A religious nonprofit group that operates two children’s summer camps in Schoharie County is alleging bias on the part of the county after receiving $26,000 in fines for not reporting injuries to campers.
The New Jersey-based Oorah Inc. runs the GirlZone and BoyZone camps in Gilboa and Jefferson. The camps focus on providing Jewish children with wholesome activities and bringing them closer to their faith.
The orthodox Jewish organization has been at odds with local, county and state officials and their neighbors since it began operating its first camp in Gilboa in 2006. The most recent issue involves a state law governing summer camps that requires operators to issue a report to the county Health Department any time a child’s injury results in hospitalization.
Oorah never made those reports but contends they aren’t required of other camps and says it thinks they are meant to warn of public health threats like communicable diseases, not common outdoor activity injuries.
Oorah and the Schoharie County Health Department are wrangling through an administrative process that could lead to resolution of the issue. A hearing that was scheduled this week was postponed and will be rescheduled.
Oorah asked for informal hearings and complained when they learned County Attorney Michael West was selected as the hearing officer. After that complaint, the fine they expected to be $1,000 turned out to be $26,000.
“Instead of working with us, they raised a petty $1,000 fine to $26,000 to punish us for speaking out,” Oorah spokesman Hank Sheinkopf said in a news release. “It doesn’t seem as though other camps are being treated in this way. We can’t stay silent about this kind of unfair treatment anymore.”
West, who is also county attorney, said Oorah isn’t taking the county Health Department’s concern for safety seriously. He said campers have been taken to hospitals for injuries requiring helicopter transport and other incidents have involved broken arms, legs and head trauma.
West said one person was injured at the camp after sliding to the end of a zip line and hitting the metal post holding the line up.
“High-activity equipment such as the zip line and the basketball court have led to several routine injuries, for example, but could hardly be considered a threat to public safety,” Oorah said in a news release.
The organization says it’s maintained all records over the past eight years but has never, until now, been asked for them.
Getting regular updates on injuries would help guide the county Health Department in its work to inspect and certify the camps, West said. He said there’s “no grand conspiracy” targeting Oorah Inc.
“All the county wants is the information they feel they’re entitled to,” West said.
Oorah has been at odds with officials and local residents ever since it began operating a summer camp in Gilboa in 2006. An overworked septic system drew fines from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and neighboring property owners filed a lawsuit over lights and noise generated by the camp that brings hundreds of children to the foothills of the Catskills to swim, play sports, ride horses and practice their traditional language, among other activities.
Another lawsuit is currently pitting the town of Jefferson against Oorah as the nonprofit seeks tax-exempt status on a former ski resort — a status it already holds on its 115-acre camp in Gilboa.
Oorah attorney John Privatera said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday that the organization is still hoping to resolve the safety issue amicably.
“We have worked with the Department of Health for the past two years without incident before this issue and we hope to continue adding to this county and being responsible members of the community,” he said. “Lately it has been much more difficult. We still want to come to some resolution that we can all live with.”