As the wildfires in northern California continue to rage, those of us who are connected with URJ Camp Newman have only begun the process of grief and mourning that we feel after learning that our beautiful campus has been destroyed.
With the words of U’netaneh Tokef echoing in our collective consciousness, we mourn the loss of our beloved physical property. For over twenty years, thousands of Jewish souls have walked through the gates of this campus, forever transformed by the awesomeness of our kehillah kedosha (our sacred and holy community).
As a product of several other URJ camps, my relationship with Newman began as an adult when I served as a member of its summer faculty. And while I love this camp and have adopted it as one of my own, it is only through the eyes of my children that I truly understand why this place is indeed sacred and holy ground.
Our oldest daughter, Danielle, was seven years old when she arrived for her first summer as a “day camper.” Although she was not old enough to officially bunk with the eight year olds, we arranged for her to be a part of their cabin during the day, while returning to me in the evenings to sleep in my faculty cabin. I introduced her to her counselors and retreated to my housing unit to unpack. Within the hour, Danielle appeared with her counselor, announced that there was an empty bed in her cabin and that it would make more sense for her to sleep in the cabin with her new friends. She promptly disappeared with her counselor and I did not lay eyes on her for the following two weeks. The camp director approached me and expressed a bit of angst that Danielle was already vying for his position as camp director and that if she didn’t slow down she would surely end up running the camp by the time she turned 10. Danielle has spent almost every summer at Newman since 2005. This past summer she was a celebrated counselor and songleader, and continues to be a fierce and avid supporter of Camp Newman and NFTY.
Avital, our middle daughter, has her own unique relationship with Newman. Many of us count down to the weekend, or to Shabbat, as a marker of time. Avital counts down to camp. There is no place in the world where she feels more in her element, surrounded by her friends and her community. She loved every inch of that campus, only to be surpassed by the love that she holds for the friends with whom she grew up over the many years of her Newman experience. We are thrilled when we camp friends journey to our home over the course of the year to reunite with each other, and we are grateful that her camp connections extend beyond the summer into the rest of her life. Her eyes shine and sparkle when she speaks about camp in ways that can only be imagined.
And our youngest child, Ayal, has been the most profoundly affected by his years at camp, and has blossomed into a young man despite many challenges. Around the same time that Ayal started to attend Newman as a camper (not counting the years that he was a toddler with me in faculty housing) we began to notice that he was struggling with certain aspects of participating fully in the camp community. Unlike his sisters, he wasn’t fully buying into the camp schedule, wasn’t making friends easily, and would often be found half way across the camp instead of with his assigned group. Perhaps at another camp we would have been encouraged to find a more appropriate setting for Ayal (who was later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder). But Newman was determined to integrate Ayal into the camp community, assigned a member of the faculty to shadow him in order to help him understand expectations, and to mentor his counselors to understand Ayal’s yet undiagnosed issue. Ayal has spent almost every summer of his life at Camp Newman and now truly sees the campus as a second home. There are many children who struggle with special needs who are fully integrated into the camp community—because inclusiveness is a core principle of creating this holy and sacred community of ours.
My children, along with thousands of other campers and staff who reside in our area of the country, considered Newman to be a second home, a spiritual home, a sacred place, a magical, majestic retreat, and an untouchable, eternal womb of divine compassion in a world filled with chaos.
Until this week when we heard the news that almost every building on the camp was destroyed by raging wildfires in the region. Our staff evacuated, and the Torah scrolls are safe. But the campus has been obliterated.
The evening after the fire I spoke to each child individually to gently let him/her know that the physical camp is simply gone. Each one of them responded with hearwrenching sadness as they processed the devastating news.
We are comforted by the understanding that our community extends well beyond the periphery of the physical camp. We are truly blessed that for so many years, we have endeavored to take the blessing of camp with us into the other seasons of the year, often integrating Newman’s traditions into our homes, our synagogues, our relationships. I’ve observed my children with their respective cabin-mates at b’nai mitzvah celebrations, attending movies and concerts on the weekends, and even sitting at synagogue together, thrilled when their favorite camp songs are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the tefillah.
This is a community that lives and breathes far outside the confines of the physical place we call home. This is a resilient community, one that will rise from the ashes and destruction. We are blessed with both professional and lay leadership that are already working tirelessly to bring healing and hope to a community that is in tremendous pain.
As our community begins to grapple with the ramifications of this tragedy, we truly understand that the ties that bind us run far deeper than a simple connection to a physical place. With God’s help, and our persistence and determination, one day we will be blessed to return to that place with renewed sense of appreciation and dedication. During these challenging times, may we who call Newman home remain grateful for the relationships and the bonds of community that make us strong and give us strength.