When a devastating wildfire last November almost completely destroyed two historic Jewish summer camps in Malibu, campers were left wondering whether there would be any place for them to go this summer.
Officials at Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp announced that they will offer their full summer program on the scenic campus of California State University, Channel Islands, in Camarillo. The new location is just 15 minutes north of the camp grounds that were ravaged by the Woolsey Fire that scorched Malibu’s hillsides to the Santa Monica Mountains.
“I actually headed up the search process, so we started with around 40 places that we were looking at within the area, just a couple of hours around the camps,” said Seth Toybes, camp director. “We whittled down the list, and discussions with Cal State, Channel Islands, got very serious, very fast. They wanted to help us because we’re both in Ventura County and they wanted to help a neighbor and a nonprofit. They’ve been very flexible in doing everything they can to make Cal State, Channel Islands, feel like camp.”
Moving activities from Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp is a big endeavor, as there are 500 campers when both facilities are operating at full capacity.
“We looked at retreat centers and conference centers and many just couldn’t handle that capacity, but Channel Islands had the extra space,” Toybes said. “We’re going to be renting out two full buildings to house the campers and we will have a large outdoor area where we will be holding activities for kids throughout the day.”
Toybes anticipates a period of adjustment for campers, but the new location at Cal State, Channel Islands, should ease some of that apprehension.
“It felt right for so many reasons, such as space and it’s in our neighborhood,” Toybes said. “It’s still the same place. We’re going to go to the same beaches that we’ve been to in the past.”
Generations of Phoenix-area residents spent their summers at the two camps, so when news of the fire broke there was sadness and hope from the oldest camp alumni to current campers.
“I was really sad and I felt like all my memories were shriveling away. I was sad for awhile, but I got through it,” said Adrien Woodnick, 10, of Scottsdale, who will be attending camp this June for the third time. “It’s going to be different in the new facilities. All my friends will be there, but it’s going to be different. But it seems really nice and cool looking.”
Kids attending Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp may be calling Cal State, Channel Islands, their summer home for some time. According to Toybes, 90 percent of the camps were lost.
“It’s been pretty brutal,” he said. “The fires took out most of everything. There are a couple of buildings remaining, but unfortunately heavy rains have dumped mud everywhere.”
He added that parts of a sports field are under about a foot of mud. At this time, camp officials are still assessing the situation and have yet to put a dollar amount on the damage or how much it will cost to rebuild.
“We’re working with FEMA and we’re working with our insurance company. A lot of people have to look at a lot of stuff before they decide damage and rebuilding costs,” Toybes said. “This is going to be a long process and we’re not even done digging ourselves out. We know we’re going to have to completely rebuild. All the cabins are gone, all the main halls are gone.”
Built by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Camp Hess Kramer opened in 1952 and Gindling Hilltop opened in 1968. Gindling Hilltop is known for its outdoor chapel that sits on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, providing campers and other visitors with a breathtaking view. The stone structures at the chapel, such as the lectern and the stands that hold the un-scrolled Torah during services, were blackened but not destroyed.
Improbably, both of the camps’ outdoor chapels survived the devastating fire.
“It’s pretty incredible. All of our benches are wood and so we would have anticipated that they would have been burned, but they’re pretty much intact,” Toybes said. “The arks at both are not there. They got burned up. But the benches are in perfect condition. It’s great.”
The Torahs were rescued as onsite camp personnel were evacuated from the area.
As for the new location, camp officials said they have heard positive feedback from alumni and campers, and are looking forward to a robust summer of fun.
“We always say camp isn’t where we are but who we are,” Toybes said. “Wherever we’re at is where camp is. We could be behind a billboard in Reseda and as long as it’s our community, it will have a camp feel. After people adjust to the location, it will start feeling like camp, just as shticky and goofy and fun and loving as it always is.”
Janet Perez is managing editor at the Phoenix Jewish News, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.