Breaking News: Our Hearts are Broken

The beloved URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, has been burnt by massive fires and the majority of its structures have been destroyed.

Sandy's granddaughters, Ari and Kami, at July summer session, Camp Newman. Happy times then, very sad campers today.
Sandy's granddaughters, Ari and Kami, at July summer session, Camp Newman. Happy times then, very sad campers today.

As our country, and our world, wakes up each day to new, and more often than not, devastating headlines that shatter our security, sense of human decency and confidence that “all will be okay,” today, one more tragedy becomes Breaking News:

On October 9, a-home-away-from-home for the Jewish youth of Northern and Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas has been destroyed by fire. As of this writing, Staff has not yet been allowed to survey the area to obtain complete damage. Over 60,000 acres have been burnt in the Northern California areas, 1500 structures wiped out.

Thank G-d, Staff and the treasured Torahs were quickly evacuated to safety.

In 1947 the URJ Camp Newman Institute for Living Judaism was established and has been an integral part of the North America Reform Jewish camping experience and maintains a special cultural occurrence for our youth to bring living Judaism into their lives. Over 100,000 Jewish children, teens and adults have been impacted by the bonding of life-long friendships, gathering of likes-communicating-with-likes, celebrations of sports, song and dance, arts and crafts, spiritual and religious observance.

The previous Reform camp, much loved Camp Swig in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, was 47 years-old when it was sold amidst controversy. The ailing camp site would have needed $1.5-$2 million for repairs and retrofitting, as it sat on an earthquake fault and still may have not met safety requirements if fully repaired. Hence, Camp Newman became the new jewel.

As we wait for information about the status of Camp Newman, I personally hold my breath to know if works of art on the campus, created by artist Helen Burke, have survived. In 1967 Ms. Burke, a non-Jew from Idaho Falls, Idaho, was invited to join the art’s faculty at Camp Swig for a two-week art festival for high school students. She fell in love with Camp Swig and ended up staying for 20 years while living at the camp site as the camp’s artist-in-residence. After Camp Swig closed, some pieces were moved to the Magnus Museum in Berkeley while others to Camp Newman.

Over the years, she created a Holocaust memorial that was constructed on the site where 1,500 campers contributed to the memorial project, working with welded metal or mosaic. Attached to the memorial’s centerpiece is an ark to which are attached artistic representations of Jewish holiday cycles, images of California redwoods, pomegranates and birds. Also created with the help of campers were two portable Torah arks where one housed a Torah rescued from the Holocaust.

After Ms. Burke’s death at 81 years old, Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of the URJ, (then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) Institute for Living Judaism, was quoted as saying, “She probably is the greatest hero Camp Swig has ever had.” Alumni of Camp Swig and the Reform Movement have recalled that she left an everlasting imprint on the campsite and the imaginations and creativity of those she touched.

I had the pleasure of meeting her in 1982 at Camp Swig and was very excited as she took me on a tour of her art pieces. This past July when I went to pick-up my granddaughters at Camp Newman after their summer session ended, I was thrilled to see some of the artwork of Ms. Burke’s that I saw at Camp Swig so many years ago.

And now I wait to hear news if Helen Burke’s contributions to our camps have survived. I pray they have.

Purchased in 1997 and drawing from over 80 congregations, Camp Newman has served over 1400 campers each summer. The mission is to “Inspire people to take camp home, applying their Jewish learning to their daily lives, ultimately bettering themselves, their communities and the world.” By the outpouring of emotions and heartbreak from alumni and young campers over its destruction, Camp Newman has had an incredible impact on those they wanted to influence and impress with their message.

For me, along with so many others, this is personal. I worked for BBYO years ago and spent weekends with BBG and AZA kids at Camp Swig; such great fun. My daughter spent most of her youth at Camp Swig and now my granddaughters spend their summers at Camp Newman. I recently wrote for Jewishsacredaging a piece on “What Do We Tell Our Grandchildren?” asking how much do we tell them about the realities of life that often are too much for children to know about. And once again, we have to answer them with another “WHY has this happened?” with explanations that we, ourselves, have no good answer.

My sister-in-law was on the Board of Directors of Newman; there was a memorial piece to her deceased sister there, and we don’t know if it survived; there’s an artistic brick in the ground as a tribute to my nephew, who for many years was the camp song leader. I shed tears for all of that, but more importantly, I grieve for my four grand kids who have memories from there and are now asking the age old questions, “WHY?” And I don’t know how to answer them.

I was so happy to be at Camp Newman just eight weeks ago where we were surrounded in a beautiful serene setting with hundreds of happy Jewish kids and thrilled that I have pictures of the pristine environment, that today, we have no idea if it can be duplicated. But what I do know is that fire can destroy buildings but not the spirit and faith that have been instilled into all Camp Swig and Camp Newman campers.

I am grateful for all whose Judaism has been highlighted at Camp Swig and Camp Newman and as our Jewish history teaches us, our sanctuary will be rebuilt.


1 Comment

  1. Richie- wow! Didn’t realize this. Do let us know where/how we can make a donation to the restoration of the camp.

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