A New York summer camp for adults

The historic Chautauqua Institution comes alive in summer with over 2,000 scheduled activities.

THE 150-ROOM historic hotel overlooks Chautauqua Lake and has been a gathering place for thousands over the years, including 10 American presidents (photo credit: STACEY MORRIS)
THE 150-ROOM historic hotel overlooks Chautauqua Lake and has been a gathering place for thousands over the years, including 10 American presidents
(photo credit: STACEY MORRIS)
CHAUTAUQUA – The summertime charm of the Berkshires and Poconos is well-documented, but it’s the western territory of New York state that often tends to be all too unfamiliar to many New York City-area residents.
Perhaps it’s the unknown-quantity factor, but a visit “out west,” so to speak, can be an eye-opening experience.
Take the Chautauqua Institution, for instance. The 304-hectare (750-acre) spread on Lake Chautauqua springs to life each June for nine weeks of concerts, lectures, celebrity appearances and a host of outdoor activities. Where else can you take in a chamber concert, listen to a lecture delivered by a bestselling author and former Watergate kingpin, take a leisurely sailboat ride, and cap it off with a performance by The Beach Boys... all in a single day? With rich offerings that center on the arts and outdoor recreation, the Chautauqua Institution is often likened to a summer camp for adults. But most will tell you it’s an experience that defies categorization.
The property has a small number of yearround residents, but the majority of the institution’s activities take place during the nine-week summer season, jam-packed with more than 2,000 scheduled activities.
The institution got its start in 1878 as a Methodist retreat, when it consisted of platform tents and a few meetings. Through the influence of the Utopian Movement that was sweeping that part of the Empire State and the Midwest, the camp evolved into an interdenominational organization, with an emphasis on continued learning.
Though there are more than 16 different Christian denominations represented on the grounds, there has been a thriving Jewish community here for quite some time. It began in 1891 with the first Jewish speaker, Gustav Gottheil, a prominent liberal rabbi from New York City’s Temple Emanu-El.
Two years later, Philadelphia’s Rabbi Henry Berkowitz founded the Jewish Chautauqua Society, using the institution’s methods to disseminate knowledge of the religion.
And despite a history rooted in Protestantism, nearly a third of the summer residents are Jewish, with Jewish-themed lectures and programming growing each year. The Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua was established in 1960 and leads classes, social events and Shabbat services throughout the campus.
It was the summer of 2009 that inaugurated the opening of the Everett Jewish Life Center, the spacious building that houses meeting space for programming and community events, a library, an industrial-sized kosher kitchen and hotel-like overnight accommodations. Notable guests at the center have included former MK Michael Melchior, Elie Wiesel and Supreme Court justice Gabriel Bach.
Edith Everett, a retired senior vice president of investments at Gruntal & Co. who has summered at the Chautauqua Institution for more than 30 years, funded the center.
She dedicated the $1.5 million building to the memory of her husband, Henry Everett, who died in 2004. Everett is also co-founder and president of the Everett Family Foundation and currently serves on philanthropic boards that include the American Jewish Committee, Human Rights Watch, Hillel International and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Advancement of Human Rights.
The 715-square-meter center is trimmed by a 396-meter wraparound front porch, a community room with a retractable projection screen and state-of-the-art sound system, a cozy dining room with a Dali painting of the Western Wall and many an eco-friendly feature – such as solar panels on the roof, through which all of the center’s hot water is heated. Everett herself selected the soothing color schemes of the guest rooms and decorated each with purchases from local furniture stores and interior design firms. The linens, however, are made in Arad out of Galilee cotton.
Bonnie Rosenthal of Boca Raton, Florida, has summered at the Chautauqua Institution for the past decade. “I grew up in New York and lived my whole life in the northeast, but had never heard of Chautauqua,” she recalled. “When an acquaintance in Florida raved about it, I went home and looked it up... and it was love at first sight.”
Rosenthal cites quiet serenity (cars aren’t permitted in residential areas except for unloading) and rich cultural offerings as the top draws for her return visits each summer. “And now there’s a major Jewish presence. I love the lectures and other programming at the Everett Center. Chautauqua is really a utopian place in many ways,” enthused Rosenthal. “The grounds are spectacular. People take great pride in their homes and keep their yards beautiful, and parents feel safe in letting their children ride their bikes and play outside.”
The Chabad of Chautauqua celebrates its 15th year at the institution this summer, offering weekly lectures on Jewish tradition and history, Talmud study and even classes on how to braid the perfect halla. Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin is the executive director; he and wife Esther run the programming and special events.
Last summer marked the opening of the Zigdon Chabad Jewish House, located at 23 Vincent Street on the grounds’ fabled brick path on the way to Bestor Plaza. The house was funded by Purell CEO Joe Kanfer, who named the two-story structure in honor of his son and daughter-in-law. The first floor features a large social room and kosher kitchen (dairy and meat), with facilities and restrooms made handicap-accessible.
“We use the house for a variety of things like classes, halla baking, and some services,” explained Vilenkin. “The building is open 24/7 during the season, and our events are open to all Chautauquans. It’s common for non-Jews who are curious to stop in for a class or a discussion.”
The Chautauqua Institution’s grounds are filled with rental cottages, bed and breakfasts, hostels, and a few hotels and inns. Hard-core fans stay for most or all nine weeks. The average visit is a week, but many locals come for the day or just an evening concert.
Buying a gate pass for a day or week entitles you to all scheduled programming such as concerts, lectures and films. Certain activities, such as cooking classes or craft workshops, have a materials fee.
