Camp Swig gets $2 million anonymously

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Nearly 13 months after Camp Swig was almost sold to a private developer, a $2 million donation has put the site back on solid financial ground.

This week's gift from an Atherton donor who requested anonymity is the largest in the history of the camp, which has been nestled in the mountains above Saratoga for nearly 50 years.

"I'm thrilled, absolutely thrilled," Ruben Arquilevich, the camp's executive director, said Tuesday. "It's a wonderful expression of how our community values Jewish camping as critical to our Jewish future."

Owned by the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York, Camp Swig will put the entire $2 million toward infrastructure renovations and facility upgrades, Arquilevich said.

Rabbi Michael Berk, director of UAHC's Northern California region, said that while the $2 million will help get Swig up to speed for use mainly as a summer camp, more substantial improvements "may ultimately require more money."

But, he added, "this goes a long way to remedying the immediate needs."

The donation will also save the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial, the camp's centerpiece.

Camp Swig has been on tenuous financial footing since early 1996, when UAHC bought 475 acres in the hills north of Santa Rosa and began channeling a lot of focus and funding toward what is now called Camp Newman.

Set on only 190 acres, and atop an earthquake faultline to boot, Camp Swig suddenly became something of a black sheep.

Smaller, non-expandable and more dilapidated in terms of roads, buildings, water and sanitation, Swig was a major conundrum, needing an estimated $2 million for seismic retrofitting and structural repairs.

Faced with large expenses and not enough donor support, UAHC seemed to throw up its hands in despair last fall when it agreed to sell the site to Rembrandt Partners of Los Altos for $3.9 million. Rembrandt owned land next to Swig and made an unsolicited offer.

Many in the Jewish community reacted with quiet sadness and booming fury that the UAHC was willing to sell Swig.

Rembrandt eventually withdrew its offer for unspecified reasons.

After Rembrandt backed off, UAHC officials and camp board members put their heads together with community members to come up with a plan to save the rundown camp.

The result: Three months ago, UAHC passed a resolution that in essence "saved" Swig — even though all problems remained and no money had been raised. The resolution said the camp was not for sale and that its operation would continue as normal.

Last October, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose launched an attempt to raise $4 million to buy the camp. A "substantial amount" of money was pledged, according to executive director Jon Friedenberg, who is now telling those potential donors they can put their checkbooks away.

Although a press release on the big donation was issued Tuesday, Arquilevich said the same day that the $2 million check hadn't actually been written yet. "The exact terms are still being worked out," he said, but "it's a reliable gift."

He acknowledged a "rumor floating around the community" that the donation was contingent on UAHC stepping up the pace for raising money for Camp Newman, which faces daunting mortgage payments.

"Absolutely not," maintained Arquilevich, who is also executive director of Camp Newman. "There is no contingency. This is an independent gift for Swig renovation."

San Francisco philanthropist Raquel Newman, who has been involved with Camp Swig for 22 years and for whom Camp Newman is named, shot down the rumor, as well. "It's an unrestricted gift," she said.

Nevertheless, UAHC officials said they are launching a big push to raise the final chunk of money to pay off the Camp Newman mortgage. Slightly less than $2 million in notes are due "over the next couple of years," Arquilevich said.

Additionally, the UAHC wants to move forward with plans to increase Camp Newman's capacity from 500 to 700. Arquilevich said such an expansion of facilities will require another $2 million.

Thus, in spite of the anonymous donation to Camp Swig, the UAHC will still be gearing most of its fund-raising efforts toward Camp Newman.

"The pro-active campaign is for Newman, so there is really no pause in that," Berk said. "This gift shows there is a lot of support and love for Swig, but we're committed to Newman as well, and that effort is going to be continued."

At the same time, Arquilevich wants talk of Swig's demise put to rest. He predicted Swig will be open 10 years from now, even 50 years from now.

"We're going with the vision of both camps staying open," he said.

Next summer, Camp Swig will have six weeks of programming for approximately 150 to 175 ninth-graders through 12th-graders. The focus will be on the arts, leadership, social action and nature. There will also be 60 to 75 staff members on site.

Camp Swig will also facilitate another two weeks of programs, as well as play host to numerous retreats throughout the year. The facilities are available for rent.

Although the number of campers will be about the same, the amount of programming is "an increase over last year," Arquilevich said, "and our goal by 2001 is to re-establish an eight-week program."

No structural improvements at Swig will be made before next summer, Arquilevich said, adding that was no cause for alarm.

"Because we're not overcrowding and overtaxing the facility, the buildings themselves work better in terms of stuff like plumbing and sewage and the dining hall," he said. "The facility is healthier than it has been in years."

Regarding the impending improvements, he said a time frame will be established within the next two or three months.

UAHC national and local board members, Swig and Newman board members and local lay leadership will come together and "create a strategic plan for renovating Swig," Arquilevich said.

The camp's massive sewage and septic system is perhaps the most pressing need, but many buildings also need to be repaired, upgraded and seismically retrofitted. Work also needs to be done on the roads and electrical system. Some buildings may be phased out completely, although the money probably isn't there for any big building projects.

"It's an old facility," Arquilevich said. "Rustic, but extremely beautiful."

Arquilevich admitted that $2 million won't be able to do everything.

"I think we'll be able to get the infrastructure up to speed," he said. "It will be at an initial level that we'll all feel good about. But that's really just a first step. With $2 million, we can take Swig to a whole new level, but we're really only going to be able to focus on renovations."

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.