Camp Newman becomes yearlong hub to engage youth

A popular Bay Area summer camp serving thousands of Jewish youth is expanding its reach well beyond the sunniest season.

Camp Newman in Santa Rosa is one of two Jewish camps in the nation selected by the Union for Reform Judaism to become a year-round hub for Reform Jewish engagement. With help from the URJ, the camp is not only expanding and renovating its retreat site, but it will also enhance existing programming and offer additional programs throughout the Bay Area, all year long.

The Beit T’Filah amphitheater at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa seats more than 700 people. photo/courtesy urj camp newman

“It’s a game-changer,” said Ari Vared, director of year-round initiatives for Camp Newman. “Over the next couple of years we’re going to double the number of people we serve, and quadruple it by 2020.”

URJ chose Camp Newman because of its broad-based appeal in the region and its reputation for facilitating creative and meaningful Jewish moments, said Miriam Chilton, URJ’s director of strategy, finance and operations for youth, camp and Israel programs. The other URJ camp selected is Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas.

“Camp Newman has the professional and lay leadership, the organizational aptitude, the financial backing and the community support to do more than three months of Jewish experiential education,” said Chilton. “We are thrilled they have agreed to be one of the first camps to explore this year-round approach.”

Jewish leaders have long been searching for new ways to engage Jewish youth, said Vared, noting a documented decline over the past few decades in Jewish engagement post b’nai mitzvah. He described all-year camp programming as an effective way to engage unaffiliated Jews and inspire Jewish learning.

“If we are going to ensure that Jews exist going forward, we need to ensure that there’s a generation of youth who care about being Jewish,” he said. “Summer camp is something that we know works. We’re trying to build off that by offering it year-round, taking the essence of what makes camp work and bringing it into the community.”

Camp Newman’s executive director, Ruben Arquilevich, agreed. “It has been transformational to watch the impact that Jewish camping has on the lives of children, young adults and even older adults in terms of securing and solidifying a love of Judaism,” he said. “It’s the best method we have in the community for securing Jewish life.”

In addition to traditional camp experiences at the Santa Rosa facility, the camp will offer activities  throughout the Bay Area, including community festivals, synagogue retreats and family camps.

“Building out our camp facility to create a year-round facility is a huge part of the vision,” he said. “The other is to meet people where they are in terms of their interest and passions and alignments, but also their location.”

A $30 million capital campaign is underway for the multiphase retreat site expansion, and the camp is more than halfway toward its goal. Donations have come from a variety of foundations and individuals, as well as the camp’s board.

“We need to have a facility that’s of a high enough standard so that it can create a summer camp experience on weekends and during the week the other nine months of the year,” said board member Marc Dollinger, who chairs the Jewish studies department at San Francisco State.

“This is a community that wants it and needs it, and people are stepping up in a phenomenal way,” added Vared.

Phase one of the retreat site, which involved upgrades and expansion, is already complete. It included new electrical wire systems, wastewater systems, upgraded roads, better sustainability and improved accessibility compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The second phase to replace and expand housing for children, teens and adults is about halfway done. Construction will not affect the summer camps currently in progress.

Additional phases, including a new conference center, multipurpose dining hall and arts complex, will take place over the next couple of years.

Development is also underway to help support the camp’s year-round initiatives off-site. These include partnerships with such organizations as URJ, North American Federation of Temple Youth and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“We have been growing this expertise over the past five to six years,” Vared said. “The URJ has already begun investing significant resources in Camp Newman to allow its team and infrastructure to grow to support these new efforts.”

Vared said Camp Newman’s year-round initiative will create experiences for Jews that don’t currently exist.

“We’re thinking and acting and doing differently to serve the greater Jewish community,” he said. “We’re taking the essence of what makes camp work and bringing it into the community.”