Camp Swig back on the market after sale collapses

Camp Swig’s fate is no longer sealed.

The Saratoga camp won’t be sold to a Methodist group that pledged $6 million for the 185-acre site.

In an internal memo sent July 3, Peter Weidhorn, chair of the board of trustees for the Union of Reform Judaism, which owns the site, wrote that the URJ terminated the contract with the Methodist group because the group was unable to secure the money for the camp.

“In order to purchase this property, they needed to sell another property, and they were unable to do so,” said Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, senior vice president of the URJ.

“As we might expect, the economy is having an impact on our ability to sell,” Weidhorn wrote.

The initial contract of sale was signed in December 2007; the URJ board of trustees approved it in February. Ultimately, the buyers were required to close with six months on the all-cash sale. They couldn’t get the funds.

Camp Swig opened in 1953, and much of the infrastructure has not been upgraded since. The camp, which is in a state of disrepair and sits on a fault line, needs major renovations and seismic improvements.

The URJ has played a decade of real-estate hopscotch with the camp. In 1998, a $3.9 million deal to sell Swig to a private organization fell through at the last minute. A year later, an anonymous donor pledged $2 million so the URJ could hold onto the camp and repair its dilapidated plumbing and dormitories.

In 2002, another $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 fully operational by 2004.

Instead, it shut down entirely in 2003.

A fire in December 2002 destroyed four cabins and forced the URJ to reevaluate the practicality of renovating the camp, said Donald Cohen-Cutler, a spokesman for the URJ. The group concluded updating Camp Swig was not the best use of resources. Most of the donors’ money had not been spent and was returned.

When the URJ announced that the land was again for sale, a coalition of local Jews banded together in 2006 to form the Jewish Retreat Center of Northern California. In 2007, the group secured a pledge of $5 million from an anonymous donor to purchase the long-dormant camp and turn it into a retreat center focused on adult education where Jewish scholars, artists and writers could stay on the premises and work, and community members could come for a weekend to learn with them.

The URJ approved that plan, but ultimately accepted the highest bid of $6 million from the Methodist group.

“We haven’t closed the door with them, but we no longer have a contract,” Freelander said.

Camp Swig alumni who spoke to j. said they were thrilled about one more chance to save Swig, and especially to keep the Jo Naymark Holocaust Memorial in Jewish hands.

Still, their enthusiasm is tempered by the enormous amount of work required to organize and fundraise. As for the $5 million the group previously secured, “it’s a question as to whether the donor is still committed,” said Barry Cohen, a camp alumni and veteran Swig activist.

“Our group needs to get together and figure out — where do we go? Where will the money come from? Is the community behind us? There’s a lot of legwork to do before we can move forward,” he added. “All of us had given up. Now we need to re-energize.”

The URJ seems amenable to working with members of the retreat center. In an email written to two members, Freelander wrote that he would welcome a formal proposal from the group and would “work closely with you and your leadership to try and turn this opportunity into a reality.”

He told j. that “if our fiduciary responsibilities were fulfilled equally, we would choose [to sell to] a Jewish group” over a non-Jewish one.

The site’s future owner will face a number of challenges. In addition to the seismological issues, there are also restrictions for how the land can be used. Santa Clara County zoning restrictions indicate the land cannot be developed for commercial or for high-density residential use, but can be used for agricultural purposes.

Freelander admitted that the shaky real estate market might make it difficult to sell the land anytime soon.

“We don’t have to sell,” he said. “As long as we keep the place insured, we can hold onto it until the market improves.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.