Grieving Newman Community finds Camp Spirit Lives On in Each Other

Jewish camp is so informative in the lives of people involved, first and foremost the children, who essentially find their Jewish souls.”

Shabbat services at URJ Camp Newman, summer 2017; photo courtesy URJ Camp Newman.

By Maya Mirsky

When Joanne Cohen heard the terrible news about Camp Newman, she went downstairs to find her 12-year-old son, Avi. “I just looked at Avi and I had tears in my eyes,” she said.

All she had to say to him was one word. Camp.

The family, like many others in the Camp Newman community, had been monitoring the situation as fires ripped through Sonoma County. “We just felt the hope that it would be OK,” said Cohen, a San Francisco resident who works as a therapist at the camp.

The fires started late on Sunday, Oct. 8, and by noon on Monday had destroyed tens of thousands of acres, with Sonoma and Napa the hardest hit. Everyone knew the fire was close – Camp Newman had evacuated its staff and taken out the Torahs – but only later that day did word go out that fire had consumed the camp.

Campers, former campers and staff (many of whom had been campers themselves) had deeply emotional reactions when they learned that Camp Newman was gone, describing feelings from “gut-wrenching” to “really tough.”

The news became official at 4:45 p.m. on Oct. 9, with this post on the camp’s Facebook page: “It is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.”

Ari Vared, for one, wasn’t surprised. “I just got that feeling in my stomach that this was really close to home,” he said.

Vared, a Berkeley resident and former camper, previously was the director of year-round initiatives for Camp Newman and worked on the recent capital campaign. The Reform camp moved to its Santa Rosa location in 1997 and serves around 1,400 children each year, as well as 40 to 50 staffers from Israel who come to work as counselors. It also hosts off-season events, such as a PJ Library weekend for families Oct. 6-8 – the final event held at the site.

The capital campaign raised $30 million to pay for an expansion that included nine new lodges and a three-story conference and retreat center, all meant to serve the next few generations of campers.

“It was to create a core of camp that would last for the next hundred years,” Vared said.

Like many others, Vared’s life is intertwined with camp. He started as a camper in 1997 when it opened. He met his wife, Sarah, at Camp Newman, and they even chose to have their wedding there. And last weekend he reached another milestone when he took his 18-month-old son, Levi, to camp for the first time, for the PJ Library event.

“It was my first time sleeping in the new cabins that we built,” he said.

Vared underlined the fact that although the buildings have been lost, it is the spirit of the camp that means more – and lives on. “Camp is a community, and it’s something bigger than just a place,” he said.

That sentiment was expressed repeatedly in the Camp Newman community. The important thing, all agreed, was that no lives were lost. But they are still mourning the loss of a much-loved environment, including murals, mosaics and monuments created over the years, as well as the new buildings that were the result of a multiyear fundraising effort. Now it’s all gone.

“That’s part of what is excruciating,” said Joanne Greene, former camp board member and director of Jewish engagement at the Osher Marin JCC.

The archway that once greeted campers, families and staff as they leave Camp Newman.

But she is certain the community will transform its grief into something positive. “It was a holy and sacred space,” Greene said. “And we will build another holy and sacred space.”

Some of that spirit was apparent on Oct. 9 when camp staff and friends gathered at Newman’s San Rafael office for a siyyum, singing and praying like they do at the end of each day at camp. The event was streamed live on Facebook and Instagram; Rabbi Lara Regev was there, playing the guitar.

“Last night proved how much more camp is than just a physical location,” she told J. the next day.

Regev has been part of Camp Newman in various capacities for years, starting as a counselor in 2002 and becoming assistant director in 2014. Now she is in charge of the religious school at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, which sends about 100 kids to Camp Newman every year.

“It really is my home away from home,” she said, describing herself as “devastated.”

As the siyyum video spread on Facebook, comments streamed in with messages of love and support, and also thanks for the strength of the community. Regev said 1,100 people watched and sent “virtual hugs.”

It was a mark of the immense impact Camp Newman has had on everyone it touched – not only as a summer home, but as a Jewish space. “Jewish camp is so informative in the lives of people involved, first and foremost the children, who essentially find their Jewish souls,” Greene said.

Joshua Katzki, a longtime camper who is now 21 and a student at CSU, Chico, said that he, like many of his friends, wasn’t very interested in religion outside of camp. But being in a Jewish community at Camp Newman felt special, he said. Even prayer grew on him.

“As you get older, siyyum and Shabbat are the kinds of things you miss the most,” he said.

Judah Hoffenberg, 15, has been traveling to Camp Newman for years from his home in Honolulu – “almost half my life,” he said. Now he is “heartbroken.”

Social media has kept him connected to his camp friends, who decided to make a gesture in honor of the camp they love so much. “All of us wore our Camp Newman tie-dye shirts to school yesterday,” he said.

So did Greene and other local staffers and supporters. “We all went to work in our Newman shirts today,” she said on Oct. 10.

In that same vein, congregations in the Bay Area and Southern California will hold “Camp Newman Shabbat” services this Friday evening. People will gather to pray and sing the Camp Newman way, to grieve for a location that has been destroyed but also to express solidarity with the community.

Cohen’s son, Avi, also wanted to do something. Camp Newman was very important to him – in fact, he insisted on having his bar mitzvah at the camp. Cohen was even drafting a “save the date” note the night the fires started.

Cohen said that when she told her son about the fire at camp, he put his head down for a moment. Then he went upstairs, got his computer and told his mother he was starting a GoFundMe page.

And he did, setting up a page for donations to Camp Newman that as of Thursday afternoon had raised more than $6,200. “This is his way of mourning,” Cohen said.

As the Camp Newman community mourns the loss of a place many described as a second home, they are also celebrating the energy and love that binds them. “That’s really what Camp Newman is,” Regev said.

Vared is already looking to the future. “It’ll be rebuilt,” he said. “It’ll happen.”

This article first appeared in J – the Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.