As many of you know by now, the fires that burned in Napa and Sonoma Counties last month were the most destructive in California history. As I write this, the casualty count is up to forty-two, and likely to rise.
Alongside cherished homes and livelihoods, Camp Newman, the regional Reform camp for which I have served as faculty for fifteen summers, was also torched by the flames. Photos of the site tucked in the mountains between Calistoga and Santa Rosa reveal the gravity of the loss. Most of the cabins were less than six years old; the beautiful Welcome/Retreat Center and Mirpa’ah (infirmary), dedicated in 2016, was also lost. The photos brought the devastation home – but they also brought hope.
That note of hope was struck by two articles that survived the fire. Above main camp, the white Star of David (commonly referred to simply as “The Star”), a favorite hiking trail destination that “shines” down on camp from a hillside, appears untouched. And within main camp, amid the ruins of the Bet Am, the largest indoor program space, a photograph shows the “Little Ambassador” – a smallish travelling Torah Ark, the last remnant of the late Helen Burke’s large metalwork installation originally made for Camp Swig’s Holocaust Memorial.
Newman is a place of memories. It is a place where lifelong friendships are forged, where art is created and shared, where campers and staff find and rejoice in being their true selves, and where Judaism is lived and celebrated every day. It is a sacred space.
Blessedly, Newman is also its people: its devoted administrators and caretakers, the regional rabbis, cantors, educators and social workers who support it in myriad ways, and most of all its thousands of campers, many of whom grow up and return to serve as counselors and rashim (unit heads) and specialists.
As word passed over the internet of camp’s fate, the camp community rallied. There were conference calls, a flurry of Facebook messages and a Facebook Live siyum – camp’s end-of-day closing circle ritual. Pop-up “camp Shabbats” have happened at synagogues all over the state, and of course, fund-raising for the rebuilding of camp was almost instantly underway. (If you choose, you may contribute online at campnewman.org, #NewmanStrong).
The Star and the “Little Ambassador” are symbolic of our Camp ruach (spirit). No fire can out-burn the passion that Camp Newman inspires. Like the Star, the light of Camp Newman shines in each soul she touches. Like “the Little Ambassador” Ark, we stand steadfast, that we may again hold our Torah close as we rise from the ashes.
Newman will be rebuilt. In the meantime, its leadership is making plans and looking for a temporary home for this summer.
I am grateful that Temple Beth El has been a supporter of Camp Newman, willing to share me with the camp community for two weeks each summer. I thank you for your support of Jewish camping generally, and for working to ensure that each of our children has the opportunity to build the memories, the friendships, the sense of self, and the passion for Jewish living that only Jewish camp can inspire.
Happy month of Heshvan!
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein