Borscht Belt’s Newest Bet


Shira Dicker, a longtime summer resident of a bungalow in upstate Monroe, has vivid memories of her father, a Conservative rabbi, traveling up to the Concord Resort Hotel during the 1960s and ’70s to attend an annual rabbinical convention.

“My mother would pack her yellow, pink and light blue cocktail dresses and together they would head up to the Borcsht Belt,” she said. “Back then, everyone’s lives were connected to the Catskills in one way or another. But the Concord, and the Catskills as we knew them, are long gone.”

For better or worse, poker chips have now replaced mah jongg tiles.

Last week’s announcement by the New York Gaming Facility Board that a casino will be built on the former Concord grounds near Monticello — where two generations of Jews whiled away their summers breathing fresh mountain air and feasting on fatty foods — confirmed that a new chapter in the Catskills story is at hand.

Out of nine competing proposals to build a casino in the Catskills region, the sole winner was Empire Resorts’ Montreign Resort Casino’s proposal for an $800 million project that will feature an 18-story casino and a 391-room hotel. The casino and hotel will be part of the Adelaar Resort that will be built by Empire Resort’s partner, EPR Properties, and include a water park, retail shops, cabins, a movie theater, hiking and biking trails and zip lines.

The casino, a decades-long pursuit by county officials as vacation habits changed and the area’s many hotels were shuttered, is hoped to revive Sullivan County’s depressed and struggling economy.

“Once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way you can move is up,” John Conway, president of the Sullivan County Historical Society and longtime resident of the area, told The Jewish Week. Conway said that efforts to build a casino date back to the 1970s. “Predictably, people are very excited about the news. They see it as a positive catalyst for change and growth.”

Local residents were elated by the news, as was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who championed the campaign to expand gambling north and west of New York City as part of a larger economic strategy to revitalize depressed regions. Developers aim to begin building within the next three months.

“There is no question in my mind that this is what we need to re-energize Sullivan County,” said William J. Rieber, town supervisor of Thompson in Sullivan County. “The resort industry is the only one we’re good at — we’re going to make this work.”

Still, those who have long been opposed to the casino are continuing to express quality-of-life concerns.

“We are concerned for the safety of our children,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, member of the executive committee of the National Committee for Jewish Education, the umbrella organization that manages the several Chabad institutions in the area, including two large summer camps and two local synagogues, one in Ellenville and one in Kingston.

“If anyone has the right to comment, we do,” he said, noting that Chabad has been in the area since Camp Emunah, the first Chabad summer camp, was established in 1953. (The camp was founded by and is still directed by Rabbi Hecht’s mother.) “There is no difference between drug addicts and gambling addicts — they will do anything to get their fix. We don’t want undesirables to be our neighbors,” he said.

Rabbi Hecht’s brother, Rabbi Shalom Hecht, was active in the anti-casino efforts that preceded the board’s decision last week. Along with over a dozen other prominent Orthodox rabbis in late 2013, Hecht collaborated on a public proclamation urging their followers to vote against the referendum that would legalize casino gambling in the area.

Opposition to the casino proposal, though very vocal in the past, was notably subdued this time around, said Rieber, describing the anti-casino efforts as “de minimis.”

John Conway, who lived in the county during the many previous bids for a casino, agreed that protestors were much quieter this time.

“There was the least noise ever made,” he said. “I think the economy is just so depressed that people figure not much worse can happen.”

According to Hecht, over 200,000 Orthodox Jews visit the Catskills during the summer. Aside from the “undesirable” elements, he expressed concerns that the presence of a casino would deter Orthodox visitors.

“Orthodox visitors have bought thousands of homes in the area; there are over 50 Jewish camps and bungalow colonies there. A whole lot of money has been spent and invested there,” he said. “Though the casino might employ a certain population, it might estrange a different population.”

A local Orthodox rabbi from the county, who preferred to remain anonymous in order to avoid the politics of the situation, expressed concerns that the new casino might woo the local Orthodox youth.

“Teenagers and young adults make up a large part of our community, especially during the summers,” said the rabbi, whose local congregation has 120 family units year-round. “Gambling is addictive. No one should put himself in a situation where he could be vulnerable.”

Concerns have not only been voiced from the Orthodox community. Tempering the enthusiasm from the county’s political leaders, Phil Brown, professor at Northeastern University and founder of the Catskills Institute, an organization that promotes research on the significance of the Catskills for Jewish-American life, wondered about the long-term economic outlook of the casino industry.

“Look at Atlantic City,” he said. “There are lots of glitzy casinos, and huge amounts of very poor people.” In the past year, four out of 12 casinos on Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk have closed, costing thousands of people their jobs. The Trump Taj Mahal, which was expected to close in November, was only able to remain open after receiving a $20 million lifeline from billionaire Carl Icahn last week.

“Casino workers, even if they can get and keep jobs, aren’t paid well,” said Brown. “Though many are convinced that the new casino guarantees an economic turnaround, many casinos don’t end up doing well.”

Asked if the casino might affect the area’s Jewish community, Brown said, “The Jewish culture of the place won’t be affected at all. The chasidic community keeps to itself. They’re going to stay away.”

Conway said that the casino resort’s model might mitigate the trickle-down effect to the local residents. “The casino model is similar to the ‘fortress hotel’ of the 1950s, where everything, from barber shop to sundry shop, was available on the resort grounds,” he said. “My feeling is that this is a poor model to replicate. If everything is available on-location, less jobs will be available for small businesses and restaurants in the area. … Recapturing the glory days is not going to happen.”

But Dicker is optimistic about the new project. “I’m hoping for some classy sin,” she said, though she is doubtful that the casino will be a “golden solution.”

“I’m not a prophet of doom saying the end is nigh, but I’m also not standing on my chair applauding,” she said. “I’m optimistic and interested to see what will happen.”

Marisa Scheinfeld, a photojournalist whose evocative and poignant pictures document the decline of the Borscht Belt, is not concerned with the ethical or economic ramifications of the decision. Rather, as someone who has “found solace in the natural beauty” of the Catskills, Scheinfeld hopes the new industry won’t “shift the whole focus” of the region.

“There are a lot of pros that come along with having a casino,” she said. “It will provide jobs, bring people back, and hopefully restore pride to the county. But people initially found the Catskills because of the quiet and peace of mind they provide. With the new glitz and glam, I hope the serenity isn’t lost.”