Remembering Camp Newman at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Oct. 13, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Remembering Camp Newman at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Oct. 13, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Local shuls remember Camp Newman with songs and love

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Most of Camp Newman’s buildings perished in the wildfires sweeping through the North Bay, but the spirit of the Reform Jewish camp lived on this weekend in the Bay Area — from singalongs to group hugs.

Scores of former Newman campers and counselors spanning several generations gathered Friday night, Oct. 13 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Alto Hills, one of more than a dozen pop-up Shabbat events held for Newman, including a concert scheduled for Saturday night at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.

Daryl Messinger, board chair of the Union for Reform Judaism that owns and runs the 480-acre camp east of Santa Rosa, was among those swaying arm-in-arm to songs familiar to every camper who attended Newman or its predecessors, Camp Swig and Camp Saratoga.

“Camp is not just about the buildings,” Messinger said. “This gives the families and the kids who go to Newman a space to celebrate and to mourn.”

Camp director Rabbi Erin Mason, also among those singing and sharing memories at Beth Am, said Newman officials already are looking at alternate sites for next summer and are determined that there will be a 2018 session. About 1,400 children attend Camp Newman each summer, and 40 to 50 staffers come from Israel to work as counselors.

Though camp officials had not yet been allowed back as of Friday, a San Francisco Chronicle photographer who was allowed onto the Porter Creek Road site produced images showing decimation.

“We’re exploring all of our options,” Mason said. “We’ll know more next week when the fire is more contained.”

The site, which is used throughout the year, had hosted a PJ Library family camp the previous weekend before fire swept through the area on Sunday night, Oct. 8. Everyone escaped safely and the camp’s Torah scrolls were rescued.

Houses near the camp also went up in flames. As of Oct. 14, the Wine Country blazes had been blamed for 35 deaths and had burned 220,000 acres, and at least 15 separate fires were still burning.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who was to visit Sonoma County that day, has declared a state of emergency in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Yuba, Butte, Lake and Mendocino counties.

About 175 people — some wearing Camp Newman T-shirts — attended the Shabbat service at Beth Am, and roughly half of them stayed after for the Newman songs, beginning with “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” and ending with the “Hashkiveinu,” songs sung at camp at the end of each day.

During his sermon, Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, an associate rabbi at Beth Am, compared the loss of Camp Newman’s buildings and countless homes in Northern California to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

“This week, so many feel like they’ve been forced out of Eden,” said Watenmaker, who added that he spent his first week as a faculty member at Camp Newman this past summer and had attended Camp Swig as a teenager. “We acknowledge the loss of this special paradise … (but) our Edens are always with us.”

Camp Newman bought its site in 1997, and dedicated a new $4-million conference center last November. Mason and Messinger said the pop-up Shabbat events were a way for former campers to share their memories and their grief, as well as to contribute to Newman’s rebuilding.

“This is one of the ways they can connect to camp, through their congregations,” Mason said. “Right now, it’s about being together. We’re focusing on the value of the community, the strength of this community.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.