Irving Newman &mdash camp leader, JCC director, lay rabbi

Many an alum of the summer camp El Rancho Navarro can recall the day they arrived for morning flag-raising only to end up saluting Irving Newman’s jockey shorts, which had been run up the flagpole.

Or his annual speech about the limitations of the camp’s rickety plumbing, during which he humorously employed a roll of toilet paper as a prop (“don’t flush a wad like this … “). Or the day he took a swing at the morning wake-up gong and somehow walloped it into a treetop.

“I’m biased, but he was wonderful. He was wonderful as a camp director. He was involved with every kid and knew the name of every kid, their parents and their children,” said his youngest daughter, Ruth Pollak.

Newman, who founded and directed the predominantly Jewish camp for 25 years and had a hand in a formidable array of Bay Area Jewish institutions, died Sunday, Oct. 2, following a stroke. He was 88.

He was born in the Bronx and attended Yeshiva University, yet, surprisingly, didn’t opt for rabbinic ordination. His son, Aaron, said that the family lore has Irv running out of money after four years and taking a bachelor’s in mathematics instead, with the hope of earning a little money during the Depression. He later picked up a second bachelor’s and a master’s in social work at Ohio State University, where he met his wife, Edna.

Newman’s military service took him to the West Coast, where he took a job at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and later served as director of the Peninsula and Marin JCCs.

But Newman’s lasting mark on the Jewish community came when he and Edna bought a dude ranch in Philo, 120 miles north of San Francisco, and opened their own summer camp.

The couple and their four children operated the camp for 25 years, touching the lives of thousands of campers.

It was a year-round operation for Newman, who insisted on meeting the family of any camper or prospective camper.

“He wanted [the kids] to know somebody when they got there. They’d get off the bus and say ‘there’s Irv,'” recalled his son Aaron.

Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the roughly 120 campers who attended El Rancho Navarro in three-week sessions were Jewish, estimated family members. Newman established scholarships for needy families and, after selling the camp in 1982, established a scholarship fund at the Hidden Villa camp in Los Altos Hills along with Edna, who died in 2002.

Randy Georgi first attended Newman’s camp as a 10-year-old, and later worked his way up the ranks as an intern, counselor-in-training and counselor. When his home situation deteriorated, he was virtually adopted by the Newman family.

The 57-year-old Mill Valley publisher created a computer database of more than 2,000 former campers, and maintains contact with several hundred. He had started an e-mail newsletter to inform them of Newman’s condition and is currently being flooded by sorrowful calls and e-mails.

“Irv had many dimensions. He meant a tremendous amount to the children that attended his summer camp. He shaped their lives, and now, as adults, they know it,” said Georgi.

“He cared tremendously about children. And, perhaps, one of the most important points about him was that he was an extraordinary role model. He loved to teach, but he didn’t preach.”

After the Newmans moved to Petaluma in 1982, he often served as the lay rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel.

Aaron Newman noted that his father never stopped studying; even as a very old man he read the Torah or Talmud in Hebrew for three hours a day or more. With a math degree and near-fluency in French, German and Italian, he often taught or substituted at local schools. And until he gave up driving at age 85, he visited senior residences four times a week or more to teach and lecture on Jewish topics.

“I’ve been thinking on it a lot,” said Georgi, “and I believe Irv gave me the most important thing a man can give to another person. He gave me a loving family, and I am eternally grateful for that.”

He is survived by children Carol Newman of Santa Rosa, Aaron Newman of Petaluma, Marshall Newman of San Francisco and Ruth Pollak of Littleton, Colo., and three grandchildren. He is also survived by siblings William Newman of Sunrise City, Fla.; Estelle Davis of Elmhurst, N.Y.; Florence Kreisler of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; Lawrence Newman of Las Vegas; and Harriet Feinman of New York City.

Donations in Newman’s memory can be sent to the Edna & Irving Newman Campership Fund, Hidden Villa, 26870 Moody Rd., Los Altos Hills, 94022.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.