WHAT FIRE CAN’T DESTROY
By Rudy Brandt
This past October, I was sitting through a lecture at my university when my phone screen lit up to reveal an email from URJ Camp Newman in Northern California: “It is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.” My beloved Camp Newman had been destroyed by the flames of the devastating Tubbs fire that burned through Santa Rosa and surrounding counties.
In the moment that it took me to read and process this news, I truly did not know what had hit me. I got up and leapt over seats of sleepy students, trying to hold in my sobs. When I made it outside, I fell to the ground and cried right there in the front of my lecture hall, shaking and hugging my body to steady myself. Or perhaps I was trying to hold in the memories, to preserve the magical place as it lived within me for just a second or two longer, now that the physical place had been destroyed in smoke.
I am a camp girl – always have been, always will be. The proof is in the history, the friendship bracelets, and the teva tans. As my grandmother likes to say, it’s in my blood. She directed a Jewish sleepaway camp for girls in Massachusetts where my mother spent her summers playing tennis, losing her voice at color war, and making lifelong friends who have become my aunties. At only six months old, I made my first summer debut at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas- and now, twenty years later, I was set to begin my fourteenth summer at Camp Newman. But who is a camp girl when her camp suddenly ceases to exist in its beautiful, physical, and tangible space?
In the aftermath of the fire, I struggled. I wrestled with God, trying to make sense of this disaster, and I had trouble understanding how I fit into a world without camp. I felt empty and without purpose.
As I sat in my apartment grappling with my sadness, I received a video call from the mother of one of my campers from the previous summer. This boy was not just any camper – Levi had really impacted me and truly touched my heart, so when his mom said that he’d been having a hard time since hearing about camp and wanted to speak to me, I immediately agreed. I was saddened to see a less energetic, less smiley version of the sweet boy I know and love. I listened as Levi told me that he was sad, that he really missed camp, and that he was worried that we didn’t yet know what we would do for the coming summer.
I held back tears as Levi spoke, but when he finished, I surprised myself by switching right into counselor mode. It was instantaneous. I remember saying to him, “I know it’s scary, I know you’re sad. I’m sad too. But you know what? Camp is this. Camp is you and me, talking on the phone right now. Camp is friends and camp is counselors and camp is memories and magic and love. We still have all of that, and we always will.” As soon as I spoke the words aloud, I was amazed to discover that they were absolutely true.
Camp has blessed me with the opportunity to be a counselor to some of the most remarkable kids that I have ever met. It is my relationship with them – and my relationships with the counselors and friends who I had as a camper – that remind me what camp is truly about. Camp is so much more than a physical place. As I told Levi on the phone that day, camp is people and community and love.
Now, almost nine months since the fire, I am throwing frisbees, welcoming Shabbat, and putting my sweet campers to bed next to the beautiful San Francisco Bay at Cal Maritime Academy – our new home for this summer. It may not be the redwood trees of my beloved Santa Rosa hills, but because of Jewish Camp I have found the strength and the resilience to take everything that camp has taught me and pass it down, l’dor v’dor. I look forward to Levi’s arrival in a couple of days so that I can hug him tight and show him first hand the gift that he gave me – the reminder that we carry camp with us, as long as we’re together.
Rudy Brandt is a rising Junior at the University of California at Berkeley where she studies Education and Child Development and Jewish Studies. She is at URJ Camp Newman this summer for her fourteenth year, her third summer on staff, and is a Fellow in this year’s FJC Cornerstone Fellowship. Rudy is passionate about popcorn, pajamas, public education and poetry. In her free time she enjoys watching political dramas on television and braiding challah.
This post is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying the ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook, or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.