Catskills Kretchmas – The Empire Hotel
By Ben Zion Wolff
“The Neuman, or Neiman, families came to the United States in the late 1930s after they received a brachah from the Viznitzer Rebbe, the Ahavas Yisrael, zy”a,” Reb Yankel Duvid Neuman related. “When they first approached the Rebbe and informed him that they wanted to move to America, he told them, ‘In one year in America, the people abandon their shemiras Shabbos.’ But after a moment of thought, he told them, ‘If all the Neimans stay together, then zohl zei fuhren l’chaim ul’shalom.’ That is what happened; the family remained close as they established beautiful frum mishpachos in America. I was born and spent the first years of my life in the Bronx, but my parents moved to Williamsburg so that I could attend Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, ensuring the fulfillment of the brachah.”
In 1954, two cousins, Reb Hershel Neiman and Reb Yosef Moshe Neuman, purchased the Empire Hotel with plans to run it as a kosher vacation resort. Located on a scenic hill with beautiful vistas on Barton Road in Ferndale, New York, it was a short distance from Camp Agudah. During the early 1940s, Leo Gartenberg and Jake Schechter, two well-known Jewish hoteliers, leased the property, which served as a retreat for the frum people living in New York. At an Agudah Convention held on the grounds on Labor Day 1943, a meeting was held, attended by several Gedolim, to plan the rescue of Yidden in Europe. When Gartenberg and Schechter moved on to purchase the Pioneer Hotel and Country Club in Greenfield Park, Reb Hershel and Reb Yosef Moshe bought the Empire property from the owners.
Reb Hershel was a top-rated shochet who continued his profession during the off season and would take off for the summers to tend to the hotel. While Reb Yosef Moshe’s responsibilities focused on tending to the guests, Reb Hershel supervised the workers and oversaw the kitchen as well.
“Since in the intervening years, in the early ’50s, it had been used by non-Jewish owners, we had to kasher the entire hotel, done under the watchful eyes of the Mashgiach, Rabbi Bloch of Washington Heights, and my family invested their hard-earned money in the property with hopes that it would provide their families with a decent parnassah,” said Reb Yosef Moshe’s son, Yankel Duvid Neuman. “We installed an Olympic-size swimming pool with a filter and spent lots of money improving the grounds with sports facilities and other amenities.”
The property had a substantial three-story main building with a dining room and a lobby. The new owners dug out underneath the building and used the area downstairs to build a shul and mikveh, which was under the auspices of the Tzelemer Rav, Harav Levi Yitzchak Greenwald, zt”l. There were several smaller buildings on the premises as well, which were rented out at a discounted rate.
The hotel opened for the first time for Pesach, 5714/1954, and it attracted 80 guests. The reputation of the hotel spread quickly, with guests reporting that the food was ample and delicious. They shared that the atmosphere and company were the type that families could enjoy. By the second Pesach, the hotel was filled with 250 guests. During the summer, an on-grounds day camp provided children with recreation, and the adults could join the nightly kosher entertainment provided. As time went on and an ever-increasing crowd booked their vacations in the Empire Hotel, the owners invested once again in expanding the capacity and built two new buildings: the Deluxe and the Crown.
Aside from the Pesach and summer programs, if Rosh Hashanah fell close to Labor Day the hotel would remain open, and sometimes it stayed open for Sukkos as well.
“I remember that Harav Yerucham Gorelick, zt”l, a talmid of the Brisker Rav who served as a Rosh Yeshivah in RIETS and a Rav in the Bronx, came to the Empire Hotel for Sukkos,” recalled Reb Hershel Neiman’s son, Yanky. “It was difficult to build a sukkah in the apartment buildings in the Bronx, and he came to spend Yom Tov with his large mishpachah.”
“The Empire Hotel hosted many Rabbanim, including Harav Mottel Katz, Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe; Harav Pinchos Teitz of Elizabeth; and Harav Shlomo Twersky from Denver. Harav Ben Zion Notelewitz, who gave the hashgachah in a poultry plant in Livingston Manor, stayed at the hotel when he’d drop in at the plant, and from time to time I would drive him there.
“The Empire Hotel was chosen as the site for several of the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel conventions held during the Labor Day weekend. The guests at the convention included many Gedolei Yisrael, including Harav Yaakov Ruderman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Yisrael of Baltimore; Harav Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati; and Harav Moshe Feinstein, zichronam l’vrachah. There were so many guests that we had to borrow cots from Camp Morris to accommodate the hundreds of people who wished to attend.”
During one of these conventions, Harav Moshe Feinstein approached Yankel Duvid with a request. “I would like to accompany the person who checks the eruv,” said the Gadol Hador.
“I was the one who checked the eruv each week, and it was a great zechus to have Rav Moshe with me on my rounds through the many acres of the hotel grounds. I was sitting behind the desk, and I dropped what I was doing to accommodate Rav Moshe’s request,” said Yankel Duvid.
“There was one place I was bit concerned about since I knew it presented a halachic problem. As we approach that area, Rav Moshe stopped, and my heart skipped a beat as well. What would he say about the way the eruv was constructed in this area? Rav Moshe asked me, ‘Who made the eruv?’ I replied that the eruv was constructed under Harav Chaim Bick, who spent several weeks in the Empire Hotel each summer. When Rav Moshe heard this, he declared, ‘It is 1,000% kosher.’ He was obviously satisfied with the manner in which Harav Bick had the eruv built in this troubling area.”
“In addition to the Zeirei Convention, the Empire Hotel hosted a Torah Umesorah Convention, and a convention of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS),” said Yanky Neiman. “One of the prestigious guests at that convention was Reb Shmuel Hopfer, z”l (the father of Harav Yaakov Hopfer, shlita, of Congregation Shearis Yisrael of Baltimore). Reb Shmuel was an Alter Mirrer who went on to become a physicist, and he was a member of AOJS who attended the convention.”
One of the most joyous events at the hotel was the wedding of Yankel Duvid in 1961. “My wife is a Holocaust survivor who spent two years in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Miraculously, the entire family survived, and they returned to their hometown of Debrecen after liberation,” Yankel Duvid related. “The Debrecener Rav, Harav Moshe Stern, zt”l, served as Rav until he emigrated to the United States in 1949. My wife’s family escaped Hungary during the revolution in 1956, and five years later we married on the grounds of the hotel. The wedding was filled with prominent Rabbanim, including, of course, the Debrecener Rav, along with my step-grandfather, the Brigler Rebbe, the Tzelemer Rav, the Kashau Rav and many other dignitaries. After that event, many families used the hotel to celebrate their simchos, and we hosted many bar mitzvahs and sheva brachos.”
As the Empire Hotel was preparing for the 1968 Pesach season, a worker who was shining the floors with a flammable liquid started a fire with the cigarette he was smoking. Th lack of water hindered the efforts of the firefighters, and by the time they were able to pump the water from the pool to fight the blaze, the main building was destroyed.
“The insurance payment did not cover the cost of rebuilding, and with the hotel’s outstanding loans and mortgages, there was no way to continue operating it,” Yanky Neiman recalled sadly. “My father and his cousin walked away from the property, and he felt bad that despite all he invested in the business, there was no way to keep it going. He returned to shechitah, and Reb Yosef Moshe leased the Eldorado Hotel which he ran for a while before purchasing the Irvington Bungalow Colony in South Fallsburg, New York.”
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