By Dan Pine
Until this past weekend, an archway hung over the entrance of URJ Camp Newman inscribed with the words “May you be blessed as you go on your way.”
The devastating wildfires that broke out in Napa and Sonoma counties on Oct. 8 incinerated that archway, along with much of the 480-acre Jewish camp nested in the hills east of Santa Rosa. Despite widespread grief over the loss, a spirit of gratitude survived the flames, as camp administrators embraced an outpouring of support from around the world and took their first steps toward reviving the beloved Reform summer camp.
Since announcing the camp’s virtual destruction in the hours after wind-whipped wildfires killed 15 and devastated parts of Napa, Sonoma, Yuba and Mendocino counties, URJ Camp Newman executive director Ruben Arquilevich has received thousands of calls, emails and social media messages expressing grief and solidarity.
“It’s the beginning of the healing process,” he said, “such a phenomenal, beautiful articulation of the mission and purpose of the camp and community-building we all do, a reinforcement of the values we live in camp.”
The site is still too dangerous to approach, so the full extent of the damage won’t be known for several days. First reports early this week suggested that the majority of the camp buildings have been destroyed. But Newman leaders are determined to rebuild and to hold camp next summer, even if at a temporary site.
“We know there is significant damage from the last member of our team who was on the property,” Arguilevich said. “There are still hot spots, but we hope to get on the property in the next few days. First and foremost is knowing that our site staff is safe and taken care of. Our other priority is to provide absolute love and support for the thousands of children, young adults and adults who have been reaching out, to provide space and to hug and cry together. My home team and I are playing the role of grief counselor.”
Another priority in the coming weeks will be to craft a plan for getting camp ready for next summer. “What that exactly looks like we don’t know yet,” Arquilevich said. “We are very hopeful to run camp [in 2018] and provide that immersive magical loving Jewish community event that is camp.”
More immediately, he and other camp principals must work with claims adjusters, as well as city and county officials, to assess the damage and calculate the cost of rebuilding.
Camp Newman bought its site in 1997, and dedicated a new $4-million conference center in November 2016. The camp serves some 1,400 children every summer.
Daryl Messinger chairs the board of trustees for the Union of Reform Judaism, which owns and runs Camp Newman and more than a dozen other camps across the country. Messinger said that in the wake of the fire, it is crucial to move quickly to inform Reform congregations and chapters of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth arm) what they can expect from camp next year.
“We need to assess the physical damage and consider all options, now and for the future,” Messinger said. “The camp is a place of year-round engagement, not just summer. Our hope is in the next few weeks we will have a clearer picture. We are also very aware that this is not just a physical loss, but an emotional loss for our broader camp community.
“Camp is more than a place, it’s a home, it’s the people and the community we’ve built and not just the physical buildings. We need to think about camp not just as the site in Santa Rosa but also in other places for the foreseeable future.”
Said Jim Heeger, a past URJ Camp Newman board chair, of the road ahead: “This is probably not a one-year fix.”
As many campers past and present have noted on social media, though the loss of infrastructure is tragic, no one at the site was injured. More importantly, camp staff, parents and alumni have been able to grieve communally.
“It is a vibrant thriving organism,” Messinger said of the Camp Newman community. “This is a living, breathing organization and community that has great resilience, great dreams, one that has been through loss and rebuilding before. And I have no doubt that we will be stronger still in the future. We are going to have to think a lot about what it will look like and how it happens, but we know there is camp for our Northern California family.”
Also pondering the camp’s future is Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which has supported Camp Newman for years though operating grants and specific programming grants. He called it “a gem in our community,” and vowed an all-hands-on-deck communal effort to rebuild it.
“[Camp Newman] is in our hearts and the spirit remains,” he said. “That spirit is going to find its way, one way or the other. I would be loath to project what the rebuilding means. They haven’t gotten into the site yet. But I can say we are going to do everything possible to collectively insure the camp thrives. There are many partners and people who have a stake in this and care about this, at the local and national level. We will play that sacred role of convener and planner.”
Until then, Arquilevich’s short-term goal is to make sure he and the far-flung Camp Newman community have a chance to mourn. To that end, he, camp director Rabbi Erin Mason, along with several staffers and campers, held a live Facebook event on the evening of Oct. 9, singing of their love for their camp in prayer and song.
Mason noted how the fire occurred during the festival of Sukkot, during which Jews dwell in their sukkah, by design an impermanent temporary structure. No one watching could miss the inference that any manmade structure is indeed temporary, but the communal ties and strong Jewish identity fostered at Camp Newman would live on.
“The buildings at camp are sacred spaces, where people formed friendships, laughed, cried, shared their deepest hopes about life, discovered a life of Judaism and fulfilled our mission,” Arquilevich said of the camp’s ruined physical structures. “The plan now is to look ahead and to plan for the future.”
This article first appeared in J – the Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.