Tawonga holds a special place in heart of community

The story of the tragedy at Camp Tawonga made headlines across the nation and was quickly given the tabloid treatment, with aerial shots of the camp on TV and interviews with concerned parents back in the Bay Area.

But few stories portrayed Tawonga’s role in the Jewish community or delved into the camp’s history.

Tawonga is a pillar of local Jewish life, and thousands of Bay Area Jews are among its alumni.

“This incident is not something to be treated as a spectacle,” said Hannah Horowitz of Sonoma, a Tawonga camper for four years and a counselor last year.

Tawonga was established by Louis and Emma Blumenthal in 1925 as two separate camps for boys and girls. It moved to its current site, a few miles west of the boundary of Yosemite National Park, in 1963.

Largely serving a metropolitan area that has one of the lowest affiliation rates of any major Jewish community, Tawonga takes a pluralist, nondenominational approach to Jewish identity and expression. Many campers come from families that are not involved in Jewish activity.

 “Tawonga has been the main Jewish part of my life,” said Walnut Creek’s Moorea Blythe, 18, a counselor at the camp.

Tawonga features many of the standard trappings typical of summer camps. But it emphasizes spirituality over organized prayer and allows campers leeway in crafting their own approach to Jewish life.

In a way, this philosophy mirrors the Bay Area approach to Jewish life. Over the past 160 years, Jews built, or helped to build, major institutions here, and not just Jewish ones. They have generally been well integrated into the social fabric, and unlike in most other regions with large Jewish populations, did not create specifically Jewish neighborhoods.

But in the 1960s, as Jews and other groups began to embrace their ethnic identities, so did Jewish camps. In 1973, Camp Swig, the now-defunct Union for Reform Judaism camp in Saratoga, took a leading role, switching to singing exclusively Hebrew songs, for example.

David Waksberg, the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks, praised Tawonga, which has its main office in San Francisco, as being a national leader in Jewish camping.

“Tawonga has done a wonderful job in delivering Jewish learning in an experiential way to Northern California families in ways that are authentic and meaningful to people here,” Waksberg said.

“There’s a lot of interest in outdoors and the environment, for example,” he said. “Tawonga’s been brilliant in providing those experiences with a Jewish lens.”

Tawonga has played an important role in a Jewish community with perpetually low affiliation rates (a 2005 study put that rate at 20 percent, half the national average).

Thus, camps like Tawonga have become important for keeping young Jews involved, said Marc Dollinger, the chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

“They’re living in a Jewish context for the entire time that they’re at camp,” Dollinger said. “So they understand that Jewishness is not about going to temple. It’s not about having a bar or bat mitzvah. But it’s actually a way of life.”

In a similar vein, Tawonga has been able to show another side of Judaism — some might even call it a “fun” side — to kids who grew up in a Hebrew-school-and-synagogue environment.

“Camp Tawonga was the first place I found myself singing out loud at services and thoroughly enjoying myself,” said Gabe Tarran of Pacifica, a camper for seven years and now a counselor. He said he prefers the “tranquility and freedom” of the camp’s outdoor prayer space to being in synagogue.

Joni Gore, 19, of Palo Alto found Tawonga liberating after attending a Conservative synagogue and a Jewish day school as a youth.

“Tawonga helped me shape what I thought of Judaism by making me focus more on the cultural aspects and on what kind of person I wanted to be — not necessarily that I have to go to synagogue every Saturday,” said Gore, now a counselor there.

Jamie Simon, the camp director at Tawonga, said the Jewish programming is aimed at engaging as many campers as possible.

“Maybe some like to pray, others like to connect to their spirituality through nature,” Simon said. “We want to offer a lot of different modalities for connections to Judaism.”

The value of Jewish camp goes beyond just the campers, said a Jewish education and camping expert. Counselors and counselors-in-training — as well as young staff — are impacted greatly by camp, said Michael Zeldin of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion in Los Angeles.

 “Camps are just the pretext for having young Jewish adults in a powerful Jewish environment,” he said.

“Being on staff is an incredible way to give back to a community that has given me so [much],” Tarran said. “My goal as a counselor is simply to give campers the same experience I had.”

Sophie Symonds, 21, of San Rafael, said Annaïs Rittenberg, the art teacher who died on July 3, was the same way. Symonds was a counselor at Tawonga in 2011 and 2012 after being a camper there for five years, and she met Rittenberg last year.

“I will mainly remember how Annaïs stepped onto the Tawonga grounds for her first summer [last year] and became a Tawonga woman,” Symonds said. “She did exactly what we tell our campers to do for one another: Support, respect and listen to each other to create a more peaceful and harmonious community.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.