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5 Miracles I Saw at Camp Newman Last Week

Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2017 by Ruben Arquilevich

Reprinted with permission from URJ - Inside Leadership Blog.

I have had endless words and feelings and thoughts going through me this past week.  None is more meaningful than the expressions from tens of thousands of you, from young children to older adults – sharing poetry and songs, prayers, stories and support from all over the globe.  They reflect several universal themes: deep loss and sadness, gratitude for what camp has done for their lives, perseverance and endurance.  The stories remind me that our camp years represent some of the best years of our lives and that they provide a vision of how we wish life could be all the time.

I want to share some of my own reflections from my visit to camp yesterday.  They include deep loss and sadness, and also miracles.

We drove through various roadblocks and were given special permission to visit Camp Newman.  In the eyes of the police officers and firefighters, I could see what had transpired – and is still transpiring – in these communities during the past week.  “So sorry for your loss,” they said to me.  “Thank you for all you’re doing,” I responded.

The eight miles from Highway 101 to camp that I have driven countless times in the past 25 years have been transformed from color photography to black and white.  Along the route, hundreds of homes have burned to the ground; only their chimneys remain standing.  The landscape gave me some perspective for whatever I might see when we arrived.

As we drove in, I felt the power of what we all know transcends buildings and the material world: ruach (spirit) and love.  It helped to see the entrance sign and the welcome sign still standing.  I also noticed birds, the forest, mostly green, still standing, and several deer grazing by our creek.  Our vineyard displayed its beautiful fall leaf colors; a few grapes still dangled from the vines.

Walking toward the center of camp through the smoke, I looked to the left to see a miracle: On the mountaintop overlooking camp, our wooden Star of David was untouched by the fire.  Its presence spoke to me.  “Hineni (I am here),” it said, protecting the mountaintop where generations of campers have fulfilled a camp tradition by climbing to the top to scream, “I love being Jewish!” “Hineni,” it said, reminding me that our faith, our tradition and our people endure – way beyond any fire or material loss.

I saw a second miracle in our beit t’filah (house of prayer), the all-camp community gathering space we use for celebrations and Shabbat services.  It was mostly intact.  Although our bimah was lost and surrounded by devastation, the nearby storage shack that holds our prayer books and tallitot (prayer shawls) used every Friday night to bless our campers with the priestly benediction, as well as all the kippot (yarmulkes), had survived the fire completely intact.  Its contents were telling us, “Hineni.” Here I am.

For decades, Camp Swig artist-in-residence Helen Burke inspired generations of people – young and old alike – to commit their lives to Judaism.  She lived at Camp Swig for more than 20 years and year-round people would come up to learn, study and make sacred art with her, including the beautiful metal arks that hold our Torahs.  A third miracle: two of Helen’s arks survived the fire. Hineni.

We witnessed a fourth miracle – another Hineni – during our visit, this one from the beautiful archway that welcomes us as we enter camp and, as we leave, blesses us with an expression made famous by singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman, z’l (of blessed memory).  As we drove away after our visit, Debbie’s message, tall and strong, was visible in the rearview mirror:  “May you be blessed as you go on your way.”  It’s still there, untouched. Hineni.

Perhaps the greatest miracle of all, though, has been the outpouring of love and support we’ve witnessed in the week since the fire. 

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Ruben Arquilevich, an Alum of the Wexner Heritage Program (San Francisco Pro), is the executive director of three Reform summer camps: URJ Camp Newman, formerly Camp Swig, (Santa Rosa, CA), URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech (opening in Summer 2018 in Los Angeles), and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy (in Los Angeles, CA). Ruben believes that Jewish camping enriches lives by securing Jewish identity, providing lifelong friendships and role models and creating an environment for growth.  He is passionate about the outdoors and the role that nature plays in creating community and inner peace.  Ruben lives in Northern California with his wife Vivien and children Jonah, Max and Maia.