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Jewish Summer Camps Destroyed in Woolsey Fire

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on November 10, 2018 in Malibu, California. That camp and several Jewish summer camps were badly damaged or destroyed. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
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Several religious summer camps in the Malibu Mountains have been severely damaged in the Woolsey Fire, including facilities operated by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

The popular Camp Hess Kramer, which houses 250 campers at a time, lost almost every cabin to the fire along with the majority of its program buildings, says Wilshire Boulevard Camps director Doug Lynn. Gindling Hilltop Camp, also on site, was extensively damaged as well.

"Everybody has a deep connection to the physical space where they had life-changing experiences," said Lynn. "It's been hard for a lot of people, but it's also been amazing to watch as people share their memories and talk about who they became at camp."

On Saturday, after the fires, hundreds from the Hess Kramer community gathered for a special Havdalah service, marking the end of the Jewish Sabbath, and sang songs like "Stand By Me."

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Angeleno Leslie Cole was a regular at Camp Hess Kramer in the 1960s.

"Such a beautiful spot," Cole said. "And it really helped me just get in touch with myself and get in touch with God, really. It's about the place, but it's mostly about the people and the memories and the Jewish spirit that is there."

Cole's 18-year-old son is a camper-turned-counselor at Camp JCA Shalom, another Jewish institution in Malibu damaged by the fire.

"It's just his home, and my daughter, too," Cole said. "It's like their second home."

Shalom Institute director Rabbi Bill Kaplan said camp staff evacuated Friday morning, grabbing computer servers and precious Torahs. He's not sure how many camp structures are still standing.

"There is a chance that some things might still exist, but we just don't know until we're able to get up there," Kaplan said.

The fire also damaged a Salvation Army camp in Calabasas called the Lawrence Daly Camp at Mt. Crags. Officials say the "wilderness camp" there that provides low-cost summer camp for inner-city kids is a total loss.

All three camps say they operate year-round, and will soon begin rebuilding for the summer.

"It's important that we'll rebuild the wilderness camp, and that we'll be there for those kids next summer," said Robert Brennan, director of communications for the California South Division of the Salvation Army.

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"Camp is going to happen," said Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Doug Lynn. "We don't know exactly where, but the community is rallying together."

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.

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