For summer after summer at URJ Camp Newman in Sonoma County, kids would hike roughly 15 minutes to a 6-foot-wide wooden Jewish star on a hillside overlooking the popular summer camp. “It’s sort of like an icon,” camp director Rabbi Allie Fischman said. “Everybody knows the star.”
Since October 2017, though, the site of the popular Jewish overnight camp has lain dormant after a catastrophic wildfire destroyed more than 80 percent of the camp’s structures, including a recently opened $4 million conference center.
And though the iconic Jewish star miraculously survived the fire, it, too, has gone largely unvisited.
But not for long.
Late last month, camp leaders announced a new program that will take place during Camp Newman 2019 summer sessions, bringing kids back to the campus, located in the hills above Santa Rosa, on a day trip called the “Porter Creek Adventure.” For most, the visit will be their first return visit to the camp since the fire.
“Porter Creek will be clean, safe and ready for outdoor programming” again, the camp announced in a release, alluding to the camp’s site off Porter Creek Road (and near Porter Creek) between Santa Rosa and Calistoga.
The Tubbs Fire was, at the time, the most destructive wildfire in California history. Photos from the 500-acre campsite, the 20-year home to one of the largest Reform camps on the West Coast, showed warped and twisted metal, splintered wood and charred remains where buildings once stood.
There “used to be color,” Ruben Arquilevich, the camp’s executive director, told J. in October 2017 immediately after his first walk through the camp’s remains. Suddenly, “it was black and white.”
Long-time camper Ari Rosenblatt said in an open letter that the day he learned about the fire “was probably the worst day of my life.”
Last summer, Camp Newman relocated its sessions to Vallejo, where camp will be held again this summer. Though an excellent interim solution, the campus of the California State University Maritime Academy, while offering stellar bay views, isn’t as awash in nature and doesn’t feel as homey as the Santa Rosa site.
That’s where the Porter Creek Adventure comes in.
On a daylong field trip, campers will get the chance, if only for a while, to be back in the “beautiful surroundings” of the foothills, Fischman said. They will get to “breathe the mountain air” and continue to process the events of the past two years.
“Having the opportunity to tour camp will be a powerful experience and one that begins a new stage of healing and growth,” she added. “And an incredibly important way to move forward together in our journey of rebuilding camp.”
The day trip will begin with a roughly 80-minute drive, after which campers will picnic, hike, participate in team-building activities, make s’mores and maybe even toss a Frisbee on the ball field that camp administrators said was undamaged by the flames.
And, of course, the campers will participate in the hike to the iconic star, where kids traditionally shout, “I love being Jewish!”
“As Newman by the Bay [in Vallejo] continues to thrive, there is nothing like the feeling of being back home, in nature, at Porter Creek,” Arquilevich said in the release.
With help from a $5 million grant included in the California Legislature’s 2018-19 budget, Camp Newman is rebuilding its conference center for year-round use, with hopes to finish by the end of 2020. And plans for other buildings are advancing, with help from community partners, Fischman said.
Still, the reconstruction may take longer than some might hope. Visits to the Porter Creek site and hikes to the star — both for those who have never been and for those who are camp veterans — are an encouraging step forward, camp leaders said.
“For some of our kids and our staff, it will be difficult at first, I’m sure, to see it looking different,” Fischman said. “But it will be an opportunity to build on past experiences, and begin to make new memories.”