These days, the slopes of the Catskill mountains are dotted
with typical vacationing spots populated by the chareidi
public. With hardly a pause America, and especially New York
City, relocates itself from the "foothills" of skyscrapers to
the pleasant shade of oaks and pines and fresh mountain air.
One such place is Camp Ohr Shraga, the summer learning camp
associated with Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. A unique atmosphere of
harmony creates the perek shira of the Catskill
Mountains in the land of creature comforts and
The magnificent mountain vista preserves the isolation of
each recreational summer camp respectively, creating for each
the sensation of escaping from everything and dissociation
from the world and its driving busy-ness. This is the
underlying but pronounced reality of a yeshiva camp. The
purified, rarefied atmosphere wafts upon the very breath of
those who veritably sacrifice themselves over the
controversies of Abaye and Rovo. And this Torah study is
accorded here a green canopy of marvelous dimension,
ensconced among primeval mountains which surround and
This is the backdrop of Camp Ohr Shraga which occupies a
prestigious position as a camp for Torah study in an
atmosphere of relaxation and recreation. Many dozens of
yeshiva students gratefully dedicate themselves to undivided
Torah study. Centrally located in this camp is the beis
midrash which includes a hall for prayer and study, and a
spacious veranda open to the invigorating mountain air where
the yeshivishe daily study sessions are held. The yeshiva
students find themselves studying in the proximity of such
venerable figures as HaRav Zelig Epstein, one of the elder
roshei yeshiva in America. The camp atmosphere creates a
special closeness, an uplifting sensation that cannot be
matched. Vacation according to the American formula, spreads
itself over eight to ten weeks (late June through August),
the duration of which is considered a learning zman in
its own right.
In the pastoral pathways and under the soothing shade of
giant oaks, gurgles a stream with small fish flitting to and
fro. The silence is broken by the flowing water tripping over
rocks and the chattering of squirrels, all of which is
overpowered by the vibrant sound of Torah discussion. Pairs
of yeshiva students treading the smooth pebbles explore the
intricacies of various sugyos of study.
HaRav Meir Hershkowitz was one of the camp residents from
childhood on. Among his impressive memories of camp life,
most outstanding is the period in which HaRav Yaakov
Kamenetsky ztvk'l graced it with his presence. Well
does he recall his glowing figure, his perennial position by
his shtender, his compassionate look when you crossed
his field of vision. "I remember," R' Hershkowitz reminisced
once with nostalgia, "how I once passed near him with untied
shoelaces. I was shocked when suddenly, the venerable R'
Yaakov leaned over towards me and actually tied my laces and
gave them a finishing touch.
"The entire camp would eagerly await R' Yaakov's arrival.
When the car appeared at the far end of the camp, all of the
residents were already there, waiting to greet him. As soon
as he emerged, he would be accompanied by resounding song all
the way to his quarters.
"R' Yaakov used to learn on the porch, steadily, without a
break. Even during the afternoon rest period, he would remain
there engrossed in study until his rebbetzin would come to
remind him that it was time for a nap. I was once witness to
an interesting scene, but I must first preface it with some
"R' Yaakov had a unique practice: Whenever he came to learn,
he had the choice of climbing up a few steps or going a
roundabout way which involved a whole flight of stairs. He
invariably chose the detour so as not to disturb the boys
engrossed in study by having them get up in deference to
"One afternoon, I saw him standing and talking with one of
the Torah Vodaas ramim when I noticed the rebbetzin
coming towards us around the bend. I inferred that she had
come to remind him to take his afternoon nap and approached
the Rosh Yeshiva to inform him of her imminent arrival. He
waited a moment, considering what to do about the man with
whom he had been talking in learning. Still being out of her
line of vision, he said to me, `Go and tell her that I am in
the middle of a cup of tea.' I did so, and she replied, `I
just wanted to warn the Rosh Yeshiva not to go down the
regular way since the steps are filled with leaves and he
"I turned around and went to deliver her message to R' Yaakov
but when I arrived, he was already halfway down the stairs.
When he heard the message, he smiled and hugged me close to
express his appreciation for my trouble."
R' Yaakov was a man of action. Every movement of his was
completely thought-out according to halochoh. He was
the address for every question that cropped up during the
course of the camp. When he was approached, his decision
would be forthcoming on the spot.
