PAUL SMITHS - A downstate rabbi's plan to turn the former Camp Gabriels prison into a summer camp for Orthodox Jewish boys was outlined to town of Brighton residents at the first public meeting on the project Tuesday.
Rabbi Eli Hersh of Spring Valley said between 150 and 250 boys from Orthodox Jewish communities, mostly in the New York City area, would attend the seven-week camp, which would be called Camp Hamachane.
The meeting, held at the Paul Smith's College VIC, drew a crowd of roughly 75 people. Most welcomed Hersh and the idea of turning the prison, which the state shuttered in 2009, into a summer camp.
Rabbi Eli Hersh of Spring Valley, right, talks with Paul Pillis of Gabriels following a presentation Tuesday at the Paul Smith’s College VIC on Hersh’s plan to turn the former Camp Gabriels prison into a summer camp for downstate Orthodox Jewish boys. Also pictured are Hersh’s father-in-law, Sam Bojman, and his daughter Bryna.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"I'll be your neighbor, and I just want to say welcome to the neighborhood," said Gabriels resident Tom McKernan.
"I'm glad to see you guys doing something with the property," said Dan Whitson, first assistant chief of the Paul Smiths-Gabriels Volunteer Fire Department. "That was one of my biggest concerns is to see it not used for anything. I'm glad it's moving forward. It's been long enough."
Hersh, who's married and has seven children, said he started Camp Hamachane eight years ago as a way to continue educating Jewish boys in a much more relaxed atmosphere and expose them to other environments. Eighty percent of the boys between ages 10 to 18 who've attended the camp come from Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Monsey, Spring Valley and Far Rockaway, N.Y., and Lakewood, N.J.
"A lot of the boys don't get a chance to get out and see other parts of the world," Hersh said. "They're more or less, I would say the word secluded. Part of the goal is to let the boys get into different communities, see what it is to live outside, see the bigger picture and the bigger world."
Over the years, Camp Hamachane has been more of a "traveling camp," Hersh said. It's been held in several locations, typically on college campuses, in New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and North Carolina. For the past three years, Hersh said he's been looking for a permanent location.
Hersh said he was first drawn to the Adirondacks when Camp Eagle Island, a former Girl Scout camp on Upper Saranac Lake, was put up for sale. Then, Hersh said, the real estate agent he worked with, Karen Mergenthaler of Lake Placid, later contacted him about Camp Gabriels.
"She said, 'I have a perfect place for your camp,'" Hersh said. "I said, 'OK. What's this perfect camp?' She goes, 'A prison.'"
The crowd laughed.
"I more or less had the same reaction as everybody here," Hersh said. "But she explained it's a minimum-security prison, and how many acres and what it entails. I came down as quick as possible. Since then, for the last few years, I've been working to try and close on this project."
Hersh, with the financial backing of his partner Adam Fine of Rockland County, bid $166,000 for the prison when the state auctioned it off in October. Theirs was the second-highest bid, but the property came to them after the highest bidder was unable to complete the transaction. Hersh said the closing on the property will take place sometime in the next two weeks.
"Camp Hamachane's goal is to be able to get these boys a relax-ful summer after a very hard year, to be able to be a springboard for the upcoming year, that they should be able to produce religiously, educationally, mentally on a higher level than the year before," Hersh said.
Hersh said the camp would be a summer school for the boys in the morning "and then give them the time of their life in the afternoon." Activities and outings would include canoeing, kayaking, hiking and trips to the Olympic venues in Lake Placid and the Great Escape in Lake George.
In addition to as many as 250 campers, the property would also be home to counselors, staff and their families for the summer, Hersh said. The six dormitories on the campus, which have a combined 360 beds, would be used to house campers. Some would be renovated to provide more suite-style accommodations for families. Hersh said the biggest changes to the property would be the addition of an outdoor swimming pool and the clearing of some trees for athletic fields.
"All the other buildings on the facility are all going to be used the same way. There's very little change going on; it's just going from a mandatory prison to, well, you can finish the sentence," Hersh quipped.
Hersh also said he thinks the project "should help bring many jobs to the area.
"We're going to need different types of jobs in the beginning phase fixing up the place, caretakers; the boys themselves will bring revenue by going to the stores," he said. "It will hopefully bring up revenue in the area and be a positive influence on the people in the area."
Hersh also talked about people in the Orthodox Jewish community, who he said many North Country residents have probably never met.
"Though we might look very different, we're very much the same," Hersh said. "We do have strong beliefs and we're very proud of them, but that, in no way, shape or form, secludes us from the rest of society."
While most Christians observe the sabbath on Sunday, the day of rest for Jews is Saturday. Hersh said many people in his faith don't have television or drive cars. Orthodox Jews also have very strict standards when it comes to contact between men and women, Hersh explained.
"I, or any man, cannot shake hands, hug or touch any woman beside a family member," Hersh said. "Hugging, kissing, shaking hands is a sign of endearment. By keeping separate, every kiss I give to my wife means something more special. It's not to be disrespectful or separate from people. We're just trying to show how much more it means to us."
Q & A
During a question-and-answer session, local historian Mary Hotaling said she was glad to hear there aren't any plans to tear down the historic buildings on the property. She noted the camp was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients before it became a prison.
Jim Riley, a neighboring landowner, asked whether campers would be allowed to leave on their own. Hersh said there will be adult supervision all the time and campers are not allowed to come and go as they please.
Billy Jones of Chateaugay, chairman of the Franklin County Legislature, and Malone Legislator Gordon Crossman, whose district includes Gabriels, were also on hand and voiced support for the project. Hersh said he also has the backing of state Sen. Betty Little, who he said "really wants to make this happen."
Brian McManus of Keene, who said he had looked into buying the property, questioned whether a seven-week summer camp will provide the kind of year-round economic impact that's needed in the area.
"I've read that you thought about it as a corporate retreat," he said. "I'd think you'd want to use a more secular name for it or change the name of it in the summer, if that's what your purpose is. ... There were 150 people employed there year-round, and I think the vision has to be broadened to take in the other seasons and take in the fact that we want jobs created here."
Hersh said how the property will be used the rest of the year hasn't been decided.
"It's not a prison. It's not the same thing," he said, "but I think it's pretty good use for what the property presents itself as without having to change the property too much. Yes, we're going to try to do whatever we can to help the economy over here. One of the possibilities is a retreat."
Hersh said the camp would be a nonprofit organization and that he's pursuing tax-exempt status. Whether or not the camp would provide a payment in lieu of taxes to the local taxing jurisdictions is still undetermined, he said.
Paul Pillis of Gabriels, who works at the Young Life camp, a Christian retreat for high school students on Upper Saranac Lake, said Hersh has a sound plan. He also said it's not Hersh's job to fix the area's economy.
"This property was put on the open market by the state of New York," he said. "How many buyers tried to take this on? Thank God we have one man from Spring Valley, New York, who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, who is willing to take on this challenge. He has the financial backers, and I wish him the best."
Hersh said he's pushing hard to get the property ready for its first camp sessions in July.
His lawyer, Glens Falls-based attorney Michael Hill, said they're working to get permits from various agencies, including the state Adirondack Park Agency. He said the extended winter has delayed some of that work, like surveying and soil testing.
"We need the weather to warm up and for the camp to thaw out in order to be able to do some of that investigation and testing work," Hill said.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.