzvah of v’halachta bidrachov, emulating Hashem’s ways. It’s the way to become great, so they become great. And if we do our job, then they actually realize that they’re great, too.”
Six years ago, when the administration at Camp HASC changed, and the relatively youthful Rav Judah was asked by Reb Shmiel Kahn — son of the camp’s founder — to play a role in leading the whole operation.
He made a single stipulation.
We sit on a small bench near the main office and Rav Judah remembers the conversation with the new board of directors. “Reb Shmiel and the board discussed keeping the main thing, the main thing. The goal here is kvod shamayim and taking care of everyone at camp, including the staff, so we needed to hire the right people, not just the counselors, but everyone. It’s so important.
“You know, in the special-needs community, everyone talks about ‘people first.’ He’s not Down Syndrome, he’s an 11-year-old boy who loves music who happens to have Down Syndrome. We see the staff the same way. At Camp HASC you’re not just a lifeguard, maintenance guy, or waitress. We hire people, not positions.”
He grins. “Like that guy,” he says, pointing. “Forget his job. We need him just because he’s a guy who walks around in tefillin davening Shacharis at eleven o’clock. That’s gevaldig, we need people like that. He opens the gate for all the late daveners of the world. We hire people, not positions.”
Today, Camp HASC has over 80 married staff members, working under program director Rav Avi Pollak and girls head counselor Dr. Rayzel Yaish.
For more than forty years, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children has been running the summer program. Working with Reb Shmiel, a new board and talented team has seen the camp thrive.
“A guy or girl comes here for the summer and they’re never the same. You know, we have this campaign, inspired by Rav Kluger and our director of staff development, Dr. Benjy Epstein. We tell them to take selfies every day. The whole world is mocking our teenagers for taking selfies, but I say the opposite. ‘Look at yourselves,’ I tell them. ‘Take a moment to see how incredible you are. Look at the difference from day to day. You’re all shteiging here. Yesterday’s selfie isn’t good enough for today, it doesn’t tell the same story.”
Even with more than 600 staff members serving 350 campers, there were others who wanted to join, former counselors desperate to soak in the magic. Rav Judah reinvigorated a nightly staff beis medrash program and created Kollel Toras Chessed, where HASC alumni learn half a day and help out the rest of the time.
The camp draws a steady stream of visiting gedolim and rabbanim, many of whom grow emotionally connected with the campers and staff. “Rav Mattisyahu Salomon shlita and his rebbetzin, zichronah livrachah, would come and sit with each camper and staff member, the Mashgiach would give brachos, she would hug the children and female counselors. They gave us such chizuk. Rav Mattishayu would always say, “When Mashiach comes, his first stop will be Camp HASC. Please, tell him that I’m your friend.”
Girls, perhaps because of their innate giving nature, have a much easier time than boys coming to work at the camp, but it still takes courage. Camp HASC developed a program in which visitors come from other camps. “We invite them all, let them see what goes on here, how teenagers like themselves give their summers away to help others. They come from Bnos and from Morasha. They all want to tap into the magic.”
“I try to go to the other camps as well, to learn from their programs and work together. Hillary wasn’t right about too many things, but she was on to something with her slogan Stronger Together. We really are.”
Stretch and Find Greatness
It’s hard to imagine how Rav Judah, who makes an impression as a poetic, dreamy soul, deals with the nuts and bolts of running a camp, things like paperwork and insurance and new wires in the kitchen.
He’s quick to credit the active, engaged board and the other staff members, but Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, director of education for NCSY, a close friend of Rav Judah, has his own explanation.
“I actually heard this from him, how a certain rock band made an unusual demand in their contract,” he explains. “They insisted that a bowl of M&M candies be placed in their dressing room. But they stipulated that the M&Ms waiting for them should all be brown, even though the candies come in many colors. It sounded like a ridiculous, childish request, but there was a sound reason behind it. ‘If we can’t trust a producer to pick out the brown colored candies,’ they were saying, ‘how can we trust them to produce our concert?’ Rav Judah, who shared this at staff orientation, can do both. He can pick out the brown candy, but he still welcomes and invites everyone to share the music. He’s got an eye for detail, but that doesn’t affect the warmth and energy of the show.”
