Camp Newman in the hills above Santa Rosa has come a long way since organizers began transforming it in 1996 from its previous role as a cooking school for merchant mariners.

After an initial face-lift to remove what one camp official called the “concrete jungle” vibe, operators of the 485-acre Jewish facility off Porter Creek Road began installing zip lines, a ropes course, a climbing tower and a pool water slide.

They also pumped millions of dollars into new lodge construction, built an all-new wastewater treatment system and upgraded athletic fields to accommodate about 1,400 kids who will begin arriving early next month.

And now, thanks to a $4 million grant from the Koret Foundation, the camp will continue its expansion, adding four more lodge buildings and a welcome center.

“This is game-changing for us,” said Ari Vared, the camp’s director of advancement and new initiatives.

The work, to begin in August, is part of a long-range plan to more than triple usage of the retreat, to about 12,000 people a year. When not operating as a youth summer camp, the facility hosts mostly Bay Area nonprofit groups as a conference center.

The latest phase, to be completed by next summer, brings the facility just $8 million away from reaching its $30 million goal to improve infrastructure, housing and program space.

“It’ll be transformative in helping us provide greater services to the Northern California region for decades to come,” said Ruben Arquilevich, the camp’s executive director.

The grant follows by about two weeks a May 11 fire that burned a laundry room, a workshop and a truck, causing about $250,000 in damages. The cause has yet to be determined, Arquilevich said.

Grants funds will be used only for new construction, Arquilevich said.

The Union for Reform Judaism has been a summer camp presence on the West Coast since 1947. First located on the shores of Lake Tahoe, it moved to Santa Clara County before settling on the property in northeast Santa Rosa.

The first years were spent transforming military barracks to housing for school-age children and making the place more camp-like, said Vared.

As a 12-year-old camper in the first group to go through back in 1997, Vared remembers a facility dominated by roads and parking lots that became “warmer” as improvements were made and time wore on.

Today, kids and adults enjoy new lodging that was designed with achieving the ultimate camping experience in mind. Students from third to 12th grade are better able to focus on sports, the arts and adventure rooted in Jewish values, Vared said.

“It’s like night and day,” he said.

And the expansion is not expected to end any time soon. Coming in the next few years is a capstone project to construct a new dining hall. Fundraising for the project is ongoing.

“We’re not done yet,” Vared said. “This is just the next phase of construction in our journey.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.