In its 10th year, Newman carries on camping heritage

It may be 10 years since Camp Newman of Santa Rosa first opened its gates, but the unique spirit that is Camp Newman reaches back another 49 years and 118 miles to Newman’s predecessor Camp Swig, nestled among the redwoods in Saratoga’s Big Basin Way.

And the genesis of the camp reaches even further to the shores of Lake Tahoe. And after that, the Institute for Living Judaism — as it is also known — made its home in Asilomar before finding its way to Saratoga and eventually acquiring the name Swig.

It’s been quite a journey for these camps — governed, owned and operated by the Union of Reform Judaism and part of a system of 13 Reform movement camps across the country.

Although Camp Swig has morphed into Camp Newman, it’s safe to report that some things haven’t changed.

Back in the day at the Saratoga site, campers sang Jewish songs and a rowdy rendition of Birkat Hamazon, danced the night away in the ulam (hall) and dressed in white to greet Shabbat every Friday night. They loved it — and they still do.

“It’s my home away from home,” said Marci Cohn, a seventh-grader at Crocker Middle School in Hillsborough who will return to Newman this June for her sixth summer.

“The whole experience is far more prevalent in her life than anything else,” added Marci’s mom, Andrea Cohn. “It’s the truth. She and all her friends, they are counting the days when they get to go back to camp. It’s just an amazing thing.”

Ruben Arquilevich, the senior camp director of Newman and Swig Camp Institutes for Living Judaism — who Racky Newman one of the founding board-members calls a “national treasure” — says the ruach (spirit) of Newman, has remained constant as the camp has continued to grow, even as it as changed names and sites from Lake Tahoe, to Asilomar, to Saratoga to its present site in Santa Rosa.

“It’s evolved from one community to the next. It’s essentially the same community,” Arquilevich said. “The stories I hear from five years ago, are the same stories of [people] transforming their lives as young Jews, transforming their lives through living Judaism.”

Back in its previous incarnation as Camp Swig in Saratoga, the Institute for Living Judaism was bursting at the seams. They moved from the Saratoga site to the Santa Rosa site the summer of 1997, growing in acreage from 180 to 500. (Institute leaders are hoping to turn Swig into a retreat center for the Reform movement.)

The expanded facilities have enabled the camp to serve a maximum capacity of 475 campers per session, up from 325 from the previous site.

“It was a demand issue. We were turning away so many campers, that the board started to look for a site that could handle an expanded number of campers, staff and faculty,” Arquilevich said. “The real difference is we’re just serving more campers.”

And those greater numbers of campers are also afforded a greater number of choices.

“We have a lot more programmatic areas. We have a small lake. We have a mountain-biking program. We have roller hockey, digital photo, video, gymnastics. Our sporting activities are much more developed. We offer a sports track program. We have three dance studios,” said Adam Harris, the assistant director of Newman and Swig Camp Institutes for Living Judaism. Harris — who worked his way up the ranks from camper, to counselor, to unit head and now assistant director — says, “It’s really given us the opportunity to mold our camp to a new generation of kids.”

But what have remained constant, said Newman staff, are the love of Judaism that the camp instills in its campers and the joyful expression of Jewish life.

“We know that a significant percentage of the lay leadership in the Bay Area had the seeds of their love for Judaism planted in Jewish camps. One of our most popular sayings at camp is, ‘I love being Jewish,'” said Arquilevich. “There’s a real sense of the joy of being Jewish in addition to all the meaning.”

Marci Cohn can vouch for that.

“Camp just made it so much fun with all your best friends in a completely Jewish environment. It made me more want to be Jewish,” she said.

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