For generations of Jewish people in Northern California and across the country, Camp Newman in Santa Rosa was a summer rite of passage.
Now many of those former campers, counselors and staff members are mourning the loss of the beloved institution, which this week became a casualty of monstrous wildfires raging through the area.
“It feels like my childhood home burned down,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, whose children were the third generation to attend Camp Newman. “Camp has produced dozens and dozens of rabbis, cantors and leaders in our Reform movement. The input that it has had on synagogues throughout the West Coast and beyond is huge. I am a rabbi because of it.”
News of the demise of the institution, which last summer celebrated 70 years of camping, triggered an outpouring of grief on social media.
“All over the world, thousands of us are grieving,” a Camp Newman leader said on a video posted on the institution’s Facebook page. “Our camp community is in tears.” More than 11,000 people had seen the video as of Tuesday morning, and nearly 250 people had shared it.
Many recounted their personal connections to the camp, a place where they said they made lifelong friends, cultivated Jewish values, learned leadership skills and developed an appreciation for music, art and nature.
In a Facebook post, Rachel Mylan of Chicago called Camp Newman “the place that changed the course of my life and taught me so many wonderful blessings.”
“Crying,” wrote another poster, Mara Weber Appleton of Santa Cruz. “My childhood home away from home. Camp Newman, the place that shaped me and my Jewish identity; Gone. Countless friends’ homes, gone. All my art supplies I've collected for years and years ... My heart is so heavy and sad right now. I don't known how take it all in.”
Among others who have spent time at the camp is Mayor Darrell Steinberg, whose wife Julie is a cantor at B’Nai Israel.
“It’s a very special place,” the mayor said. “The loss is devastating. But if there is anything that Jewish people have been committed to for many centuries, it is rebuilding. Camp Newman will come back to life.”
Alfi said she spends two weeks at the camp every summer. Her children, now 9 and 14, have been attending since they were babies.
“Camp is a place that you can be completely yourself,” said Alfi. “You make friends from all over the place. You interact from staff from all over the world. You learn about Jewish life. Kids are unplugged. There are no electronics, so they are dealing with people face to face. It truly feels like a family.”
Camp Newman also features sports, hiking, music and arts and crafts. “It’s filled with art made by generations of campers,” Alfi said.
Much of the camp, on Porter Creek Road in Santa Rosa, was swallowed by the catastrophic wildfires that have been whipping through Sonoma and Napa counties this week. Staffers and others living on the property have been safely evacuated, said the camp’s Facebook page, and Torah scrolls were rescued.
The Union for Reform Judaism has occupied the site since 1997, and last year dedicated a new $4 million conference center. The camp serves some 1,400 children every summer.
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“I still have a large feeling of shock and disbelief about what his happening in the area,” Alfi said of the wildfires. “I keep going over in my brain the homes and businesses that I see there each summer. This gorgeous place is no longer what it was just a few days ago.”
Members of Alfi’s congregation in Sacramento plan to gather Tuesday evening to “process the news, discuss any new details and talk about possible action we can take to assist in the rebuilding process,” she said.
“We know that what makes camp so special is not the location or the buildings,” but the values and life lessons it imparts, she said. “Even though we don’t know where it will be next summer, I can’t imagine that camp won’t move forward.”
Hundreds of firefighters are battling Northern California wildfires that have killed at least 13 people. The fires are among the deadliest in California history.