By Lynne Konstanin
The massive Woolsey Fire that has ravaged Malibu, Thousand Oaks and other nearby areas of California have also devastated the Jewish community.
Three beloved Jewish camps — the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, the Shalom Institute in Malibu and Ilan Ramon Day School in Agoura Hills — have been mostly destroyed.
“There’s a fireball that went through there,” Shalom Institute Executive Director Rabbi Bill Kaplan told the Jewish Journal of Greater L.A. “There’s probably not much remaining.”
Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, both under the umbrella of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps — where more than 40,000 children have spent summers for 60 years — have been hit hard.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Senior Rabbi Steve Leder said that he expected the fire to reach his Malibu camps when he heard that it began on Nov. 8.
“Fire has just barely missed our camps five times in the past,” he says. “When I saw what was going on in Malibu, I fully expected a complete wipeout.”
Flames from the fire devoured nearly two dozen cabins, dining halls, dance halls, rec areas and more at both camps. Camp Hess Kramer’s outdoor chapel, where outdoor daily prayer services were held, were in ashes. Leder’s first priority was evacuating and finding new homes for staff and animals living at the camp, plus retrieving the camps’ Torah scrolls.
Caryn Weingarden-Devaney, who lives in Commerce Township, grew up attending the Temple Camps.
“Much of my Jewish identity is because of those camps,” she says. “It was, is and always will be the most special Shabbat service on Earth.”
Starting Hess Kramer when she was nine, Weingarden-Devaney then moved between Kramer and Hilltop before being selected for the Leadership Session at Kramer. She became a CIT, a counselor and worked in the office at Hilltop.
“My family went to the 60th anniversary of Kramer a few years ago. I brought my kids to California in July to attend the 50th anniversary of Hilltop,” she says. “I was in tears last night telling them what happened.
“However,” she adds, “No fire can destroy the memories and friendships we created at camp. It cannot take away their magic and their spirit.”
The camps have since issued this statement on its website:
“Although the full extent of the damage to Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp from the Woolsey Fire won’t be determined for some time, we know that it is severe. As we feel the sadness of these losses we also remember with gratitude that everyone was evacuated safely from both camps before the fire arrived, as were our Torah scrolls.
“There will be camp. We will rebuild. Hess Kramer and Hilltop will endure.”
To donate to Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, visit wbtcamps.org/recovery.