Avoiding overkill in the Catskills

Booklet advises haredi families how to escape New York summers without falling into debt.

haredi kids 298.88 (photo credit: Alexander Rapaport)
haredi kids 298.88
(photo credit: Alexander Rapaport)
Retreating to the Catskills in upstate New York during the summer months has become a steady routine among haredi Jews. Haredi strongholds such as Borough Park and Williamsburg empty of women and kids for eight weeks straight. On the weekends, when the men join their families, these enclaves are all but ghost towns. But for many families, the summer trend of renting a place in a bungalow colony is such a financial stretch that a summer vacation can feel more like a burden than anything else. Just how much trouble it can be was brought to light this summer, when a haredi organization distributed a booklet on how to deal with summer expenses. The pamphlet, put out by Keren Ezer LeMishpachot Hanitzrachim, a Williamsburg nonprofit haredi group that offers financial help and budgeting advice, was distributed to 20,000 haredi families just before the summer season began. "We realized that the Catskills was causing big problems," said a source close to Keren Ezer. "We didn't tell people not to go. The only thing we pointed out was [that] you've got to know what your budget is and how much you have saved for the summer." Renting a bungalow for eight weeks in the summer costs $4,000 to $6,000, beyond the means of many. Nevertheless, most families choose to go, even if it means going into debt. Keren Ezer's booklet, Way of Living: The Summer, helps families find ways to cut food and travel costs. It also encourages cutting the summer vacation in half if finances don't permit the full two months. While self-help books on everything from finding love to personal finance management are ever-present in the secular world, Way of Living presents a first for the haredi community. While charity is an integral part of Jewish life, organizations such as Keren Ezer, which offer advice, are a rarity. Most charity is based on anonymous donations, and organizations are not in the habit of advising on such secular matters as personal finances. "[It] has never been the practice of voluntary agencies in the haredi world to give social advice [on a large scale,]" said R., an editor at a haredi newspaper. "If the City of New York were to distribute advice on home economics, haredi people would be very suspicious," he said. "You don't trust what you are reading, but written in your own language, in plain, unsophisticated Yiddish, this is a huge leap forward." The booklet stops short of telling people not to go to the Catskills, because the stakes are high - due in part to social pressure to be like everyone else. But the realities of staying in the city during the summer make opting out a last resort. With this in mind, Keren Ezer's underlying message is: Don't let your summer plans ruin you. One Borough Park resident who couldn't afford a summer bungalow, but dreaded the idea of staying in the city, has worked out an affordable way to getaway and breathe some fresh air. Three years ago, Herman, who chose not to reveal his last name, began looking into hotels outside the city where he could vacation for weekends at a time with his family. For a haredi man with six kids and limited finances, hotels needed to meet a list of criteria. At minimum, he needed a suite with a kitchenette for roughly $120 per night within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue. Two years ago, Herman and his family traveled every summer weekend to a different hotel in a different city. They traveled across New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate New York and Montreal. "I pushed my wife to go more than she wanted, because I couldn't take it, being here," said Herman, who works as a driver and personal assistant. Most of the time, hotels only allow six people per suite, so Herman simply doesn't mention the extra two kids. Sleeping arrangements make it a cozy few days, but then again, the kids are free to play outside. And most importantly - daddy can sleep. Herman begins his search for a hotel on Sunday evening, when he returns from the previous weekend's excursion. He uses the Internet in his employer's office, where he searches sites such as godaven.com to find hotels close enough to a synagogue and that don't exceed his budget. If he hasn't found a place by Wednesday, he begins to get nervous. Staying in the city over the weekend, when everyone leaves, is a nightmare for both him and his kids. When the streets are empty, Herman is scared to let his kids run wild, so they are cooped up inside. He and his wife have trouble sleeping peacefully because of their concern for their children's safety. And with his rebbe gone, Herman feels at a loss. "If I don't have him, it doesn't pay to stay here," said Herman. "Shabbos is so long, I don't have what to do with my time, the kids are locked in and I want to sleep safely." At first, Herman's wife resisted going. But this year, it is she who decides when the family goes away. Next weekend, they are traveling farther than usual. They'll spend Shabbat with the Tosh community just outside Montreal, where Herman studied for seven years before getting married. Before returning on Sunday, they will venture to factory outlets in Montreal to buy inexpensive clothes before the holidays. They will save some $600 buying three-piece suits for the boys, winter clothing and school necessities, which makes the drive a little more worthwhile, Herman said. "My wife wouldn't go all the way to Montreal if it weren't for the shopping," he said.