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Campers return to Camp Newman for the first time since 2017 wildfires

When Eli Burg returned this summer to Camp Newman northeast of Santa Rosa, he walked past the empty, charred lot where the dining hall once stood and headed uphill toward a wall of mosaics.

He was ecstatic to find the mosaic he had worked on with his peers when he was 17 miraculously survived the 2017 Tubbs fire. The art piece had three orange flowers from the Scooby-Doo van - an inside joke - along with a Star of David, a river and a line from a soothing nighttime camp song: “Wash me away so all that’s left is love.”

“It was jarring to come back, but getting to see the art, touch it, feel it was amazing because I was part of the team that helped make it. We put the tiles in piece by piece,” said Burg, now 21 and the camp’s program director.

Campers this summer are taking day trips to visit Camp Newman’s Porter Creek Road site for the first time since the wildfire burned down 80 of 90 buildings on the 485-acre property.

Many staff members, counselors and campers described the site as a second home where happy memories were forged and lifelong friendships blossomed. They say returning is a step in processing grief and moving forward.

“Our buildings might be gone, but our community is still here,” said Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, the Porter Creek site director.

The Union for Reform Judaism has operated Camp Newman in Santa Rosa since 1997. Since last year, overnight summer campers have been stationed at Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo.

About 900 kids are enrolled in the camp this summer. It drew about a couple hundred fewer campers compared to past years due to limited space at the temporary site, which they’ve named Newman by the Bay, said Alaina Yoakum, the camp’s marketing director.

It’s unclear when the summer camp will permanently resume at the Porter Creek Road site.

The wildfire caused millions of dollars in damage, said the camp’s board chair, Michelle Tandowsky, but she did not provide an exact amount.

Last year, the state allocated $5 million toward Camp Newman, which will be used to build the community center at the site by the end of 2021.

“Our goal is to be back at the Porter Creek site in some fashion as quickly as possibly,” Tandowsky said. “We hope to be back there in phases along the way.”

Camp Newman already has rebuilt its Adventure Mountain. It installed a new obstacle-course tower where the previous one once stood before it burned down.

Adventurous campers had a chance to test out the climbing obstacle course Tuesday. They hooked on harnesses and climbed up to the top of the tower.

“It was really scary at first,” said Sophie Krivoy, a 10-year-old from Los Angeles. “But I made it to the top.”

Afterward, Krivoy ate snacks under a nearby tent with Zoe Green, a 17-year-old counselor-in-training and longtime camper who cheered on the kids as they climbed the tower.

Green said coming back to the camp was like having a weight of worry lifted off her shoulders. She was glad to see her old cabin survived.

When Green first learned about the fire damage, she said she went home from school and cried.

“It was like losing a person. It’s not the same kind of grief now, but coming back it definitely brings up those old feelings,” she said.

“Seeing all the regrowth and all the plants and what had survived was really special. It’s so surreal,” Green added. “Things are here, but they’re not here.”

Campers and staff members are working on various projects on the site.

Burg said the property has a network of trails. He’s working with campers to create new trails, a camp tradition.

“It’s a really great way for the older ones to process those emotions they’re feeling,” Burg said of trail work. “The emotions are raw. They’re really there and present. Then after an hour or two of trailblazing, it’s all smiles and laughs.”

Several art projects also are in the works. One is a mural that will be posted by the trail that leads to the Star of David on the mountain, an iconic symbol of the Jewish camp that survived the fires. The mural will tell the ancient story of the Israelites’ journey from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.

Reclaimed tiles from a hamsa hand that was destroyed in the fires are being used to build a new mosaic of the camp’s landscape.

“This place leaves a mark on kids, so kids want to leave a mark on this place,” said Rabbi Brynjegard-Bialik, who has been with the camp for 13 years.

Adam Small, a 10-year-old from the South Bay, came to Camp Newman’s Porter Creek site for the first time Tuesday. He painted a piece of wood, hiked 15 minutes up to the Star of David and shouted “I love being Jewish” with his peers - a longtime camp tradition. He then ate a roast beef sandwich for lunch under makeshift tents along the creek, since the dining hall was destroyed.

“I get to see the camp now after the fire,” said Small, who is in his second year at Newman by the Bay. “I like to connect outdoors with the counselors and my friends.”

Jeremy Fox, head counselor, said he emphasizes to his campers the Hebrew phrase “l’dor v’dor,” which translates to “generation to generation,” or the continuity of traditions between generations. Passing down camp traditions, such as making mosaics and hiking up to the Star of David is all a part of l’dor v’dor, he said.

“This is a special, magical place and it’s a blessing we can come back here at all,” Fox said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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