'These hotels are so sentimental for all of us living here'

The Borscht Belt is burning: In the Catskills, abandoned resorts keep catching fire

Firefighters also work to extinguish rumors that blazes are ‘Jewish lightning,’ an antisemitic term used for arson committed with the intention of collecting an insurance payout

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

First responders tackle a fire at the Nevele Grand Hotel, near the Catskills town of Ellenville, March 19, 2024. (Courtesy/Eric Helgesen via JTA)
First responders tackle a fire at the Nevele Grand Hotel, near the Catskills town of Ellenville, March 19, 2024. (Courtesy/Eric Helgesen via JTA)

New York Jewish Week — On a cold night late last month, Barbara Hoff, the owner of an antique store in the Catskills, heard from a friend in the local fire department that the Nevele Grand Hotel was burning.

Hoff, who lives in the town of Cragsmoor on the Shawangunk Mountains, looked down into the valley below her home. She saw a smear of orange flames framed by the silhouettes of dark trees in the distance.

Hoff, 70, remembers another era, decades ago, when the Nevele was a bustling summer retreat for a largely Jewish clientele. At one time, this once-grand resort boasted 430 rooms, two golf courses, an ice skating rink and a swimming pool.

Now, this was the second fire at an abandoned hotel that Hoff had seen from her hilltop vantage point in less than a year, after the Homowack Lodge caught fire over the summer.

Both hotels were once thriving properties in the Borscht Belt, the nickname for a collection of resorts and vacation bungalows across New York’s Sullivan, Ulster and Orange counties that attracted throngs of Jewish visitors in the mid-20th century and left an indelible mark on American comedy, cinema and culture. More than half a century later, almost all of the formerly prominent hotels are out of business and are now derelict and dilapidated.

Over the past two years, they’ve been burning down — and no one knows why.

At least four formerly prominent hotels have caught fire since the summer of 2022, either partially or completely destroying disused buildings. Local fire departments have investigated the incidents but have come up with few leads. Meanwhile, they are simultaneously extinguishing antisemitic conspiracy theories about the blazes.

The dilapidated Nevele Grande Hotel is at the long-closed Nevele Grande Resort in Wawarsing, New York, in the Catskills, on Friday, June 30, 2023. The Honor’s Haven Retreat & Conference is visible in the background. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

For longtime Catskills residents like Hoff, the fires are resurfacing grief over a fading chapter in American Jewish history. Some older denizens had once worked at the hotels, giving them a personal connection to the burnt properties.

“The Nevele, it really has a special part in everyone’s heart,” she said. “Everyone worked everywhere but the Nevele really was the largest. It was the hotel. The one with the TV commercials.”

She added, “All the hotels are very sentimental to everyone here. It was sad to see that happen.”

The string of fires began on August 16, 2022, when a three-and-a-half-story building burned at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel — the hotel that inspired the film “Dirty Dancing.” The smoke column was “visible for several miles,” the local fire department, in the town of Liberty, said at the time.

Next came a fire that burned for six hours at Pines Resort Hotel in Fallsburg in June 2023, leaving a spot that once hosted stars including Buddy Hackett and Tony Bennett in rubble. Then, the following month, the Homowack caught fire twice in one week. Finally, on Tuesday, March 19, flames rose at the Nevele.

Hotel Evans on Lake Evans, Loch Sheldrake, New York, 1950. (Max Schwartz Co. via the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project)

In all four cases, state and local police have not reported any leads, though in the case of the Homowack, state police said there had been a “long history of trespassers” in the area, and instances of campfires at the site and fires on the property’s basketball and tennis courts. At Grossinger’s, firefighters were hampered by the property’s deterioration, with a locked gate blocking entry and concrete barriers and overgrown vegetation obstructing access for fire engines.

