Although the wildfires in Northern California left most of URJ Camp Newman’s buildings in smoldering ruins, the speed with which past and current camp employees and campers, including many in the Valley, rallied to its aid has buoyed those grappling with the devastation.
Earlier this month, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, will be in session this summer. The camp struck a deal with the California State University Maritime Academy to house the camp at its waterfront campus in Vallejo.
“What the wildfire has shown us is how strong and resilient we are as a community,” said Rabbi Erin Mason, Camp Newman director. “Almost immediately, everyone rallied around us. The result was that in just a short amount of time, we found a beautiful site for Camp Newman’s summer 2018 — Cal Maritime’s superb campus. We’re calling it ‘Newman by the Bay.’ ”
Despite the destruction wrought by the wildfires, the camp’s prayer books and other religious supplies survived.
“We’ll be able to do all the activities our campers love, like ultimate Frisbee, swimming, basketball, art, music, song sessions, as well as gather together for meals and Shabbat,” Mason said. “And, of course, campers will get to experience the same Camp Newman culture and community that leads to making great friendships and experiencing life-changing moments.”
Last year, Temple Chai in Phoenix sent approximately 50 campers and staff to Camp Newman, including Cantor Ross Wolman and his wife.
“The URJ has two other summer camps on college campuses in Northern California and when we heard what [Newman was] doing and saw the video, we felt this glimmer of hope that camp was going to be camp, that they were going to be able to bring the magic to a new location,” Wolman said. “It will be different, but the people will be there and that is what makes camp special — the people, the traditions and the songs.”
The video Wolman refers to shows Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of Camp Newman, opening a storage shed next to the camp’s amphitheater as he assesses the extent of the damage.
“It’s crazy that this shed in the middle of our amphitheater, where we have our services, is untouched,” said Alaina Yoakum, director of marketing and communications for Camp Newman. “So those prayer books, the prayer shawls and the kippot that we use during our services, those survived, but virtually nothing else survived. We have to buy everything from scratch.”
Also surviving the fire was a 6-foot Star of David, which sits on a hill, and the camp’s entry gate that bears the inscription, “May you be blessed as you go on your way.”
The wildfires left 43 people dead in Northern California and caused more than $3.3 billion in property damage, according to the Associated Press.
Those looking for more information about the damage at Camp Newman, as well as sharing memories or learning about the camp’s plans for the future, turned to social media.
“I’m really connected on social media with people from camp,” said Lucy Greenbaum, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, who went to Temple Chai, has worked at Camp Newman as a counselor for the past three years and was a camper before that.
“I thought camp was this special place and that nothing bad could happen to it, and then I started seeing reports that there was no way that it wasn’t going to get hit by the fires, and I started realizing how serious it was,” she said. “But also, it was kind of awesome to see how quickly we came together as a community. “
Despite the outpouring of support, particularly through the #NewmanStrong campaign to raise money and other resources, the road to recovery is a long one.
“It’s a really complex process that involves insurance companies, experts and FEMA, all sorts of different people who have to get involved to assess the damage before the insurance company can even come back to us,” Yoakum said. “So we don’t expect to hear anything for quite some time.”
Registration for the summer 2018 Camp Newman session at its new temporary location opened Nov. 12. Wolman and Greenbaum hope to return this year.
“Being at camp in the summer, you can tell that there’s this outpouring of love and community the whole time that you’re there,” Greenbaum said. “But the fires really brought that out and showed us that camp isn’t just during the summer, but your whole life.” JN