Democrat Photo | Dan Hust
THE OLD MAIN hotel at the former Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen.
Planned Hasidic 'city' At Former Homowack Causes Stir in Township
By Dan Hust
SPRING GLEN October 12, 2007 For one day this past August, the Town of Mamakating played host to more than 10,000 visitors, all in one location.
In its heyday, the Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen was one of the premier Borscht Belt resorts, catering to those who wanted the beauty of the Catskills but would rather not travel as far for it.
Today, the 460-acre complex on Phillipsport Road is called both the Spring Mountain Resort and the Girls Camp of Skver, a place for orthodox Jewish young women to relax and enjoy the mountains, just a stone’s throw away from Ulster County.
In many respects, then, the well-maintained, 325-room resort has remained a hospitable destination catering to a Jewish clientele and the largest strictly Kosher hotel in the world.
But plans are afoot to turn it into one of the largest communities in all of Sullivan County, as well, and on August 19, the Jewish Press newspaper reported that over 10,000 Hasidics from America and Canada attended a blessing ceremony at the resort in anticipation of just that.
Though the development companies go by the name Ulster Mountain, LLC, and Ulster River, LLC, the developers are members of the Rockland County Hasidic community of New Square.
What is New Square?
The first officially-recognized Hasidic religious community of its kind in the country, New Square was incorporated 46 years ago within the Town of Ramapo and now boasts nearly 8,000 residents on 217 acres.
Led by Grand Rabbi David Twersky, the community espouses a lifestyle focused on the spiritual rather than the earthly and operates schools, businesses and charitable groups centered around sustaining “an atmosphere which is insulated from the moral pollution that abounds elsewhere… untainted by the influence of popular culture,” according to one New Square brochure. (New Square is considered by some, in fact, to be the inspiration behind Kiryas Joel in Orange County.)
But the village’s swelling ranks in a heavily populated area just north of Spring Valley have turned leaders’ eyes farther northward, and the picturesque, rural Bashakill Valley of the Town of Mamakating complete with a pre-existing hotel and golf course has caught their attention.
And that has caught the attention of locals, who are divided about the merits of this planned community to be called Kiryas Skver.
“No real plans”
According to New Square Deputy Mayor Israel “Izzy” Spitzer, there are “no real plans or any type of immediate starting dates.”
Now under the ownership and direction of New Square, the Homowack is still being operated as a hotel, fully on the tax rolls, and Spitzer said the camp is the only facility currently undergoing improvements.
“We’re just trying to make ends meet,” said Spitzer.
Various Town of Mamakating officials, including Supervisor Charlie Penna, added that the township has received no applications or plans for a major development at the Homowack.
But a brochure published this summer by a committee in charge of fund-raising for Kiryas Skver goes into some detail about what it terms a “twin sister” to New Square.
“We are talking about creating a city from scratch,” writes author Rabbi Shulem Ber Fischel, leader of the fund-raising effort, “building an infrastructure costing tens of millions of dollars, setting up a talmud torah, a girls school, a yeshiva, kollelim, a beis medrash, a mikva and other mosdos, as well as a shopping center, health center, etc.”
The 12-page brochure presents the history and growth of New Square as the potential future of Kiryas Skver, although it does acknowledge that “stringent new environmental and other regulations” will have to be followed for this community’s development.
But even if virtually nothing is going forward at this point, the brochure makes clear that $5,000-$500,000 contributions are being accepted for “the opportunity of a lifetime” adding that those who invested in New Square 50 years ago “are now reaping dividends that would be the envy of the most prosperous hedge-fund manager.”
Concerns about the future
Considering the battles over the Yukiguni mushroom factory, Kohl’s Distribution Center and Bashakill wetlands a few miles down Route 209, it’s no surprise that some residents are already organizing opposition.
Basha Kill Area Association (BKAA) member Anita Altman is part of a new group called 209 Valleykeepers that is meeting regularly to determine ways to keep Kiryas Skver from happening. (The group is reachable via the Shawangunk Ridge Coalition in Mahwah, NJ at 201-512-9348, ext. 25 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“We all recognize we can’t sit idly by,” Altman said, speaking for the 25 who have been meeting. “[It] would profoundly change the character of this community.”
Altman lives on property abutting the Homowack and said the hotel is already a fairly busy place on weekends.
“We hear they are actively acquiring other property,” she added, contending that roads have been built and structures modified at the hotel without proper permission.
Spitzer denied any such illegal activity is going on.
“We are very excited to meet our new neighbors and work together as a partnership,” he related. “And we’re very satisfied with the cooperation of town officials.”
So far, that cooperation hasn’t really amounted to much more than Supervisor Penna’s attendance at the August 19 blessing ceremony.
“I think they want to be good neighbors,” Penna related of his experiences that day.
But, he added, their dream of a new community will “take years and years.” Indeed, everything from zoning to sewer and water will have to be considered if these plans are seriously proposed.
And that’s where Altman remains concerned.
“This is not about the specifics of the individuals or the community proposing this,” she said. “[Such development] flies in the face of our rural nature… It’s a question of development in conformance with the rural character of the community.”
Anti-Semitism at work?
But an online blog, savespringglen.blogspot.com, indicates concerns directly relating to the religious beliefs of New Square residents.
“The issues that are a concern to the residents of Mamakating might very well be contrary to the practices of the Skver Hasidim,” writes the anonymous blogger. “The Skver know and care little of the outside world that surrounds them. They maintain their own self-interest, often to the detriment of the community at large. What might be for the benefit of the majority of the people of Mamakating will probably not serve the needs of the Skver, and they will vote accordingly.
“Indeed, if the relations between the Village of Kiryas Joel and the Town of Monroe, within which it resides, are any lesson, residents of Mamakating will be negatively affected by this community,” the blogger concludes.
That’s why Penna feels anti-Semitism may be at work in Mamakating, which up till now has rarely dealt with Hasidic communities of any size.
“There’s an undertone here that’s shameful,” he remarked. “I’m no poster child, but I don’t hate anybody.”
Blaming local environmentalists for scaring away developers of all sorts, Penna said those opposed to plans at the Homowack are “hiding their personal prejudices.”
Altman rejects such a notion, pointing out that current zoning in Spring Glen only allows one dwelling unit per acre and that the town master plan puts a premium on balancing growth “with the desire to protect the natural and historic resource base which provides Mamakating and its villages with its scenic rural setting.”
“So many of us understand that it will be imperative for the community to mobilize,” Altman continued, “to ensure that whatever development is planned is consistent with the rules and regulations of Mamakating Township, is environmentally sound and will add to the quality of life of those who already live here.”
Not interested in starting a fight, Spitzer said there is one thing everyone seems to agree on:
“It’s a great piece of property,” he said.