UAHCs new Camp Newman opens with songs, Torah, VIPs

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For 300 youngsters, the morning of Sunday, Aug. 3 started like a normal day at camp: breakfast followed by shirim (songs) at the hillside amphitheater.

But then came the caterers, parking valets and VIPs.

Five weeks after opening to campers, UAHC Camp Newman — a glittering new jewel in the Reform movement's crown — was ready to be dedicated.

White camp buildings sparkled in the morning sunlight and the smell of pine pervaded the air. Decorated golf carts trundled here and there. New hand-painted tiles announced, in both Hebrew and English, the names of buildings.

The 475-acre site, located north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, was originally home to a maritime cooking school. Camp-friendly improvements to the site have included a new equestrian center and petting zoo. Blacktop was removed to create a huge sports field, and two buildings were gutted and connected to form a state-of-the-art infirmary.

After 18 months of construction, the camp was finally "a Jewish space," said executive director Ruben Arquilevich.

"We've taken a place which had an institutional, cold look to it, and given it a haimish, Jewish look," he said. Adding to this look, stained-glass windows, batik panels and handmade quilts now adorn the camp's largest building, the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall).

Looking around this hall at some 500 guests, many of them donors to the site, Arquilevich smiled and said, "As you can see, we decided to have an intimate and private gathering to express our thanks to you."

Among the luminaries on hand to celebrate the camp's dedication were Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the former UAHC president, Rabbi Alexander Schindler; Camp Swig founder Rabbi Iser Freund, Rabbi Allan ("Smitty") Smith, UAHC youth division director; and principal donor Raquel Newman, for whom the new camp was named.

Yoffie welcomed "this great new addition to our UAHC camp family," and, evoking the maritime history of the site, added that "camps are one of the Jewish ships on which our kids love to travel."

With the opening of Camp Newman, and with other projected camps in Canada and the northeastern United States, the UAHC hopes to double the number of children attending its summer programs. At twice the size of UAHC's Camp Swig in Saratoga, Camp Newman can host 1,100 children over three summer sessions.

"We worry a lot about Jewish continuity," continued Yoffie, "but we have a success. Through camp, we will revolutionize Reform Jewish life and assure our Jewish future."

Newman said that she was "elated and exhilarated" to see "the Herculean effort of years come to real live activity." She thanked the camp's board, Arquilevich and Smith for their support and hard work.

Following brunch and speeches, dedication ceremonies were held at various buildings and sites on the grounds. During each ceremony, prayers were recited and a mezzuzah was affixed to the site's entrance.

Arriving by golf cart at the dedication of Beit Am (the House of the People), 102-year-old Rabbi Iser Freund announced that he was "feeling fine, and just delighted." Inside Beit Am, a plaque described how Freund and Rabbi Raphael Levine founded California's Reform camping movement in 1947.

UAHC now operates 10 camps nationwide.

"We couldn't conceive then of all this," said Freund, who is retired and lives in San Jose. "I'm proud that this center is opening up. There are so many exciting possibilities for the future."

As part of the Beit Am's dedication, a group of campers read poems they'd written for the occasion. A poem by 12-year-old Taylor Jacobs of San Diego illustrated the profound effects that Jewish summer camp can have.

"Three weeks ago I was clueless about any Jewish thing. But now I know the prayers and traditions/ and every song we sing."

After the dedications lunch was served on the camp's large sports field, followed by a Torah-passing ceremony. In an emotional handing-off rite, the camp's Torah was passed from a representative of Freund to Rabbi Wally Kaelter, the first director of Camp Swig, to Arquilevich, to educator Jonathan Kupetz, to camp counselors and finally to a young camper.

"I was almost in tears during the Torah service," Arquilevich admitted afterward. "The feeling and ruach [spirit] between campers, donors, staff and counselors was wonderful. That was what touched me most about the day."

"You dream and plan and hope and dream and dream," he continued, "and you still don't know if it's all going to work."

Of Camp Newman, Arquilevich said that "the potential is vast" and he looks forward to future developments. "It's a fabulous, incredible site. What we've done so far is just the beginning."