Hiking accident claims young Camp Tawonga artist

When Deborah Newbrun thinks of Shem Tsipur, she thinks of the way the tall, lanky artist helped children at Camp Tawonga unleash their creativity.

"I have a great image of him crouched down with really short kids, really getting in there and being encouraging," said the associate director of the Yosemite-area camp.

Tsipur's positive attitude and love for children are just two of the qualities that endeared him at Tawonga, where he worked at different times as a maintenance person, counselor and art teacher. "He was a bright shining light at camp, a real positive spark," Newbrun said.

Late last month, Tsipur, a 24-year old Berkeley resident, died after being struck in the head by a loose boulder while hiking in the Himalayas. After a bureaucratic tangle, his body arrived in the United States last week. A funeral was held Monday in Piedmont.

"He was an extremely spiritual person," says his mother, Jasmine Marah of Berkeley. "The more I hear about him from other people, the more I understand the depth and breadth of his involvement in searching for the connection of all things to God."

A magna cum laude graduate of San Francisco State University, Tsipur had Jewish ties that went back to childhood. He attended fourth and fifth grades at San Francisco's Hebrew Academy, where administrators recall his intelligence and early creative flare. He spent summers at Camp Swig. He also participated in Hashomer HaTzair, a Zionist youth group.

Aside from his art, Tsipur loved nature — and travel. During his final journey, he visited Nepal as part of an overseas adventure that included stops in India as well as a year in Israel. While in the Jewish state, he spent four months working as an art teacher and gardener at Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi. He loved Israel so much, according to friends, that he planned to return to study art. Although he was born and raised in the United States, he gave himself a Hebrew name.

Tsipur's mother recalled the impact her son made during his year in Israel.

"I have gotten calls from all around the U.S. from people who were on the [kibbutz program] with him," she said. "They've said he was really the one who held the group together. He was the pacifist among them, and he helped people solve their problems."

So well-loved was Tsipur at the kibbutz, in fact, that a number of its members flew from Israel to the Bay Area to attend the funeral, as well as a "celebration of Shem's life," held Sunday.

"He was universally loved," Newbrun said. "He was very honest, a very good listener, really sincere. He had a lot of qualities that were not typical for a guy that age."

Tsipur is survived by his mother, sister, Maacah Marah, and father, William McClellan.

The family asks that donations in Tsipur's honor be sent to the Shem Tsipur Memorial Fund, c/o California Federal Savings, 280 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito, CA 94530.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.