Swig serenade: Emotional crowd turns out to bid camp adieu

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

As one slaloms along the gentle curves of Big Basin Road, the rickety vines give way to a verdant canopy of cedars and magisterial redwoods, their tall crowns obscured by the late morning fog. By this point in the journey, longtime visitors to Camp Swig must feel like the car is driving itself.

Campers making this trip April 6 for, ostensibly, the final time were greeted by a jarringly counterintuitive sight. A small army of men in white dinner jackets resembling Rick Blaine from “Casablanca” flagged down the former campers and valet-parked their cars. And while gents in formalwear seemed out of place among the flora, fauna and jauntily painted camp buildings rapidly reverting back to nature, many of the former campers were harboring a thought quite similar to Blaine’s: “Of all the camps in all the towns, in all the world, they sold mine.”

A harried effort among local Jews to purchase the 185-acre Saratoga camp from the Union of Reform Judaism amassed a pledge of $5 million for the long-dormant camp late last year. That offer was trumped, however, by a $6 million bid from a Methodist group. So while the 800 to 1,000 former campers, counselors and staff who streamed through the camp April 6 laughed and joked with their former bunkmates, one didn’t have to scratch very deep to find great sadness and anger.

“I tell you, as a Jew I am irked that the URJ even thought of selling this camp to [non-Jews]. This was an ideal place for Jewish children, an ideal environment — and they kept on promising and promising and they reneged on all those promises,” said Liz Dietz, the camp’s infirmary director from 1984 until its closure in 2003.

Dietz’s 36-year-old son, Chuck — who wore his counselor-in-training T-shirt from 1989 — took in the scene from the balcony of the camp’s former office building, which was still strewn with Hebrew-language sing-a-long sheets and appeared as if it had been evacuated in advance of an invading army. Glancing at the hundreds of older acquaintances exchanging business cards and younger folks promising to friend each other on Facebook, he remarked at how much Camp Swig’s fate reminded him of the last episode of “Little House on the Prairie.”

Of course, Dietz noted with a laugh, in that goodbye show the people of Walnut Grove opted to blow up their entire town rather than surrender their homes and stores to a greedy developer. And Dietz had no plans to do anything like that.

Yet such an incendiary farewell might be saving Camp Swig’s future owners some time. Simply put, the camp has gone to seed; numerous former campers choked back tears at the dilapidated condition of the cabins, kitchens and art studios. In the nearly five years the camp has sat unused, doors have rotted off of hinges, floors have collapsed and weeds have grown through the pavement. The water in the pool is the color of an army Jeep and resembles the summer abode of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

That being said, campers waxed nostalgic about the, shall we say, rustic conditions at the camp during its heyday. Because mice and bugs were an ever-present concern, care packages from home were strictly forbidden. Two 26-year-old campers discussed how their mothers used to hide candy in hollowed-out stuffed animals, in tampon boxes or even cleverly placed between the pages of Mad-Libs flipbooks.

Twenty years ago, Woody “Rowie” Clark scrawled “Rowie is Rad” on his cabin wall — in shaving cream. The outline of his graffiti is still there. The 33-year-old Los Gatos resident happily whips out his cell phone to display a photograph — sure enough, Rowie remains rad.

In the shade of a grove of mighty redwoods, Sheryl Harris and Bethami Lawson — outfitted in their CIT ’90 shirts — soaked in the memories. For both of them, the camp was a physical remnant of all that was good about their childhoods. It was a place where you weren’t “the Jewish kid” but just a kid. It was a beautiful and effortless place to be Jewish.

And behind those trees over yonder was where Lawson had her first kiss. She volunteers the boy’s name, then quickly adds, “Don’t print that!”

“No!” shouts Harris. “Print that!”

Fair enough. It was Matt Schmidt.

On the walk from the Redwood Grove to the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial, the mood turns more somber. Julie Miller, 30, glances up at the brass gate and notes that her years at Camp Swig were the first time she didn’t have to hide her Star of David down her shirt (“I come from Fresno — not Jew-friendly”).

Unlike many of the structures on the campus, the memorial, save a rotting walkway, is in pristine condition. Its tall, wood-beamed roof resembles a Nordic ship’s bow and the light filters through its high windows to create a serene and ethereal effect.

Jack Glaser — the son of longtime camp director Rabbi Joe Glaser — mounted the dais to address the crowd. Putting a brave face on the day’s event, Glaser noted that if the Methodists cherish the camp and it brings joy and fulfillment to them as it has for so many Jews, he — and his late father — would be happy. But then he tapped into the unspoken resentment lingering above the campers’ heads among the roof beams.

“Regardless of the circumstances of how we’ve come to this point, it is a moral failure for a Jewish community to abandon a Holocaust memorial,” he said to resounding applause.

“This place is not a yahrzeit candle. It was meant to be permanent.”

Standing outside by the brass gate, Rabbi Ryan Bauer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El clenched his teeth.

“I find it very ironic that they would sell a Holocaust memorial for $6 million,” he said, shaking his head.

After the emotional speeches in the memorial building the crowd straggled back to the redwood grove for one last sing-along. Multiple generations of Swig song leaders strummed and harmonized together, the audience locking hands and swaying to the rhythms of the tunes they knew so well.

The sun dipped beneath the trees and a cold wind blew. The campers wandered back to the white-coated valets, the pungent scent of the redwoods in their nostrils one last time.

And then, along with all that came before, the day at Camp Swig was a memory.

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.