On the first weekday of chol hamoed Sukkot, my wife and I usually take our four children to Hershey Park. The park, which is in Lancaster, Pa., is closed to everyone but frum Jews on that day.
Lancaster is not known as a center of frumkeit-it is most decidedly “out of town”-but on that day Hershey not only makes accommodations for the visitors, but actually reconfigures the whole park to be frum-friendly. The food stands, including the kettle corn that draws some of the longest lines, all are kosher. Placards advertise the times for minyanim, and hundreds of men converge to daven at prearranged times, or, if they miss the large gatherings, come together in small minyanim abutting food stands or roller coasters. The park also has at least two sukkot, to allow the visitors to fulfill the obligation of eating in one.
Hershey is not the only amusement park to accommodate frum Jews for Sukkot, but it may make the most effort. The two Disney parks, in Florida and California, also typically host Orthodox Jews on this day, although not exclusively, as in Hershey. Disney Orlando allows the local Chabad rabbi to build a sukkah on the premises, outside the ticket-taking area. This is unlike Hershey, where there are two sukkot on the inside of the park. Hershey in chol hamoed-aka #jewday on Twitter- also is popular because it is in the heart of the Northeast corridor that houses the bulk of the country’s Orthodox Jews. It is a manageable drive from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, and more specifically from Orthodox enclaves in Teaneck, Englewood, Cherry Hill, and Lakewood; Silver Spring, Potomac, and Reisterstown, Md., and Brooklyn, the Five Towns, and Queens.
The crowd, although nearly all frum, is nonetheless quite a diverse mix of the entire range of frumkeit, including charedi, chasidic, modern, and barely. I delight in seeing chassidishe families, notable for their boys sporting long curly peyot and speaking rapid-fire Yiddish, standing on line next to modern jeans-clad teenagers hanging out in coed clumps. Although much is written about the divisions within the modern and non-Orthodox camps, it seems as if Hershey Park, and other similar parks around the country that sponsor or encourage special days for Orthodox Jews, have found the magic formula that will unite these oft-times contentious communities – and that’s rides.
At Hershey Park – where strangers happily exchange the Yiddish greeting “a gut moed” – we see that despite differences in prayer books (Art Scroll vs Koren), pronunciation (taf vs. saf) and Zionism (silent vs pro), Orthodox Jews are just like everyone else. They are looking for a place they can enjoy a fun day with their families, where their restrictions – kosher food, the need for a minyan, and the need to eat in a sukkah – do not prevent them from sharing in that enjoyment. You can almost sense the excitement kosher-keeping Jews feel at not having to bring their own food to a family fun outing.
Hershey Park helps tell another tale as well. Fifty years ago, American Orthodoxy was being demographically dismissed as a relevant force in American Jewish life; over the last two decades, however, Orthodoxy has grown from its nadir at about 5 percent of the nation’s Jewish population to somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the Jewish population, and the numbers are rising. About 27 percent of Jews under 18 are Orthodox, in large part because Orthodox Jews tend to marry earlier, have more children, and intermarry far less frequently than Conservative and Reform Jews. In addition, Orthodox parents are far more likely to send their children to Jewish day schools or yeshivot, which are key predictors of generational Jewish continuity.
This growing community is in the process of shifting the face of Judaism in America from a cultural, economic, and political perspective. The crowd that gathers every year in Hershey is providing a preview of what that changed Jewish community could look like. Next year, out-of-towners and in-towners alike should consider a visit to Hershey on chol hamoed to get a glimpse of the emerging future of American Orthodoxy. And then, when the eight days of chag are over, they can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to work.
This column first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.