I love New York City, but not in the summer heat when unpleasant fumes permeate the air and melted gum on the sidewalk sticks to my shoes. Summer to me is sitting outside in sweet air with a book and a cool drink, hiking in the woods, and swimming. In other words, summer is for going to the country.
Growing up year-round in the Catskills created interesting rhythms for my own Jewish childhood. Born in Liberty and raised in nearby Divine Corners on a chicken farm, I experienced each season vividly. Summer in the Catskills meant that school was out, that my siblings and I could spend whole days playing outside, and that the local bungalow colonies, hotels and towns would hum with vibrations of Jewish life. Secular and religious Jews flooded the mountains. My Holocaust survivor parents’ few remaining friends and relatives from Europe came to visit, drinking tea late into the night, telling and retelling their stories. Chasidim came to buy fresh eggs and show their children the chickens. I gave tours of the coop, babysat at the nearby bungalows where I floated in the pool and flirted with the sophisticated boys from “the city.”
While I happily entered adulthood in Manhattan, the birth of my own children awakened a dormant homing instinct for my rustic origins. It felt strange, unnatural even, to push my baby carriage over hot smelly streets and sit in concrete parks. I needed grass, flowers and quiet woods. The search for a place in “the country” took off. My husband and I had only a few criteria. We wanted an affordable house in an open-minded Jewish community that had a swimmable lake, a synagogue, and was less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan. Following the principle that you can’t go home again, it couldn’t be the Catskills. I could not face the ruined hotels and dilapidated towns that were once so exciting and glamorous.
We checked out a few locales before finding our treasure, Lake Waubeeka, 60 miles northwest of Manhattan and just outside of Danbury, Conn. Jewish firemen from New York established this community in the early 1950s. Members of the Ner Tamid society, a nonprofit organization for Jewish firefighters, they could not afford to send their kids to camp but wanted to get out of the city for the summer. Among the community’s founders was Sid Klein, father of the singer Carol Klein, better known as Carole King. While the pioneer group was largely secular, a small group felt that their community should include a synagogue and so they build one with their own hands. This eccentric beginning was fertile ground for a diverse group of tri-state area Jewish families who wandered in over the next few decades in search of their own country retreat near a synagogue.
And so, my daughters spent their early summers paddling in the lake and exploring the frog pond. They discovered salamanders after the rain and chased fireflies at dusk. As they grew older they brought friends and came on their own for snowy weekends in the winter. The synagogue continues to be a model of interdenominational cooperation, kind of like a graying Hillel where we linger over Kiddush and talk about ideas, art and politics. Saturday afternoons feature a kind of moving salon as people rotate hospitality and scholarship on any topic. This year, the season kick off was a 92-year-old Waubeekan who read from her recently published memoir. The following Shabbat, one of our resident rabbis shared reflections from his long career in Jewish education.
The beach offers another community experience. Weekend mornings start with yoga on the sand, and the days continue with swimming and live bands on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
Childhood is short and memories fleeting. But the smell of cut grass, the sound of birds in the early morning on a quiet walk around the lake, and the delicious swims in open water give me a kind of pleasure that connects to me to the best times of my earlier years. As soon as I hit the exit ramp from I-84, the chatter in my mind quiets and I feel calmer. I am getting close to Lake Waubeeka.
It’s true — you can’t go home again, and many of us might rather not return to the scene of our younger days. But you can find a special place in the country that touches off the happiest notes of childhood and allows you to find a new song.
Dr. Michelle Friedman is director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School.