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On Friday evening, October 13, 2017, Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of URJ Camp Newman spoke at Shabbat services at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA. This blog post has been adapted from his remarks.
I have had endless words and feelings and thoughts going though me this past week. None is more meaningful than the expressions from tens of thousands of you, here today and out in the world. From young children to older adults – sharing poetry and songs, prayers, and stories 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’re 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 accommodations 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. It is the camp ruach each of us carries with us always – the spirit that shapes our lives, as well as those of our children and grandchildren. Every single person who ever steps into that sacred place makes it sacred because of who they are. Every single person brings divine gifts and together we create the community – one person at a time, one soul at a time. “Hineinu (We are here).”
We will once again create that Camp Newman community this summer and we look forward to being together with all our campers, staff, and faculty so we can continue to go from strength to strength. Hineinu, indeed.
In moments like this, financial support is critical to support both immediate and long-term needs. As we assess the physical damage from the fire, we remain committed to thoughtfully planning and creating an outstanding summer experience in 2018 -- and beyond -- for the entire Newman community. Support the #NewmanStrong campaign.