Climbing, equestrian center give Jewish summer camp new spin

When the directors of UAHC Camp Institutes for Living Judaism acquired 475 acres last year for a second Bay Area summer camp, they were determined to exploit the land's potential. The pine-covered hills of Sonoma County's future Camp Newman spread out before them — twice the size of UAHC's beloved but overcrowded Camp Swig.

Ruben Arquilevich, the executive director, and the board started planning new, exciting programs for the camp, which opened in June. A rope-climbing course and equestrian center were soon in the works.

Jewish parents might well gaze at their rope-harnessed kids ascending the 50-foot Alpine Tower and murmur, "Camp was never like this in my day." But, says Arquilevich, that's part of the plan.

"I'm a great believer in programs that develop self-esteem and build trust, and provide excitement and challenge," he said. "The ropes course has been around for a while, but the Alpine Tower is the new, state-of-the-art system. Everyone, from 7 to 70, can climb it and have a different experience each time."

Camp Newman instructors took a six-day training course to learn how to climb the tower and support young climbers. Newman now has its own ropes course director, Sally Quigg, who encourages counselors and staff to join campers in experiencing the thrill of the tower.

"It's a very accomplishing feeling to have climbed it," said camp educator Tali Hyman. In a drive to "root knowledge in experience," Hyman worked with Quigg this summer to develop a program in which campers found Torah quotes at each level of the tower. The quotes were on the subject of building community.

Even without a Torah component, the tower is "a learning experience," said Quigg. "We don't just throw them on the ropes; we start off by using the lower levels and by having them work in teams. The stronger kids support the weaker kids."

Making her first-ever ascent and descent, 8-year-old Rachel Hamovitch announced, "It was scary." Nonetheless, "I'd like to do it again because I like doing scary things." Her friend, 9-year-old Sasha Rosen, remarked that "it felt like I was climbing up to fix the sails on a ship."

Meanwhile, the camp's equestrian center has been so popular that its director, Jonathan Ayers, sees room for expansion in future years.

"There's land that the camp could develop to keep horses year-round," said Ayers. This summer, he brought horses from the pack station that he and his wife run in Armstrong Woods, and also borrowed animals from friends and acquaintances. A total of 13 horses served the camp community.

Though Ayers is not Jewish, "within a week he'd arranged for staff to come out and print Hebrew signs at the horse corral," Arquilevich said. Alongside a sign reading "Happy Trails Corral" is one that says "Beit Susim Me'usharim," which literally translates as "Happy Horses House."

"Swig never provided the environment to have an equestrian center," said Arquilevich. "It's been a unique and special experience. In Jonathan, we're blessed with someone who's really good at what he does."

Alongside the horses, Ayers set up a petting zoo complete with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, two border collies and a cat from the pound. The cat gave birth to kittens this summer.

"I tried to explain the concept of animals being intelligent and having their own languages," said Ayers. "A lot of the kids were really into that."

In teaching campers to ride, Ayers said his method was to "treat them as equals, and give them responsibility. Once they're on the horse, I tell them, `You have a problem to solve. You have to get out of the gate and onto the trail.'"

Ayers said he often saw campers' eyes light up as they realized, "`Gee, this is alive; it's not like riding a bicycle.'

"Riding helps kids learn to be adaptive, and work against adversity," he said. "It's a fabulous medium for teaching. The knowledge they gain will be useful for their whole lives."