The Valley’s Jewish residents and organizations are mobilizing to help with relief efforts as three major wildfires ravage Northern and Southern California.

The fires in Southern California already have touched the lives of many Valley Jews, as two historic camps — Camp Hess Kramer and its sister camp, Gindling Hilltop Camp — suffered major damage from the Woolsey fire that is scorching Malibu’s hillsides through to the Santa Monica Mountains. Hundreds of Valley residents of all ages have attended the camps throughout the years. A JCC summer camp in Malibu, Camp JCA Shalom, also was severely damaged in the Woolsey fire.

“I thought Gindling Hilltop had avoided the worst of it, but both of our camps suffered devastating losses,” said Andrea Cohen, who serves as residential director of Gindling Hilltop in the summer. She is also the director of Youth Philanthropy for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix. 

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Woolsey fire in Southern California and the Camp fire in Northern California have killed 80 people while burning through nearly 400 square miles. 

Built, owned and operated by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Camp Hess Kramer opened in 1952 and Gindling Hilltop opened in 1968. Gindling Hilltop is known for its outdoor chapel that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, providing campers and other visitors with a breathtaking view. Cohen said the stone structures at the chapel, such as the lectern and the stands that hold the un-scrolled Torah during services were blackened but not destroyed. The Torahs at both camps were rescued.

“We’ve lost buildings, we’ve rebuilt buildings,” Cohen said. “This moment, the spirit is not so much in buildings; it’s in the campers, it’s in the staff, it’s in the alumni. It’s a magnificent setting, but the community that we’ve built is even more beautiful than the sunsets.”

The destruction of the camps comes a year after another beloved camp, URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Camp Newman, was burned to the ground by a major wildfire in Santa Rosa in Northern California.

Cohen’s roots to both camps, but in particular Gindling Hilltop, run deep. Her grandparents helped in the building of the camps, with Cohen’s grandfather acting as the first camp doctor. Cohen and her siblings, who were born and raised in California, were campers as well as counselors. 

Both of Cohen’s sons attended the camp, with one now a counselor and the other entering the counselor-in-training program. Her oldest son also became a bar mitzvah at Gindling Hilltop.

Last week, Temple Kol Ami hosted current and former campers to allow them to be together, share stories and “prove that camp is wherever they are,” said Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider. 

Schneider has led a group of Kol Ami campers to Gindling Hilltop in the past and performed Shabbat services. 

One of the people attending the gathering was Asher Kaye, a 14-year-old student at BASIS Phoenix who has been a camper at Gindling Hilltop since he was 9. This upcoming summer will be his last as a camper and he is ready to take on the counselor mantle in a few years.

After hearing about the destruction, Kaye said his thoughts immediately turned to rebuilding efforts.

“I feel like everyone has gotten over [the shock] and we’re all just getting ready to make sure that this summer will be the best that it can be,” Kaye said. “One of my favorite memories from my first summer was the last night of camp. We went on the ropes course at night and you could see all these fishing boats with their lights on, and it was just incredible.” 

Cohen said the ropes course was destroyed.

The Valley’s Jewish community already has started raising funds for the relief effort, not just for the camps but also for all those affected by the fires.

The Hebrew school at the Chabad of the East Valley already has started a toy drive for the children dislocated by the fires, said Rabbi Tzvi Rimler, associate and teen rabbi for the chabad.

Congregation Beth Israel is asking its congregants to donate money or gift cards to help in overall relief efforts as it partners with Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, located west of the San Fernando Valley.

Adopting the #KramerNeverStops and #HilltopNeverStops hashtags, both camps are raising money through a camp recovery fund that can be found online at wbtcamps.org/recovery. 

“We’ve already started making plans to find an alternative site for this summer,” Cohen said. “What kind of a setting that will look like is still yet to be determined. We still have campers signing up for this summer even though they know the news that the current site is not usable and we have staff signing up to come back.”

As Cohen and other current and former campers said, Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Gindling Hilltop are much more than places to get away for the summer —  they embody the Jewish spirit of moving forward.

“I feel like we just need to accept it and move on,” Kaye said. “We have to make the camp community even bigger and wait for the camp to be rebuilt and just keep going.” JN

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