Ethan Blyn, a freshman at the University of Washington, first heard about the wildfires in Northern California after checking Facebook on the morning of Oct. 9, and learning that URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, was evacuated.
The Scottsdale resident has spent summers at the camp since he was 9 and recently finished his first summer as a counselor there.
“For the past 10 years, it’s been my home,” Blyn said. “Camp made me into the person I am and it’s given me my best friends in the world.”
Throughout the day, Blyn and his camp friends remained optimistic in group chats, confident that the camp would be spared by the fire, as it had in the past when fires swept through nearby areas.
Before nightfall, the camp announced that most of its buildings had been destroyed.
Since Oct. 8, more than 15 fires in Northern California have destroyed an estimated 5,700 homes and other structures, and caused at least 40 deaths, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” said Blyn’s mom, Debbie, the past president of Temple Chai, a Phoenix synagogue that sends many campers and staff to Camp Newman each summer. She pointed out that the camp facility had recently undergone major renovations, which included the dedication of a $4 million conference center in November 2016.
Although the fire devastated the camp’s physical facility, the camp community remains strong.
“What we’ve learned and take away from camp, we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives,” Ethan Blyn said. “We’ll do whatever in our power to make sure the camp is rebuilt and that the community is not lost.”
URJ Camp Newman, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this summer, is the Union for Reform Judaism’s largest camp on the West Coast and serves about 1,400 campers each summer. The URJ is the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in North America.
Temple Chai’s cantor, Ross Wolman, and his wife served on the camp’s faculty the past two summers, joining many campers, staff and faculty from the Reform congregation.
“We’re all devastated by the fire and trying to figure out a way to rally our community around sharing camp memories,” Wolman said. “The big message is that camp is a place and what makes camp special are the people that are inside of it.”
Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai spent many summers at Camp Swig, which eventually moved to Camp Newman. In 1997, Chernow was the counselor-in-training director at Camp Newman, an experience that she said led her to wanting to become a rabbi. Chernow hosted a Havdalah gathering for about 30 campers, staff, faculty and parents from the local Camp Newman community at her home on Oct. 14, to help the campers process the loss.
“It was important to give members of the camp community a place to share their feelings and reactions to the difficult news that much of camp was destroyed,” Chernow told Jewish News. “We can all talk about it with friends who don’t know Camp Newman, but there is a deeper understanding amongst those who have been there, who share the same love of the same spaces.”
A photograph posted on the camp’s Facebook post on Oct. 12 showed that amid the fire’s destruction, a giant Star of David on the hill overlooking the camp survived the fire.
“What a fitting symbol for this moment,” read the camp’s Facebook post. “Countless times in our Jewish history, we have lost our homes, been displaced and wandered the diaspora. Yet, in all of these times, our faith, community and traditions have helped us transcend any hardship. Time after time, our spirits and resolve have been lifted by our Judaism and our people.” JN
The camp has set up a fund at campnewman.org/support-newman/newmanstrong. Leisah Woldoff is a freelance writer in Phoenix.