Camp Swig, Newman kids sing favorites on new CD

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When alumni of Camp Swig and Camp Newman gather for a reunion on Sunday, April 9, the stereo system will no doubt be playing the same CD over and over again.

Chances are, no one will get tired of it.

Grammy-quality music? Uh, not really. But the disc in the CD changer — "Shir L'Yom Chadash: A Song for a New Day" — will be popular nonetheless.

Released a few months ago, the CD is a collection of 27 songs recorded in 1998 at the Bay Area's two big Reform summer camps: Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and Camp Swig in Saratoga, both under the aegis of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

So far, about 500 copies of the CD have been sold at two local Judaica stores and through mail-order, leaving about 1,500 still available. Some of those will be sold at the 4 to 6 p.m. reunion at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

A conglomeration of more than 1,000 young voices, the CD is a combination of well-known Jewish camp favorites, emerging classics, and songs written expressly for campers at Swig and Newman.

"Truthfully, it has exceeded my expectations," said Ruben Arquilevich, director of the UAHC Camp Institutes for Living Judaism — better known as Swig and Newman.

"I play it for my 2-year-old son Jonah, and he literally dances and cheers through the entire album."

The CD was the pet project of Josh Miller, a Swig camper 16 years ago who went on to become a camp songleader as well as the program director at U.C. Berkeley Hillel. It took him nearly two years to complete the venture.

"I thought it would be great to make a CD for the '90s," Miller said. "It was sort of a bumpy ride. Making a CD is a big project."

Although only a small one in retrospect, one of the bumps occurred in the "recording studio" — the dining hall — at Camp Newman.

About 500 kids had gathered for a massive recording session. The microphones were set up and ready to go. All of a sudden in another room, pots and pans were clanging, silverware and plates were clinking.

"Look, you gotta stop washing dishes. We're recording a CD," Miller informed the kitchen staff. "Things were a little confused for a while, but the [camp] director ended up giving 'em the night off."

The CD was funded by Josh's mom, Micki Miller, who put up nearly $13,000.

The revenues generated by the CD won't go back into her pockets, but instead will go toward financing other Swig and Newman musical endeavors — such as making CDs out of albums recorded by campers in 1975 and 1984.

"There are also ambitions to make a songbook to go with the CD," Josh Miller said.

Much of the music on the CD sounds simple, like hundreds of kids singing at camp. But the voices come together to create a boisterous, energetic sound on just about every song, including such favorites as "Heiveinu," "Mitzvah Goreret" and "Shir Chadash."

"It sounds like camp," Miller stated proudly. "It's not some studio job that sounds over-produced. No keyboards, no drum tracks."

There are guitars on several cuts, and a few other instruments, such as horns, on "Mi Chamochah."

The CD strives to capture a day in the life of Camp Newman and Camp Swig, and that day is a Friday. It starts with morning and daytime songs, and then moves into Shabbat songs.

In fact, more than half of the album's 27 cuts are songs from the Shabbat evening service and sing-along.

However, "the most special takes on the album for me are the closing circle [songs] at the end of the album," Miller said. "It's a ritual every night at camp that we would sing these blessings, and for the kids it becomes a real strong part of camp."

Four of the "closing circle" songs are blessings and the fifth is called "The La La Song." It's an Israeli beverage commercial that campers have sung for decades every night when they leave the dining hall.

Wally Schachet-Briskin, a cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, said the recording sessions were powerful, emotional experiences.

At Swig, campers did their singing in the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial building, which holds about 100 people; at Newman, they used the dining hall, which holds 500.

"There was a lot of energy in those rooms," said Schachet-Briskin, a former Swig songleader and author of about 30 camp songs, several of which are on the CD. "People were very excited not only to be singing the songs, but also making great harmonies. It was something that touched my soul."

Because the recording methods weren't exactly high-tech — four or more microphones placed around the room — the campers had to be careful at a song's conclusion not to ruin the take.

"Everyone would wait three seconds for it to be completely quiet," Miller said. "And then the room would totally erupt with everybody cheering."

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.