By Faculty Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, CA
Last October when the fires roared through Northern California, and more specifically the Santa Rosa area, the flames incinerated the forested home of our beloved URJ Camp Newman; a spiritual place that has nurtured the Jewish lives of thousands of teens and staff across the western US and inspired dozens of leaders in our movement over the last two decades. While the news was devastating and many tears were shed at this loss, spirits never wavered and hope was the only way forward. Again and again, I heard campers say that the camp spirit resides, not in the bricks and stones, but in the hearts of the people that lived Camp and made it what it was: a home of living Judaism. And how true this proved to be!
This summer, as we took up temporary residence on the bay at Cal State Maritime in Vallejo, where the wind (ruach in Hebrew) blows constantly off the water, I witnessed that the miraculous resilience of the camp spirit (also ruach in Hebrew!) was in full force. When I arrived at Camp Newman by the Bay to work on faculty this summer, there was no mistaking the exuberance of the campers and staff, the pure joy of old friends seeing each other once again, and the magic of Judaism coming alive just as it always had.
Campers weren’t just making do or simply getting by with what they had in front of them. The very essence of camp really was transplanted into this new location. Beautiful Shabbat services were held facing the bay and tallitot were held over campers’ heads, as they always were, but this time gigantic ships plowed through the waters before us buoying our spirits, as well. Song sessions were filled with joy and energy as long has been the custom. Programs found campers learning about being a mensch (a good human being) and creating holy communities. And in the Hevrah session, which continues to study about social justice issues, the campers were learning about income inequality. If you just closed your eyes you could imagine that nothing had changed.
But it had. And this summer all of us at Camp have learned a incredible lesson about inner-strength, fortitude, tenacity and the power of our spirits, especially of our youth, to continually dream and create, renew and build on what was with an eye towards the future. It was a special joy to welcome a number of families from my own congregation, Bet Haverim, to visit Camp Newman by the Bay on Shabbat so they, too, could experience in a small way what their kids were living every day. And I am very proud that we had 15 Bet Haverim campers at Newman by the Bay this summer and 2 counselors from CBH as well!
Nestled at the root of the word machaneh, camp in Hebrew, there resides the word “chen,” which means grace or unconditional love. In so many beautiful ways this summer, I was privileged to witness the boundless gifts of love with which Camp Newman graces its campers: Tender moments with arms holding one another tight, words spoken from the heart in the midst of prayer touching other hearts, and the priceless gift of a Judaism that can be carried back home that will continue to make campers proud of being Jewish, help them to create lives of meaning and purpose, and inspire within them a deep desire to make a difference in the world.
If you would like to support the inspiring work of Camp Newman and help in the significant rebuilding campaign required to return camp to our Porter Creek Rd site please click here. All donations will be greatly appreciated.