Beyond the institution’s gates are the sights of Chautauqua and Erie Counties, and their lakes, vineyards, museums and restaurants.
It all adds up to being worth the trek, and because the locale is so far to the west, there’s nearly an hour more daylight.
Themes of the 2015 season include Week Five’s “Art and Politics” from July 25 through August 1; and Week Eight’s “The Middle East, Now and Next” from August 15-22. A full schedule is available at ciweb.org/lecture- themes-2015 .
Bestor Plaza Chautauqua Institution
www.ciweb.org/about-chautauqua/plaza- cam
The oblong park is literally the epicenter of the grounds, with people of all ages congregating around the giant fountain, reading quietly on park benches or enjoying picnic lunches on the grass. Think of it as the American version of the Italian piazza. More than just a park, Bestor Plaza is bordered by a ring of restaurants and boutiques, the post office, a bookstore and a two-story library.
The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and Center for Comedy
Approximately 24 km. south of the Chautauqua Institution is Jamestown, the birthplace of comedy legend Lucille Ball.
The museum pays homage to the career and enduring legend of perhaps the most beloved comedienne of all time, as well as her husband, Desi Arnaz. There are recreated sets from DesiLu Studios, costumes, Emmy Awards and even a recreation of Ricky Ricardo’s iconic Tropicana Room.
The Lake Erie Wine Trail
The wine trail along nearby Lake Erie (about 20 minutes away) boasts 24 wineries, all of which make for a day of pleasant – and romantic – meandering. There are also nearly a dozen lakeside restaurants along the trail. Start at the Grape Discovery Center and proceed from there; www.grapediscoverycenter.com.
Midway State Park
Located across the lake from the Institution, Midway is one of the oldest continuously running amusement parks in the country.
Established in 1898 as a trolley park, Midway features a vintage carousel, bumper boats, miniature golf, an arcade, kiddie rides, food vendors and go-carts.
Panama Rocks Scenic Park
Famous for its geologic rock formations, the park is a 15-minute ride away from the institution and features hiking trails that meander through ancient ridges of rock-forming caves, towering rocks, passageways and crevices. All of this is bordered by scenic tree foliage, and a backdrop of moss and ferns.
Chautauqua Golf Club
Open since 1914, the private club welcomes vacationers for a day or week of golfing on the beautifully groomed, 18-hole courses designed by Seymour Dunn and Donald Ross.
Chautauqua Bike Rental
(716) 357-9032
The Chautauqua Institution’s grounds are ideal for leisurely bike rides through the hilly property, not for only a good cardio session but also to take in the many points of interest such as Bestor Plaza, the Athenaeum Hotel, the amphitheater, the Hall of Philosophy and the Miller Bell Tower at the edge of Lake Chautauqua.
Chautauqua Sports Club
A host of water sports can be enjoyed here, including swimming, kayaking, paddle-boating or canoeing an afternoon away. If dry land is more your comfort, check out the croquet, shuffleboard or lawn bowling.
Chautauqua Youth Club
Think of it as a day at summer camp for the kids. With organized activities ranging from crafts and nature walks to swim lessons and competitive sports, it’s an ideal way to develop children’s skills and independence, leaving adults with some much-needed free time.
Activities are divided into age groups ranging from preschoolers through high school.
The Brick Walk Cafe
A popular breakfast and lunch spot right on Bestor Plaza, the cafe is famous for its ice cream creations, as well as a variety of salads, soups, burgers, and hot and cold sandwiches.
Athenaeum Hotel
Breakfast and lunch buffets are served daily.
The hotel’s tapas and wine hour is from 4:30- 5:30 p.m. daily, and includes small-plate servings of hummus and artisanal cheeses.
The dinner menu ranges from ginger chicken pot-stickers and Moroccan chickpea stew to crispy veal schnitzel.
Set in the Tally Ho Hotel, the restaurant serves Sunday brunch and pay-per-pound breakfast and dinner takeout or eat-in buffet.
A free shuttle is available to take guests to off-grounds restaurants, departing every half-hour from the main gate from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. For a full list of dining options: www.ciweb.org/dining.
While gate passes never sell out, accommodations are in finite supply on the grounds – so the sooner they’re booked, the better.
All accommodations within the institution’s grounds are privately owned, except for the Athenaeum Hotel and Bellinger Hall dormitory. Options include single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, hotels and inns, historic inns and rooms, and denominational houses.
For more information: reservations.ciweb.org/search.cfm.
Athenaeum Hotel
The 150-room historic hotel overlooks Chautauqua Lake and has been a gathering place for thousands over the years, including 10 American presidents.
Heather’s Inn
The inn offers the best of both worlds: furnished apartment rentals with maid service and The Chautauqua Daily delivered to your door every morning. Considered one of the top locations on the grounds, it is only a block from Bestor Plaza and the amphitheater.
Along with its next-door sister inn, The Maple Inn, Heather’s is open year-round.
The Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua (Reform) offers Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5 p.m. every Friday during the season, lakeside at the Miller Bell Tower. For more information: www.hebrewcongregationchautauqua.org.
Chabad of Chautauqua will offer three Shabbat dinners throughout the summer season as well as a kosher BBQ, from 12-2 p.m. on July 12 and August 2 at the Miller Bell Tower Park, open to all.
A Klezmer concert will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 9 at the Anthenaeum Hotel; the concert is a joint event with Chabad and the Hebrew Congregation. For more information on Chabad of Chautauqua: www.cocweb.org or rabbi@cocweb.org.