Sale of Camp Swig angers rabbis, campers

Bay Area Reform rabbis and campers reacted with tears and fury Tuesday night when rumors were confirmed that UAHC Camp Swig in Saratoga had been sold to a private company.

Board members of the 47-year-old Reform camp defended their actions in front of an enraged audience that wanted to know why the community wasn't told the site was for sale.

The Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations has agreed to sell the camp for $3.9 million to an adjacent development company that will use it as a retreat and a winery. The deal, however, can still be called off by either party.

Some 60 people, many of them Swig alumni, attended the hastily called meeting at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco after word of the sale leaked to the public.

An angry Rabbi Mark Schiftan of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose said that entering negotiations to sell Swig to a non-Jewish group "is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Other rabbis at the meeting agreed.

"Was there any attempt to notify other Jewish organizations of your dire need to sell the camp? There is a lack of process, honesty and forthright communication" in dealing with the issue, Schiftan said.

Audience members at the meeting were upset for several reasons: The UAHC never offered to sell the site to other Jewish agencies, and, more pointedly, a 20-year-old Holocaust memorial at the heart of the camp grounds will likely be razed.

Additionally, UAHC had said after its recent purchase of Camp Newman in Santa Rosa that both camps would remain in operation.

Rabbi Allan Smith, director of UAHC's Youth division in New York, was on hand at the meeting. "I was wrong. I believed in a two-camp solution but we can't do it," he said. "If [someone] heard me say at no time would Camp Swig be sold, I apologize because I could not have made that statement in that way."

Smith said he could not offer any concrete details on how the Holocaust memorial would be tended, but added that coming up with a workable solution was a top priority.

Susan Lowenberg, former co-chair of the fund-raising campaign for Camp Newman, vowed at the meeting to withdraw her donation to that camp. She resigned last month from the campaign when she found out Camp Swig would be sold.

"My gift to Camp Newman was withdrawn because it was based on a lie," she said. "When I took on the co-chair of that campaign, I did it for one reason: that Camp Swig would not be run into ground and be sold, and both have been done."

Lowenberg added: "I am a Jew today because of Camp Swig. I believe in camping and I don't want to hurt kids, but I don't like being lied to."

In explaining the UAHC decision to back off from its stated intention to keep both camps, Smith said that repairing rundown buildings and seismically retrofitting the ailing Camp Swig site would have cost an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million. Even if the repairs were to be made, the UAHC contends that the 190-acre site, which sits on an earthquake fault, still may not meet safety requirements.

The UAHC is also bound to a $3.5 million mortgage at Camp Newman, which, at 475 acres, is large enough to accommodate rising enrollment.

Rembrandt Development, which owns the plot of land next to Swig, made an unsolicited offer in the spring. The offer was nearly double the amount of an appraised value of approximately $1.65 million assessed three years ago.

The company has until Nov. 15 to complete the contract. If the UAHC calls off the sale before then, it would have to pay a fee of $50,000. The local camp board, led by Raquel Newman, who defended the sale, has discussed meeting in early November to address the issue.

The camp, established in 1951, was named after deceased Fairmont Hotel magnate Ben Swig. Several people at the meeting questioned why Swig could not remain a camp if the development company could easily convert it into a corporate retreat.

Stephen Makoff said the Greater San Jose Jewish community, with the support of its federation and the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, would attempt to raise money to purchase the camp if the UAHC would give the offer due consideration.

If the site is ultimately sold, the fate of the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial hangs in the balance. The Naymark family contends that the cost to move the memorial, cemented to the site and decorated with tiles set by campers over many summers, could total more than $1 million.

"My family had been told it was the UAHC policy to increase number of camps and we were assured there was no plan to close that camp," Ron Naymark said in an interview prior to the meeting.

"When I found out they were selling it outside of the Jewish community, to say it was shocking would be an understatement. It was contrary to all promises made to us. It was a betrayal and irrational."

At the meeting, three generations of Swig campers also said they felt deceived. About 20 spoke out. Many said the turnout would have been significantly greater had the meeting been publicized by more than a few letters and last-minute notification by word of mouth.

Naomi Greisman, a young camper who served as a counselor at the camp last summer, brought many in the audience to tears with her plea to save the camp.

"Camp Swig is priceless — do whatever you can to [keep] it that way," she said. "We are not going to let [a private corporation] take over our soul. Please just let us help."

The UAHC's Smith could not offer any concrete resolutions, but assured the audience that the national and local UAHC boards would hear about their grief.

Smith added: "If the sale falls through, we've got to raise a lot of money."

Several people at the meeting said they would have raised funds feverishly had they known Swig was in jeopardy. But previous donors to the camp said they were never notified the site was for sale.

Architect Shamy Noily, who is part of group recently formed to protect the Holocaust memorial, said after the meeting that he thinks the decision to sell the property should be made by the entire Jewish community.

"Both locally and nationally there has to be an awareness that the community here wants to have a vital Jewish territory at the camp," added Noily, whose children attended the camp and who was once on staff there. "We need to look around and be creative to find to a Jewish solution to a Jewish problem."

Naymark urged the camp's board to view the sale as a matter still in its hands. "If there is a change of heart, the Jewish community will see it not as a weakness but a sign of strength," he said.