Surrounded by blackened vegetation, Camp Newman's iconic hillside Star of David survived, Oct. 2017. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
Surrounded by blackened vegetation, Camp Newman's iconic hillside Star of David survived, Oct. 2017. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

‘Miracles’ in the rubble as Newman officials visit burnt camp

Though most of Camp Newman’s buildings were lost in the North Bay wildfires, a tour of the site by camp officials found “miracles” amid the devastation — including the survival of the entrance gate, prayerbooks and tallits — and the iconic wooden Star of David that overlooks the camp from a rocky perch.

Newman executive director Ruben Arquilevich and other camp officials visited the fire-ravaged site for the first time last Friday, and were shocked at the scene even before they arrived.

Several buildings at URJ Camp Newman burned to the ground in the fires. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
Several buildings at URJ Camp Newman burned to the ground in the fires. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

The road to the camp traditionally has featured “scenery filled with blue skies and green trees and grass, and the first part has always been a neighborhood with a couple of hundred homes,” Arquilevich said today in an interview.

“But as we drove through that neighborhood, all we saw were homes burned to the ground,” he said. “This used to be a color scene, and it was black and white. It just haunted me.”

Arquilevich’s spirits were raised when he saw that the giant gate to the camp, inscribed with the words “May you be blessed as you go on your way,” was standing. Grapes dangled from some vines in the camp’s vineyard, which was undisturbed.

He was further relieved when the visitors found that a pair of Torah arks (one of them dubbed the Little Ambassador) created by former camp artist-in-residence Helen Burke had survived.

The group made the 15-minute hike to the 6-foot Star of David at which campers traditionally scream “I love being Jewish!” The wooden symbol “was completely untouched, surrounded by hundreds of yards of blackened brush,” Arquilevich told J.

The camp amphitheater, once nestled among verdant trees, now sits among their blackened remains. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
The Beit T’filah, where Shabbat services are held, was once nestled among verdant trees. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

Then they visited the amphitheater where many of the camp’s most sacred rituals take place, such as counselors holding tallits over campers’ heads as everyone sways to the “Hashkiveinu” at the end of Friday night Shabbat services.

BAfires-shed
URJ Camp Newman Executive Director Ruben Arquilevich looks out from an improbably unscathed shed full of tallits and prayerbooks. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

The bimah of the amphitheater was heavily damaged, and all of the nearby sheds were charred — “except for this one shed that contains our sacred texts and our prayerbooks and the tallitot,” Arquilevich said.

“It was completely intact,” he said. “We all just about broke into tears there, because the tallitot were safe. That was just another miracle and just so moving. It pointed in the direction we’re going, with the idea that Camp Newman will continue.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism that owns and runs the 480-acre camp east of Santa Rosa, joined Arquilevich for that tour of the charred site and said officials are determined to hold camp in 2018. About 1,400 children attend Camp Newman each summer, and 40 to 50 staffers come from Israel to work as counselors.

“We will have camp this summer,” Jacobs said. “I can’t tell you exactly where or how.”

Arquilevich said the survival of many of the camp’s most beloved symbols were signs of the camp’s determination to move forward.

“They’re a reminder of our resilience as a Jewish people, and they point toward hope and our future, and the promise to create Jewish life through Jewish camping,” he said.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.