My Summer Camp Burned Down in the California Wildfires

Last Monday, my mom forwarded me a Facebook post from URJ Camp Newman. “As many of you may have heard, since 10 pm last night, forest fires have been burning in Sonoma and Napa counties. It is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.”

I haven’t been back to Camp Newman since 2007, the summer before I started college. I had been a camper there starting in 1998 when I was 9 years old, and I’ll never forget that first summer. My family drove the RV up from San Diego. We dropped my brothers off at Camp Swig in Saratoga (Camp Newman’s sister camp that closed in 2003) and continued up to Santa Rosa. I was so nervous, but my parents assured me that I was going to have the best time. I had my sleeping bag, my retainer, my old school Camp Swig swag I’d inherited from my brother, and my stuffed bunny.

We arrived at the gates to all the staff singing and jumping up and down. After that, summer flew by. That was the summer I learned all of the words to every Backstreet Boys song (it was the summer of “Quit Playing Games with My Heart”) and acted so silly that my sides hurt from laughter. It was the summer that I transformed all of my shirts into tie-dye shirts. It was the summer I became best friends with my CIT, a 15-year-old who taught me all the words to Gesher Tzar Me’od (a song based on a writing by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov) with hand motions. I lay in the grass staring up at the stars while singing Hashkiveinu before going to sleep, and I cried hysterically when it was time to say goodbye three weeks later.

camp newman

Camp quickly became my favorite time of the year. I’d search all year for the coolest white dress for Shabbat. I’d master new friendship bracelet techniques, would send actual snail mail to friends across the west coast, and happily returned to camp again the next summer.

Years passed, my confidence grew, my love of Judaism blossomed. Camp is where I became the kooky, silly lady I am today. I remember repeat-after-me’s that would make my whole bunk stick our tongues out, and being the first to raise my hand for a high-five from my favorite counselors. After many summers at Camp Newman, I went on to have other Jewish camp opportunities, made new friends, and continued to master all of the friendship bracelet techniques. No matter where I was, if it was summertime, I needed to be at camp.

At the end of high school, I had the opportunity to return to Camp Newman as a counselor. That summer, I arrived late and left early. No one remembered me from my summers before, but that didn’t matter. I was embraced back into the community as if I had never left. I rediscovered all the things I had loved years before—picking blackberries and eating them right off the bush, making beautiful hand-dipped candles, seeing the sea of tallitot (prayer shawls) hanging over all of the campers’ heads on Shabbat. I even became best friends with my CITs, just like I did in third grade (though now I was older than them).

I watched friends fall in love, met Israelis who changed my life forever, ate It’s Its on Shabbat afternoons. I remember all the hikes to the star (a giant Star of David on the hill above the grassy field) and looking out at camp, breathing in the beauty of Santa Rosa. The trees, the weather, the sunrise hikes, singing under the stars. Those memories are still vivid today.

Flash forward, it’s 2017. I work at a Jewish non-profit, I am a youth advisor at a synagogue in New York City, and I am so far away from Camp Newman. Now, I spend time at other Jewish camps on the east coast, staffing retreats and helping teens find their own Jewish identities.

It’s hard to think about how a place so beautiful could be gone. So many bunks with names scribbled on them, stages where lip syncs were performed, and spaces where we all prayed for peace. When the news about Camp Newman came in, my social media brought tears and smiles all around. So many photos of friends hugging, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, cut up t-shirts, and face paint from Yom Sport. So many friends posted about their experiences, their memories that Camp Newman provided, and how they were changed forever.

camp newman

It’s surreal knowing that in the matter of a few hours, the buildings that housed those memories are gone, up in flames, but those memories are forever instilled in my mind. The photos I have don’t even come close to the experiences that they document.

The thing is, the fires are still burning, well beyond camp. Over 5,000 buildings have burned, and over 213,000 acres have been ravaged. Homes and schools have been burned to the ground. Vineyards have been destroyed. The fires have evacuated over 100,000 residents and sadly, 41 people have died. Even though the fire continues, Californians continue to care for each other. Shelters, donations, and open arms have welcomed those affected by the fires. People offering their homes to those who have nowhere to go, and traffic jams of people with supplies take up the Golden Gate Bridge. Somewhere within the chaos, there’s hope. Many families are vowing to rebuild, and as the fire’s size diminishes and the ash settles, I know the beauty of the Bay Area will find its way back again.

As for Camp Newman, it isn’t gone. It’s alive in the siyum (a closing, at camp, in the form of a song) we sing before bed, it’s felt in the hugs we receive from fellow campers, it shows in the stars we look up at, and it will be rebuilt. The camp community grows stronger every year, with returning alumni and new campers together, and that bond can never be broken. That inspiration will return, just as we did, summer after summer.

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