Camp Swig could become new Jewish retreat center

The fate of Camp Swig — the Reform movement’s facility in Saratoga that was attended by thousands of Jewish youth from all over the West Coast for years — has been up in the air for a decade.

But a new nonprofit has just been established to turn the site of the Reform camp into a Jewish retreat center to benefit the entire Jewish community of Northern California.

Camp Swig opened in 1953, and much of the infrastructure has not been upgraded since. Camp Newman in Santa Rosa opened in 1997, and the Reform movement transferred most of its operations there. The camp, which is in a state of disrepair and sits on a fault line, needs major renovations and seismic improvements.

Four years ago, over $6 million was pledged by Atherton philanthropist Lorry Lokey and Los Angeles couple Mark and Peachy Levy to upgrade the entire infrastructure of the camp. A groundbreaking was held at that time, and plans were announced for the camp to be up and fully operational by 2004. Instead, it shut down entirely.

The camp has been locked up for the past two years, as the movement and local Jewish community has wondered what to do with this majestic piece of property, nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains.

While some thought too much money was needed to rebuild it, others found the idea of selling it too horrible to contemplate, not only for nostalgic reasons, but because the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial at the camp would be very difficult to move elsewhere.

“We imagine it being a place where synagogues, JCCs and Jewish agencies can all have their retreats for their membership, boards or for leadership development,” said Dean Kertesz, a Swig alumni and East Bay-based fund-raising consultant who was involved with the study.

“There is nowhere to go to a Jewish environment,” he added. “Jewish groups must modify other places. Here, we could have kosher food and worship services in a Jewish environment.”

Kertesz helped survey Jewish organizations in the area to gauge how much interest there is in such a site. There was quite a bit, as it turns out.

“They really want a great destination where Jews from all over Northern California area can come and learn and study together,” said Gary Cohn, executive director of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, who is treasurer of the new nonprofit.

The organization is called the Jewish Retreat Center of Northern California, and its chair is Rabbi Brian Lurie, a former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Others involved include Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Congregation Emanu-El; Barry Levine, a former president of Brandeis Hillel Day School; and Nate Levine, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The proposal for the retreat center also positions it as a place for scholars-in-residence weekends, where Jewish scholars, artists or writers can stay on the premises and work, while community members can come for a weekend to learn with them.

While a camp could still operate there in the summer to handle overflow from Camp Newman, “we’d like to do adult programming year round,” said Cohn. Additionally, those involved would help with programming, not just rent the space out.

The Union for Reform Judaism, which owns the site, approved the plan.

“Assuming we can raise the money in two years, they will allow us to operate it for 99 years and they will still own the property,” Cohn said.

Kertesz said the plans allow for the camp to be built on the western end of the site, where the current central camp has always been. Up to 200 campers will be able to attend during the summer there. And the eastern end — known to Swig alumni as where the camp’s “Kibbutz” session took place — will be the retreat center, with the Holocaust Memorial as its focal point.

Cohn estimated that $30 million would be needed to renovate the site, but “$40 million would be a blessing.”

The money pledged in 2002 has been put toward this goal, and fund-raising will begin in earnest later this year.