By Rabbi David N. Young, Congregation B’nai Tzedek of Fountain Valley, CA
As my car wound its way down the last few miles of Porter Creek Road, I was astounded by how green it was. I expected regrowth after such a wet year, but I did not expect huge, green, lush trees. Probably due to my complete lack of geographical awareness, and in part due to how well the fire department kept the blaze away from Santa Rosa proper, I was thankful for the life that I saw thriving so close to the destruction that I knew I was approaching.
As I drove through the gate to our Porter Creek home, there were no dancing teens, no clapping, no Heveinu Shalom Aleichem. But the welcome sign, fully intact, in front of a gorgeous vineyard, greeted me silently. I whispered the Shehecheyanu prayer to myself, thanking God for the opportunity to be back at a site that means so much to my family and me. As I pulled in, laden with drinks from Bad Ass Coffee for the staff, the campers were in a circle around Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, echoing my prayer as they finished singing Shehecheyanu with her.
Rabbi Shawna drove me in the golf cart around camp. “Don’t worry,” she reassured me, “all the other Youngs cried when they saw this.”
“I already am,” I responded through my own tears.
She showed me the majority of the camp, at least where it is safe to be. The cement footprints where the dining hall, cabins, welcome center, and Kikar used to be. Decades of summers provided millions of smiles in this space, and bright green shoots defying the blackened stumps on the hills defied the fire, reminding the world that Camp Newman will be back in this space again. No amount of damage could stop it. Because camp is fireproof.
She showed me Faculty Row, where my wife, Natalie, and I lived as faculty for four summers. On one side, everything looked just as it had when we last left two years ago. On the other, nothing was left. I could not even see cement footprints under the trees that were still falling on the side of the mountain.
We continued on up to Adventure Mountain, and it was again like nothing had changed. The Tower, where the children climb belayed by staff members onto increasingly difficult climbing paths, looks just like it always had. I believe it is a brand new version, but built to look exactly like the old one. It brings a sense of comfort and familiarity. We joke with one of the Adventure Mountain staff that he will put my daughter Bella on the easy side and me on the difficult side and we can race up. He promises to let her win. I promise we won’t have to let her. It’s a very camp conversation. For a moment as we laugh, the charred trees disappear, and it feels just like camp always does.
We go back down to meet the children, and they ask me to join them up at The Star, a hill overlooking all of camp with the iconic Star of David on the top. I go up ahead of them, saying that I want to set up my things, knowing I want a moment to myself.
At the top I can see almost the entire camp. It looks so small. No buildings in the way of other buildings, making it feel as if there is a greater distance between me and the structure behind it. Just open air and trees. Not all of the trees are charred. Many are fully green. Some bushes are growing under cinder-tree remains, and the brightness of the new leaves is a stark contrast to the thin black sticks reaching up to the sky. I take it in, breathe deep, let the tears flow, and then I hear and see the campers doing up the trail to meet me.
I take out my guitar and start plucking at Hinei Mah Tov, “How good and how pleasant for brothers [and sisters] to sit together in unity” (Psalm 133). We sing together, and chat about what it means to be together here. We talk about shelter, what it means to be building a shelter for us to dwell in together as a camp family, and we sing Hashkiveinu, “Spread the shelter of Your peace over us…” (Dan Nichols). These kids are very young, and only three or four staff and faculty children have even been to this site before this day. Yet they all express a kind of excitement, knowing that something is being built for them—something they know will create memories for them that are as wonderful as the ones their counselors are regaling them with. Even if they have not been to Porter Creek, they can feel how special it is to their beloved counselors, and that means a lot to them.
As Rabbi Shawna promised, the rest of the day just felt like camp. We painted, climbed some more, sat by the creek, ate typical camp food, picked berries and plums, and enjoyed time with each other. It was a beautiful day at Porter Creek. So the kids get on the bus, I get in my car, and we head back to Cal Maritime where the rest of camp awaits.
Thanks to the experience that Camp Newman provided, we are all looking forward a little bit more to being back at Porter Creek for good. Under the rubble and the burnt remains, a new life is ready to burst forth, ready to welcome a new generation of campers and staff who will love the new facilities just as much as we love what we lost, and who will create amazing memories as they build camp together.