The iconic Star of David that sits on a hillside over Camp Newman was surrounded by blackened remains six months ago. But now: signs of life. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
The iconic Star of David that sits on a hillside over Camp Newman was surrounded by blackened remains six months ago. But now: signs of life. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

At Camp Newman, ‘bearing witness to healing power of nature’

Ruben Arquilevich woke up one day a couple of weeks ago feeling sad. It took him a moment to realize why — it was the six-month anniversary of the fires that ravaged Camp Newman, the Jewish summer institution where he’s been executive director for nearly a quarter-century.

A day later, he showed a J. reporter around the 480-acre site north of Santa Rosa, marveling at the new growth on some trees and the thriving vineyard, but also continuing to grieve over the piles of crumpled metal and broken concrete that used to be dorms, dining halls and activity rooms.

“It is difficult to look at, yet it is reaffirming — the unparalleled love, support and empathy from the Jewish community of the Bay Area and worldwide, and the non-Jewish community, has really been a balancing point to the trauma,” he said.

The contrasts were stark. Next to charred trees and amphitheater benches, a branch sprouted new needles. A salamander scurried through mounds of debris. A bird’s chirps were drowned out by the buzz of a chainsaw.

“I’m very moved by the resiliency of our community and very moved by the resiliency of the land here,” Arquilevich said. “We’re bearing witness to the healing power of nature.”

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

Newman, the West Coast’s largest Reform Jewish camp, has been held at the Santa Rosa-area site since 1997. Earlier called Camp Swig, it has been a mainstay of Jewish life in Northern California since 1947.

In addition to welcoming about 1,400 children each summer and 40 to 50 staffers who came from Israel to work as counselors, the site on Porter Creek Road hosted retreats and other gatherings throughout the year.

It was devastated by the wildfires that swept through Sonoma and neighboring counties starting on the night of Oct. 8. The fires scorched 245,000 acres, causing at least $9.4 billion in damage, destroying 8,900 structures and killing 44 people.

The randomness of the flames, which Arquilevich said were estimated to have reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, is evident at Newman.

All that’s left of many dorms is a concrete slab, but some adjacent buildings were untouched. The bimah of the Beit T’filah 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 — was mostly destroyed, but a nearby shed containing prayerbooks and tallits was spared.

URJ Camp Newman Executive Director Ruben Arquilevich looks out from an improbably unscathed shed full of tallits and prayerbooks, Oct. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
URJ Camp Newman Executive Director Ruben Arquilevich looks out from an improbably unscathed shed full of tallits and prayerbooks, Oct. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

The cabin of Rabbi Erin Mason, the camp director, was wiped out. Yet a portable basketball hoop, which Mason says she forgot to bring inside when she evacuated camp hours before the fire raced through, stands unharmed and lonely in front of the empty slab.

“It is hard to believe that it has been six months since the fire,” Mason said. “I am filled with emotions. The last six months have seen difficult changes, a new summer venue and building of a brand new camp program for the summer.

“I am hopeful about our future as a camp, and immensely sad about our site. However, what has kept me going since the fire is the strength and support of this community.”

Mason said all camp sessions, which will be held this summer at California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, are nearly full. Newman will host about 1,000 campers this year and offer new activities — including beach volleyball, indoor basketball and fishing in the bay — that weren’t available in Sonoma County.

Debris and new growth at Camp Newman, April 2018 (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Debris and new growth at Camp Newman, April 2018 (Photo/Rob Gloster)

The 89-acre Cal Maritime campus is located about 30 miles northeast of downtown San Francisco and about 50 miles southeast of the normal camp site.

“It is a unique opportunity borne of devastation,” Mason said. “Our community has shown us through their enrollment that they want to be where camp is, even if that is not at our Porter Creek home this summer.”

Six months ago, the 6-foot wooden Star of David that overlooks the camp from a rocky perch and somehow survived the flames was surrounded by smoke-filled air and charred branches. Now it is complemented by new growth on trees.

But revival of the Newman buildings destroyed by the flames will be a much lengthier process, and camp officials cannot estimate how long it will take. When the camp reopens someday in Sonoma County, it may look very different.

“We’re still in the assessment and cleanup phase, nobody has a timeline,” Arquilevich said. “Then we’ll begin a reimagination phase and decide how Camp Newman can best serve the Bay Area, not only for today but for the decades to come.

“We’re not only thinking about this as rebuilding. We want to focus on what our program mission will be.”

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Rob Gloster

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