Seeing the devastation after the October 2017 fire devastated me. I worried: how would we ever rebuild all that was lost?
Driving through camp’s front gate last summer when my wife Michelle November and I snuck away from Camp Newman (by the Bay) to tour, with permission, Camp Newman (in Santa Rosa), brought forth plenty of anxiety. This would be the first time we returned to our home away from home, the place in which we raised our three children and for which we devoted our unending recruitment efforts, our precious tzedakah dollars, and twenty years of summer vacations to serve on faculty. Could we handle but we were about to see?
Walking through camp was eerie. Favorite places just disappeared. Gone were the faculty cabins where we spent our summers, the new camper cabins where our kids were counselors, and the corner toilet in the Chadar Ochel that offered early-morning privacy. Gone was the new Welcome Center that promised warm welcomes to countless generations of camp campers, staff, faculty, and visitors from all over.
As far as the eye could see, there was… nothing. No buildings, few trees. Just cement footprints of buildings that hinted at the places of Jewish learning and friendship that once were. With so many memories incinerated into nothingness, how do we begin to imagine a new camp?
And then, near the center of the cement pad of the old BK (Beit Am – the People’s House), I noticed a small circle of soot. It reminded me of…
One day, a rabbi entered the pastoral counseling classroom at HUC-JIR and asked her rabbinical students to prepare for a surprise test. As they all waited anxiously, the rabbi handed out the exams with the text facing down. Then she asked the students to turn over the papers. To everyone’s surprise, there were no questions on the sheet of paper – just a small black dot in the center. The rabbi instructed them, “Write about what you see there.”
When time was up, the rabbi collected the exams, and in front of everyone started reading the answers out loud. Each student, without exception, defined the black dot, trying to explain its position in the center of the sheet or what it meant.
The rabbi quietly said, “You all missed the point. Everyone focused on the small dot that in your imagination seemed to take over the paper. No one wrote about the vast clear space surrounding it. In that space, I could write a stirring song, an inspiring sermon, a summer camp eidah (unit) cheer, or a prayer to heal a broken soul. But you all missed that because you were so focused on what was, instead of what could be.”
A Beautiful Blank Slate
Standing there in the memory of the Beit Am, it hit me. I was doing the same thing!
So I finally looked up and around and started to see anew the vast clear space. I began to realize that beyond the devastation and incineration, we had a blank slate upon which to envision a new Jewish camp. This time we could build it – physically and metaphorically – from the ground up. My sadness gave way to hope.
A beautiful blank slate – that’s what Camp Newman in Santa Rosa now is: A vast open space that lets the sunlight in, where – with our unbounded creativity, dreaming, and tzedakah – we can build a most inspiring, embracing, life-affirming Jewish space. A second home where young people for generations will come to enjoy the friendship, freedom, and the special kind of meaning-enhancing Jewish living that made Camp Newman the holy space it will always be.
A beautiful blank slate for holiness.
That’s what I saw at Camp Newman that day. Can you see it that too?!