The haverim got off their bus and stood under the shade of an oak tree. It was a hot mid-July day, and the sun was beating down on the browned grass where the buildings that housed Camp Newman once stood — before they were lost in a 2017 wildfire.
Thirty children entering third and fourth grades received instructions from their counselors and split into two groups. One headed off to the aerial course at Adventure Mountain, and the others walked up a short road to make art outside one of four buildings left standing after the Tubbs Fire wiped out the camp and much of surrounding northwest Santa Rosa.
But while most of the physical structures at Camp Newman are not yet rebuilt, its beloved 480 acres of hills, grasslands, and wild California oak and manzanita retain the camp’s spirit and sense of place.
“It’s amazing how much power is in the space,” said Alaina Yoakum, director of marketing and communications for the camp. “As soon as we got the permit, we got the green light to have people come and see the site.”
Campers have been taken on day trips to the property, off Porter Creek Road between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, since summer sessions began in mid-June. Camp Newman sessions once again have been held on the campus of Cal State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo.
On this day, many of the young campers who were spending the day visiting the grounds had never been there before, since the camp has been held in Vallejo since last summer. The cross-bay trips to Porter Creek are meant to remind the kids of the natural beauty and special spirit that resides there.
“I think we took the nature for granted,” said Eli Burg, Camp Newman’s new Porter Creek program director and a veteran of 15 summers at the Jewish camp, in various capacities. “Maritime is great, but there’s something missing,” said Burg, who first visited Camp Newman when he was 5 months old. “And that’s the 480 acres.”
Donning the requisite tie-dye T-shirt, the Petaluma native was happily running the show while interacting with the young campers and their counselors and pausing to communicate on his walkie-talkie. The rising senior at San Francisco State University said moving to CSU Maritime last year was difficult, but he liked that the staff brought the “spirit of Porter Creek” with them to Vallejo. “Camp isn’t the place. It’s the people,” he said, quickly adding, “but this space [Porter Creek] is special. We’ve made it a holy space.”
Older campers are helping to rebuild the camp by installing a new walking trail that tells the story of Exodus and returning to the homeland — experiences that relate closely to “how we feel,” Yoakum said.
As she drove along a paved path between what used to be buildings and gathering areas, heading up to Adventure Mountain, Yoakum described what it was like in the aftermath of the fire that ripped through the area during the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2017. “Right after we got the news, we went immediately to finding another site,” she recalled. “We all knew we were going to rebuild, which was affirmed by the whole community saying how much this place meant to them.”
Atop Adventure Mountain is “The Tower,” a rope and climbing course with a platform 50 feet in the air. When campers ascend it, they get a bird’s-eye view of the grounds — as well as a feeling of accomplishment and empowerment.
Counselor Eli Torgersen, 18, was watching his campers climb the tower while talking about the return to Porter Creek. “I was expecting much worse,” he said. “I was happy to see all the green.”
Much of the vegetation has grown back, as California wilderness is largely fire-adapted; in fact, some species even require fire to propagate.
Torgersen, from San Rafael, has created many friendships in the 10 summers he has spent at Camp Newman. After the camp burned, he and some of his friends decided not to return last summer. But then they realized they couldn’t stay away any longer, and many became counselors this summer.
“When it first happened, it totally destroyed me,” he said. “It didn’t feel real. My coping mechanism was to not come and not think about it. But now, coming to Cal Maritime, the spirit is still there. Eventually camp will be back here [in Sonoma County], and it will be better than ever.”
Right before lunch, a group of campers hiked up to “The Star,” an outcropping of rocks that overlooks the entire grounds and includes a camp icon — a 6-foot-wide wooden Jewish star that miraculously survived the fire.
Visiting Rabbi David Young sat on a rock and led the children in a rendition of “Hine Ma Tov” and other songs. “When we’re up here, we’re all family,” he told them. “I think about camp as a place where we can have shelter. Camp is a home we can live in temporarily, and it gives us shelter and protection. And there’s nothing else we can do but sing about it.”
After singing, the campers gathered at the edge of the outcropping to participate in the Camp Newman tradition of yelling “I love being Jewish!” at the top of their lungs. Then they headed down the hill for lunch.
“It’s so wonderful to be back in the space,” Yoakum said. “The memories are here. They are in the soil, in the trees. The buildings may be gone, but the memories are here at camp.”