Camp Swig off auction block but fund-raising is delayed

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UAHC Camp Swig, which came within a hairbreadth of being sold in December, is now receiving a renewed promise from the Reform movement to keep it running.

Meeting in Toronto last week, the national board of trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform congregational arm that owns the Saratoga site, passed a resolution that maintains the camp is not for sale and will continue to operate as normal.

However, the board opted not to raise the estimated $2 million needed to refurbish the ailing Swig site.

"I think everyone is busy with running the camp right now," said Rabbi Michael Berk, UAHC's regional director based in San Francisco. "We're not looking for a buyer. We're not dealing with an offer. We're not looking for the possibility of raising funds."

Last August, the UAHC sent the Bay Area Jewish community into an uproar when it announced that a private developer had arranged to purchase the site. Later the developer backed out.

Now, the UAHC appears to be following the wishes of the local Jewish community in keeping the site. A task force culled primarily from Bay Area residents recommended earlier in the summer that the Reform body retain the camp.

Swig's long-term status will remain in limbo as the UAHC must still come up with $3 million to complete the purchase of its second Bay Area camping facility, Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. After that fund-raising campaign, which is expected to finish in two years, the UAHC will re-evaluate Swig.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose continues to rack up monetary pledges in hopes of making a bid for Camp Swig. Jon Friedenberg, the federation's executive director, declined to say how much has been raised or when a bid might be made.

"I wish the [UAHC] well in their efforts to raise money and refurbish the camp," Friedenberg said. "Should that effort prove unsuccessful, hopefully the San Jose federation will work out an arrangement to acquire the camp."

Berk reiterated that although the camp is not for sale, any unsolicited bids "would be considered" by the UAHC's board of trustees. If the site is sold, the UAHC has stated its first preference would be to sell to a Jewish organization.

In response to the San Jose federation's interest in buying the camp, Berk said it's "something we've heard about and something that would have to be seriously looked at."

For now, the camp is bustling as a summer retreat for high school-age kids, with a primary emphasis on arts education.

Applications for Swig have not abated since the recent controversy, said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of Swig and Newman.

"That tells me there is a real love for the type of programming and the people who are at the camp," Arquilevich said.

Some 150 teens are attending Swig's summer session — which is about half-capacity because UAHC decided three years ago to ease the strain on the site. Although no immediate problems endanger the camp, it sits on a faultline and needs some retrofitting and a new septic system.

While donors may wish to earmark funds specifically for Swig, Arquilevich said the UAHC would prefer that money go to the efforts to pay off the costs of acquiring Camp Newman.

"We need donors to understand our broad priority. About 80 percent of our kids are at Camp Newman, where we have the greatest capital need to complete the purchase. Swig isn't getting second place. I see [those priorities] as the system that was set up by the [UAHC]."

While some community members suggested Camp Swig create its own board of directors — current board members also oversee Camp Newman — Arquilevich said that "the corporate structure" of the board does not permit it to split. Also, several staff members work at both sites.

The Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial, a rallying point for activists who sought to stop the sale of Camp Swig, remains the spiritual centerpiece there.

Sherman Naymark, patriarch of the family that donated money to build the memorial, said that "if the UAHC intends to keep the memorial running and use it heavily for Jewish activity, that's very positive."

But, he added, if the camp "falls apart, I'm anxious that other alternatives may be considered. I think it remains to be seen if it will work out. I'm not sure even the UAHC knows what will happen."