Rav Judah conveys a relaxed attitude. He is, as one counselor says, “chilled.” But always, he’s noticing, pointing out the little touches around the camp.
He leads me up the hill to the swimming pool. The pool has no steps, so that wheelchairs can easily slide down the ramp and into the warm waters, where a team of staff members and professional therapists swim around.
“Before you understand what we do here, look at the sign.”
The words are from the Hayom Yom, a Chabad sefer of daily instructions: The Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak, once met a water carrier carrying full buckets and remarked: When encountering water one should say that the Baal Shem says that it is a sign of blessing.”
“In Brooklyn, Monsey or Lakewood or wherever, our campers get a few hours a week at a therapy pool with a professional therapist. Here, therapists model the skills, and counselors carry over the therapy all day in the bunkhouse, at activities and in the pool, and we see the results. They’re able to move their limbs in a way that they can’t do out of water. They’re freer than they are on land. And sometimes, we see actual miracles when they’re able to discover new ways of moving joints in the water, taking their first steps, and they maintain that outside the water. That’s what the Rebbe meant — water is indeed a sign of blessing.”
There doesn’t seem to be a single stone on HASC grounds untouched by the song of chassidus.
“It’s not just our program, not only about Camp HASC,” Rav Judah reflects. “Anywhere where people stretch themselves, they find greatness. This is just one of those places where nishmas Yisrael shines. It’s ‘etzem kedushah’ — here we see one another for who we are, not for what we can or cannot do.”
This is Rav Judah Mischel’s theme, the message he carries, like a prophet, to the many shuls, yeshivos, and events where he’s invited to speak throughout the year: Our teenagers are great if you can just find the right setting to let them shine. Nishmas Yisrael is real and vibrant and, when tapped into, life becomes a joy.
The communities where he serves as scholar-in-residence might invite him because of his resume, his humorous, engaging, warm style or his ability to fuse contemporary culture with authentic chassidus — but once he’s speaking, it isn’t about the stories or jokes: it’s about Ashreichem Yisrael.
The organization he founded, Tzama Nafshi, works to inspire and unite Jews with each other — and themselves, to know who they really are. Through its programs, Rav Judah and his chevreh host Melavah Malkahs, Shabbatonim and shiurim for college students and trips to kivrei tzaddikim. As he says, “The goal is the soul.”
You’ll Start Happening
Rav Judah’s final thought reflects his vision for this army
After five girls, the Mischel family was blessed with twins, a girl and boy. “We deliberated over a name, and finally decided on Nachman Menachem Mendel, after Rebbe Nachman and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We had a seudah for the shlishi l’milah and my rebbe, Rav Kluger, announced that he was adding another name. He said that the new baby, the first boy after so many girls, carrying the name of such tzaddikim… it was a lot. He joked that he felt like the baby should be called Nachman Menachem Mendel Bli Lachatz — the expectation and hopes of illustrious names, but without pressure. The baby should be allowed to become his own tzaddik.
“We daven to realize my rebbe’s message, for my son, for myself, for everyone else.”
A sweet adult with the eyes and build of a child wanders over and asks for a donation to his “Dougie’s fund,” the collection he’s undertaken to sponsor a meal at the popular eatery. Instead, Rav Judah gives him a hug and says, “Sorry, my brother from another mother, the shekel’s down. I’m not the guy for this one.”
The supplicant cracks up, as if it’s the greatest joke ever made.
Laugh, big guy. It starts here, but it’s got to last for ten months. Summer starts happening now, even as there’s a hint of a chill in the late afternoon air and the Mischel family prepares to return home, to the Holy Land, along with so many of their staff members.
Or, as Dr. Seuss wrote (Oh, the Places You’ll Go):
It’s opener there, in the wide open air
Out there, things can happen and frequently do…
And when things start to happen, don’t worry don’t stew
Go right along, you’ll start happening too…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 674)
Oops! We could not locate your form.