R' Yaakov uttered every word of study out loud. It was his
method of employing the segulah for memory brought in
Eruvin 54 which states that a person should enunciate
each word aloud in order to engrave it upon his memory. It
was amazing to see that even when he was old and weak, R'
Yaakov persevered in this practice, not only when he studied
gemora but even when he delved into an acharon
commentary, he would read in a very audible voice.
Some of the most memorable moments took place at seuda
shlishis on Shabbos. All of the bnei yeshiva would
gather around the mizrach head table from whose center
he held court. There would be singing of slow soul melodies,
songs of the spirit, of regesh, and when that died
down, R' Yaakov would give a mussar shmuess. As was
his wont, he would intertwine spiritual guidance to the
HaRav Zalman Pinchos Quinn recalls two particular talks: In
one of them, R' Yaakov spoke about the approaching Elul
period. He opened with a question: As is commonly known, the
month of Elul is dedicated to self-introspection and one
would imagine that yeshiva students and Torah scholars would
be more complacent about the upcoming judgment than regular
laymen who are involved in everyday activities with the
general public. However, he would remark, there is one aspect
that applies more directly and specifically to bnei
Torah and that is the matter of chillul Hashem.
We find in Yoma 86 a differentiation in atonement or
blameworthiness for various instances. One of these is
chillul Hashem. In what way? Whoever is involved in
constant Torah study and who is occupied in attending Torah
scholars, by necessity has very little to do with the general
public, certainly not in any business capacity or commercial
exchange with others, even on a simple level. He simply lacks
contact with non-scholars. And what might people say of him?
`Alas for that person who is immersed in Torah. Woe unto his
father for having taught him the [limiting, isolationist] way
of Torah etc. Just look at so-and-so. How unseemly are his
deeds and how ugly his path...'
"So we see that a Torah scholar has a special obligation
which is not found by a layman. The more he is distinguished
and exalted, the more he must be careful to project the
proper image to his fellow man in the world at large.
"In a different talk, he again touched upon this subject, but
from a different approach. He presented the question of
kiruv and how every Torah scholar is obligated to
engage in it, even without making a special concrete effort.
He brought for an example the gemora there which
states that if a Torah scholar does come in contact with
ordinary folk and makes a good impression upon them, they say
of him, `Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah;
fortunate is his master who taught him Torah. So-and-so who
studied Torah -- how perfected are his ways." This is
sanctifying Hashem's Name but even more -- it is also a
direct, literal manner of engaging in kiruv rechokim.
He quoted the example of Ruth who clung to Naomi because she
was so impressed by her refined, exemplary ways.
"I remember," says R' Quinn, "that on that very motzei
Shabbos following this talk, R' Yaakov attended a rally
for kiruv at which he was scheduled to speak. I was
certain that he would repeat what he had said to us that day,
but to my surprise, he gave an entirely different address. On
our way home, I asked him why he had made no mention of the
thoughts he had expressed on Shabbos which happened to be
relevant to the occasion. He replied that the audience was
`not holding by that.' They were not at such an advanced
stage that the message would be meaningful to them.
"R' Yaakov," our interviewee stresses, "was one of the
founders of the camp and invested a great deal of effort and
interest in it. Just to show how highly he regarded it can be
learned from the fact that when he was about to marry his
second wife, he discovered among the terms of the
kesuba the fact that he was expected to accompany her
to her parents' home in Canada for vacation time. When he
read this, he objected and said that the rebbetzin would have
to forego this stipulation since he already had a standing
obligation with Camp Ohr Shraga. The rebbetzin reconsidered
and agreed to his request."
All the while that R' Quinn was telling this, Torah life was
teeming about, outside the window of the bungalow in Camp Ohr
Shraga. This was in-between the regular study sessions that
began much before shacharis which was at 7:30, and
ended at ten p.m.
During such an interval, the campers and residents might have
the honor of a brief visit from deer, who appeared to give a
concrete example of "swift as a deer" to do the will of our
Father in Heaven. In this setting, a special harmony
expressed itself in a silent Song of Praise unto Hashem, the
Perek Shira of the Catskill Mountains, in the very
land of creature comforts and materialism.