UAHC buys Santa Rosa property for second camp

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Eventually, after renovations, the new location will accommodate 500 campers at a time, 150 more than Saratoga can hold.

While some youngsters will begin camping at the new site in the summer of 1997, the Saratoga camp will remain open at least for the next five years, during which time its fate will be determined.

The second camp has not yet been named; like Swig, which was named after the late Fairmont Hotel magnate Ben Swig, the new camp may be named after a multimillion-dollar contributor.

The Saratoga site, which serves campers from 7 to 17, has drawn participants from the West Coast through El Paso, Texas, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

It "has been so successful and so popular that it's overcrowded," said Rabbi Morris Hershman, director of the regional office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the overseeing body of the Reform movement. "Therefore, we need more capacity."

In addition to being a summer camp, the Santa Rosa site will be open year round — for rental to the entire Jewish community for conferences, congregational retreats, family camps, senior and youth programs. The Saratoga site also has been open during non-camp seasons but on a more limited basis.

According to Raquel Newman, president of the Camp Swig board of directors, the community conference center in Northern California is the fulfillment of a dream born more than a decade ago. "We are thrilled," she said.

The new site, located east of Highway 101 at 4088 Porter Creek Road, about an hour's drive from San Francisco, is surrounded by lush green hills. Miles of rustic hiking trails shoot out from the property's nucleus. An Olympic-sized swimming pool waits to be filled; the adjacent changing rooms are ready to go.

Escrow on the expansive site — which Reform leaders would only say cost "multimillions" — closed in early February.

According to the recorder's office of Sonoma County, the UAHC and the seller of the property, the Lundeberg Maryland Seamanship School Inc., agreed to keep the amount of sale off the public record. However, the recorder's office disclosed that its most recent assessment of the property, made in 1992, was $4,153,590.

Meanwhile, the UAHC is also remaining tight-lipped about who helped finance the new property. The organization would only say that support came from groups and agencies that include the UAHC Camp Institute board of directors, the UAHC regional board, national UAHC leadership, the Jewish Community Federation and several unnamed local Jewish leaders.

With its rows of cabins, multiple meeting spaces and a dining hall that can accommodate 400 people, the Santa Rosa site is ready to accept adult visitors. In fact, several groups have already signed up to use it in the next year, starting with the UAHC, which this summer will hold a national leadership institute for Jewish teens.

But before campers drag their trunks onto the property in the summer of 1997, some changes need to be made.

"We need to make it more camper-friendly. It needs to be warmed up," explained Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of Camp Swig. Strolling the grounds of the new site on a recent rainy afternoon, he pointed to several areas that need renovation before young campers can truly feel at home.

Flat concrete areas will be converted to tennis courts, basketball courts and a sports field. A quiet wooded spot that's been designated for an outdoor house of worship has yet to be developed.

Moreover, the whitewashed walls of the cabins need to be decorated; Arquilevich hopes to enlist prominent Jewish artists from around the country to lend their talents to that task.

And though redwood trees dot the new site, Arquilevich would like to see many more rooted there before campers move in. "Redwoods are beautiful, spiritual, and they give off more shade," he said. "From a historical standpoint, people wanted to make sure there were redwood trees. That's what made Saratoga famous."

Currently, the UAHC is mounting a major fund-raising campaign to help pay for the various renovations and improvements needed at the Santa Rosa site. Before the plot can accommodate the UAHC's goal of 500 campers, bathrooms and sewage need to be added, and the dining hall needs to be expanded.

Nostalgia, to be sure, may tug at the heartstrings of some Camp Swig campers when they learn that they may not be whiling away their summers at the Saratoga site for much longer.

"The initial reaction is it's difficult for them. They've been there years and years," Arquilevich said. "The secondary reaction from them is excitement. This is a big, new beautiful place."

The idea for the new site was hatched 10 years ago when it became clear that the Saratoga site was beginning to burst at the seams. "The leaders of the camp came to realize that we needed to expand the programs that we offered," Hershman said. "This is going to be a boon."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.