With URJ set to sell Camp Swig, local group makes its offer

Unable to muster the funds to renovate Camp Swig, Gary Cohn may have to pull a Victor Kiam: The deceased businessman used to chirp about how he liked Remington shavers so much he bought the company, and now Cohn is looking to do the same with the Saratoga camp.

While Cohn’s Jewish Retreat Center of Northern California has for several years been attempting to raise the estimated $30 million it would take to renovate the half-century old camp, the Union of Reform Judaism on Monday, March 12 voted to sell the property — despite a locally generated e-petition urging the opposite.

The resolution passed by the URJ’s Executive Committee unambiguously resolved that efforts to reopen Camp Swig as a camp or retreat center would end, and that the URJ would take steps to sell the Swig site.

Fair enough, thought Cohn. And on Wednesday, March 14, he opened discussions with Michael Kimmel, the URJ’s Chief Administrative Officer, about taking the property off the URJ’s hands.

“We feel Camp Swig has historic value to the community. It has a history to it; there are Jewish memories there. It’s the same way you wouldn’t want to close down a synagogue and put a Buddhist church in. This is important for all the people who went to Camp Swig,” said Cohn, who is also the executive director of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.

Cohn — who formed the Jewish Retreat Center along with former longtime executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Rabbi Brian Lurie and the immediate past president of Brandeis Hillel Day School, Barry Cohn (no relation) — thinks he can buy the camp for “somewhere in the $2 million to $5 million range.”

“There are maybe 200 acres of land, but only 10 to 15 acres are buildable. The rest of it is very rustic and it’s zoned for a camp. The city will never let anyone rezone it for housing or hotels, so there’s limited value for the property,” said Cohn, who hopes to transform the camp into a retreat center able to serve 200 adults and a camp capable of serving another 200 teenagers.

Complicating matters is the fact that the camp sits atop the San Andreas fault.

The URJ’s $30 million figure allocated $12 million for retrofitting camp structures, $8 million for constructing a conference center and $10 million for an endowment fund. Camp Swig has stood dormant for the past four seasons and its load has been picked up by Santa Rosa’s Camp Newman and Seattle’s new Camp Kalsman.

Cohn acknowledged that his group’s attempt to purchase the land is Swig supporters’ last chance to “save” the camp.

In several years of fundraising, the retreat center has not come close to the Union’s $30 million hurdle. Cohn said he has roughly $6.5 million in hand, promises for another $8 million and a recent anonymous philanthropist has floated the possibility of making a $5 million gift.

Cohn and Barry Cohn said that, in the past, they’ve made efforts not to disrupt the fundraising efforts for Palo Alto’s massive Campus for Jewish Life project. Barry Cohn said he anticipated the fundraisers would not be chasing the same dollars, but, should the retreat center successfully purchase Camp Swig, it will undoubtedly escalate its fundraising efforts.

“We have had a difficult time trying to raise money at the same time the [Palo Alto] JCC project has been a priority in the community,” said Gary Cohn.

URJ officials, meanwhile, said the Bay Area group wouldn’t be given any advantages in obtaining Camp Swig.

“We’re not going to sell to someone without determining what the property is worth and all possible options on how it can be used. We’re going to need to determine if we should do a national marketing campaign or if it will just be limited to California,” said Emily Grotta, the URJ’s director of marketing and communications.

As far as the Jewish Retreat Center obtaining the property, “It could happen. They could certainly bid on it. It’s going to a process where we’re looking for the highest value.”

Yet one thing is for certain — nothing is going to happen fast. This will take at least “months,” Grotta said.

“You’re not going to see an ad for Swig in the real estate [pages] this weekend.”

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.