San Jose Jews hope to buy site: Camp Swig sale falls through

The deal to sell Camp Swig in Saratoga has been called off by an adjacent property owner that originally made an unsolicited offer to buy the site.

For undisclosed reasons, Rembrandt Partners of Los Altos last week rescinded its offer of $3.9 million for the camp site, which is owned by the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York.

The future is uncertain for Swig's ailing 47-year-old campus, which UAHC officials estimate will cost nearly $2 million to properly repair.

But the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose has hurriedly collected more than $1 million in an ongoing pledge drive, and hopes to make a bid for the site by January. If UAHC accepts the offer, the federation hopes to use Swig as a Jewish retreat and camp facility.

Those who led the outcry against the sale of the camp to the private company rejoiced that for now the ornate Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial survives as the centerpiece of Camp Swig.

"We are definitely relieved," said Ron Naymark, whose family contributed $400,000 to build the memorial. "It was not a safe camp until the Rembrandt group stopped pursuing it."

Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of the camp, said, "The Rembrandt group went through extensive evaluations of the site. There is no one reason why they declined." Numerous phone calls to the company were not returned.

Although currently being used both as a weekend retreat center and as a summer camp, Camp Swig is run down and UAHC needs a new game-plan for the facility.

"A number of options for the site's future will be entertained," Arquilevich said. "We need some kind of mechanism created so there is community involvement."

When news of the proposed sale spread in the Jewish community early last month, several alumni of the camp, including prominent Reform rabbis and community leaders, felt scorned that the sale was kept secret.

Compounding the problem, the UAHC had not made a specific promise to ensure that the Holocaust memorial, which is cemented to the site, would be properly preserved.

Shamy Noily, whose children attended the camp and who once served on its staff, quickly assembled a grassroots campaign to rescue the Holocaust memorial last month. The Marin architect distributed a petition asking the sale to be postponed so the memorial could be saved. He amassed more than 350 signatures.

"I think people felt frustration and were astonished" that the camp was for sale, said Noily. "It showed how people have a deep love for what the memorial stands for."

Rabbi Michael Berk, UAHC's Northern California regional director, singled out the memorial in his only public statement regarding the sale being canceled. "We know how much the camp and the Holocaust Memorial have meant to generations of Jews throughout the West Coast," he noted in a press release distributed this week to concerned Swig advocates.

Berk also said the UAHC now wants "to bring the community into the process as we face options for the future of Camp Swig."

All other Camp Swig and UAHC officials refused to comment, referring all questions to Arquilevich.

By calling for aid from several generations of Swig alumni, the San Jose federation hopes to ensure a future for the camp, said Jon Friedenberg, the federation's executive director.

"It was very clear to me that if the San Jose federation didn't take a lead role, the site would have been lost," he said. "A broad section of the community feels that our effort is appropriate and that we will be successful."

In only one month's time, Friedenberg has led an impassioned fund-raising drive nearly equal to the San Jose federation's annual campaign. Two weeks ago, Friedenberg flew to New York City for a special meeting with the UAHC's president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to inform him of the federation's efforts.

Friedenberg is pursuing the acquisition despite the fact that aside from the purchase price, another $2 million will be needed to repair the camp's massive sewage and septic problem, and better retrofit the site, which sits precariously on a major earthquake fault.

If the San Jose federation can raise the money to buy the camp, it will seek help from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay to establish a regional Jewish retreat center and summer camp at the site.

"There is definitely a need for more camp space in the West, not just for Reform" campers, Friedenberg said. "We need to work fast. We don't want a situation where we are delayed and another offer from outside of the community comes."

The Naymarks also don't want that to happen. They believe the Holocaust memorial will be in good hands if it's in the care of the San Jose federation.

"We are hoping that the UAHC board will have a constructive attitude and work in a very cooperative manner with the Jewish organization trying to purchase the camp," said Naymark, whose family lives in Saratoga.

Two years ago, UAHC opened the 475-acre Camp Newman in Santa Rosa to accommodate rising enrollment that was stretching Swig's limited 190-acre site.

Arquilevich said the outpouring of support for Swig has reinforced UAHC's commitment to expand camp facilities in the coming years.

"The more interest and the more people involved [in Jewish camping], the better. It's not about money, it is about doing what is best for the community. What we need to do is communicate better."