The Nevele remained accessible from the road through a gap in a security fence and by climbing over the skeleton of a bridge across a stream. Vandals had scrawled graffiti on the golf pro shop’s facade and smashed out the building’s windows, leaving its debris-strewn floor littered with shards of glass. Cattails grew on the steps of the outdoor jacuzzi.

Authorities are ruling out one explanation that is somewhat popular in the area, judging from local Facebook groups: “Jewish lightning.” The antisemitic conspiracy theory refers to arson aimed at collecting insurance money. The American Jewish Committee says the phrase is “rooted in Jewish stereotypes of stinginess and greed.”

As of Monday afternoon, one Facebook post about the Nevele fire has 43 comments below it; 10 of them suggest that Jews started the fire for nefarious purposes. A series of other Facebook posts about the hotel blazes in the region have attracted similar comments.

“How do you eliminate asbestos from clean up costs you burn it Jewish lightning strikes again,” one Facebook comment said. “The Jews doing there (sic) lightning to get insurance money,” said another.

Other commenters posted graphics of Jews in black hats winking or lighting candles.

An undated image shows the outdoor pool of the Pines resort in South Fallsburg, New York. (Courtesy/Steingart associates via the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project)

George Budd, a fire department chief at the Ellenville Fire District who responded to the Nevele incident, denounced the conspiracies as baseless, “slanderous remarks.”

“The Jewish community should not be bashed over these Borscht Belt fires,” Budd told the New York Jewish Week.

No authority figures have made any claims indicating the fires were set deliberately by owners. Hoff said it was difficult to patrol and police the vast properties and that vagrants and trespassers had infringed on the sites.

“That term, ‘Jewish lightning,’ it’s a horrible term and I’ve seen Borscht Belters throw it out there in the past few days on Facebook groups and it bothers me so much,” said Marisa Scheinfeld, a Jewish photographer who grew up in the Catskills. Scheinfeld documented the decaying resorts in an acclaimed 2016 photography book, “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland.”

The Nevele fire wrecked one building known as the Winter Lodge, but the resort’s dodecagonal 10-story tower, its most defining feature, was unaffected. Photos from the scene showed firefighters battling the blaze with ladders as flames consumed the building from within its graffiti-splattered walls. The fire turned the night sky orange and flashing lights cast a red glare on the building’s facade.

Nevele fire. Winter lodge building.

Posted by Eric Helgesen on Tuesday, March 19, 2024

The Nevele closed in 2009 after more than 100 years in operation. Last year, the property was acquired by the New York City-based Somerset Partners real estate group for redevelopment. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

Hoff said the Nevele fire has hit the community harder than the others. She knows the Slutsky family, the resort’s former owners, and said they had lived in the Winter Lodge, the building that burned.

“It was very sad because as a kid I used to ice skate at the Falls, which is a sister hotel,” she said. “Hotel life was part of my life.”

The fires have drawn sorrow in other quarters as a symbol of the Borscht Belt’s decay following its mid-century heyday. The area declined in the late 20th century as the antisemitism that had barred Jews from many other hotels waned, air travel became more affordable and Jews increasingly integrated into broader American society.

Interest in the Borscht Belt has seen a revival in recent years, with a museum dedicated to the bygone era opening in Ellenville, near the Nevele (Hoff is on its advisory board). Last July, the museum organized the first-ever Borscht Belt Fest in Ellenville. Another initiative founded by Scheinfeld, the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project, is placing large, metal plaques in towns around the area commemorating its Jewish history. The project also aims to boost the local economy, which has struggled since the tourism industry collapsed.

Scheinfeld had photographed the four resorts that caught fire for her book. She said that more than half of the sites she shot for her book are no longer standing, making the memorialization efforts even more important. She believes preserving the memory of the hotels — if not their actual structures — feels all the more pressing now, as the antisemitism that once fueled the need for the Borscht Belt has again reared its head.

“Not only is our history and these places of such significant Jewish history fading and crumbling, now they’re burning,” she said. “It’s a sad, tragic thing.”

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