Summer dream jobs

Were you ever sent away to an overnight camp? Do you recall looking up at your camp director as he sang the Shabbat prayer off-key one Friday night, and wondering how he got there? I did.

As a young camper at Camp Swig — and thereafter, a CIT and counselor at Camp Tawonga — this reporter thought that every camp director had been born and raised there. And you know what? It’s not that far from the truth.

“I grew up at Swig,” says Sam Roberts, senior assistant director at Camps Swig in Saratoga and Newman in Santa Rosa, both under the aegis of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I was a camper, a CIT, a counselor, and a sports director. Growing up, my dream was to work for Camp Swig professionally and full time. I’m really living my dream now, by being able to create the same experience I had growing up.”

Today, Roberts wouldn’t miss out on a thing, like Swig’s makeover this year, as its infrastructure undergoes a complete transformation. “It’s a necessary upgrade,” explains Roberts. “This summer, both programs will run out of the Newman facility.”

In the meantime, Roberts has left for Israel, where he’s going to train almost 25 staff for this summer’s programs.

Zachary Lasker, assistant director at Ojai’s Camp Ramah in California, also grew up at camp: a camper for five years and on staff for 10. Unlike Roberts, however, he never imagined himself in the position he holds today.

“As a camper, I hated it,” says Lasker, who earned his master’s in education from the University of Judaism in 2003. “I was miserable and felt like I didn’t have any friends. Some of it was typical growing-up stuff that everyone has to go through, but there were some things I didn’t like about the program, or how I was treated. I’m told that everyone goes through this at camp, but I can’t believe anyone had it as bad as me.”

However, after Lasker joined the Ramah staff, his feelings changed. “I really fell in love with this work during my first year as a counselor,” Lasker says, adding that his past experiences have also influenced how he directs Ramah today.

“One of things that is always at the top of the agenda is staff training, like leading the staff by example, getting to know people and making sure that the camp is set up structurally for a plethora of learning styles.”

When reached for an interview, Ken Kramarz, executive director of Camp Tawonga near Yosemite, recognized this reporter from 14 years back.

Although Kramarz first came to Tawonga more than two decades years ago, he didn’t imagine that he would still be there today. A UCLA law school graduate in 1977, Kramarz was living a block from the former Tawonga office. He was friends with Judy Edelson, then-director of Tawonga, because they’d worked together at a camp in Los Angeles, and she invited him to family camp that summer.

“When I first started to come up to camp, I knew that this was something very special for both kids and staff,” Kramarz says. “There’s a combination of being away, being in nature and being committed to children. I think from the very beginning, it’s something I had to really live and hold in my in heart. That’s what has sustained me for the years.”

Kramarz met his wife, Felicia, at Tawonga in 1982. Two years later, he was hired to direct Tawonga, which follows a philosophy of four goals: positive self-image and self-esteem, creating a cooperative community, a partnership with nature, and spirituality and positive Jewish identification. Kramarz’s three children — Ben, Jake and Anna — have spent all their summers at Tawonga.

“Camp is like Shabbat for the year,” Kramarz explains. “It’s a time for reflection and gathering together and a time for community. Maybe you’ve heard of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg? When he talks about Shabbat, he says that it gives us the taste of what a redeemed world would be like. You’re happy, families are together, there’s music and joy. Camp also gives us a taste of what a redeemed world would be like. It gives us the strength to work towards that in the world.”

Lom Friedman, assistant director of Tawonga, agrees that Tawonga’s distinctiveness has kept him coming back year after year. “Working in the camp environment is a unique opportunity because it’s living in a world of ideals,” says Friedman. “You realize in a community that lives by those ideals. That’s what draws me to this work.”

This summer is Friedman’s 10-year anniversary at Tawonga. An Ohio native, he was working as a school therapist at Garfield Elementary School in San Francisco when one of his colleagues — a unit head at Tawonga — told him that he should check out the camp.

“I’ve worked at five or six different summer camps,” says Friedman. “Tawonga is doing something right, with its mission and philosophy of teaching kids about community. I think it’s the ideal community we wish that we all lived in.”

One of Friedman’s Tawonga highpoints was being invited on a backpacking trip with an all-girls’ teenage bunk. “They grabbed at the challenge of climbing a small mountain,” he recalls. “They loved being dirty, and helping each other up the mountain. To be a part of that, as a man, was unique.”

Lastly, Friedman explains the best perk of his profession: “I live in San Francisco, and then Yosemite for a good stretch of the year. What job allows you the best of both worlds?”