In a difficult time, Camp Tawonga offers comfort and needs it, too

The days leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, which we commemorated this past week, are the saddest days on the Jewish calendar. We mourned the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history.

During these past weeks, we, the Bay Area Jewish community, also have mourned the loss of Annaïs Rittenberg, the extraordinary young woman who was killed when a tree fell on a group of staff members sitting outside the dining hall at Camp Tawonga. We extend our deepest sympathy to her family: We embrace you and your broken hearts.

Immediately following Tisha B’Av comes Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, named for this week’s Haftorah in which the Prophet Isaiah brings God’s comfort to our devastated people with the words nachamu, nachamu ami, “comfort, oh comfort, my people.” We continue to read what are known as the “haftorot of comfort” for the next seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The cycle of our calendar reminds us that the Jewish response to tragedy is to comfort and be comforted.

As we enter this time of comfort, I want to share my reflections on what I experienced at Camp Tawonga, having just returned from five days there as a guest rabbi.

The staff’s handling of themselves and the situation has been superb. Despite the tragic loss of a dear friend, staff members have acted heroically, whether by literally saving people’s lives during the incident or, in its aftermath, by setting aside their own personal shock and grief to put their campers’ needs first. I was in awe of the professionalism, sensitivity and wisdom of the entire staff, from the directors to the cabin counselors. Their ability to do their already difficult jobs with grace in the most challenging of circumstances merits our praise and gratitude.

The Tawonga leadership and staff are able to carry on and create a wonderful summer for the campers despite this devastating tragedy because of the sacred act of comfort. They are receiving an outpouring of love, support and appreciation from parents of campers, from colleagues at other Jewish summer camps and from Jewish communal leaders.

Therapists, trauma and grief counselors, rabbis, and former Tawonga staff members are present at camp to help out. Supervisors and senior leaders are keeping a close watch on the community’s emotional needs and are making sure that anyone who needs support receives it, providing a variety of modalities for staff and campers to engage in a healing process.

That includes opportunities to mourn for Annaïs and to honor her memory. Each night after the campers   

are in bed, there is a gathering for staff to come together, light a memorial candle, say the Mourner’s Kaddish, and share songs and memories of Annaïs. This ritual will continue to take place for every night of Shloshim, the 30-day mourning period traditional in Jewish practice.

In addition to the memorial services held in Berkeley and San Francisco last week, a beautiful memorial service for Annaïs was held at camp this past Sunday, with friends calling upon all of us to be inspired by Annaïs’ vibrancy and passion for life and to be comforted by the memory of her smile. Carloads of former Tawonga staff members trekked all the way up to the mountains to volunteer for the afternoon so staff could be relieved of their duties and attend the service.

Tawonga’s leadership is working valiantly to provide comfort for their community. There is no way their handling of the incident could have satisfied everyone. They had to make difficult decisions in the most difficult of circumstances, communicating with parents and media while caring for injured and traumatized staff members amid downed and live power lines while keeping campers safe and happy during the last two days of the camp session. Now is the time for us, the Bay Area Jewish community, to follow their example and offer our comfort and support.

In these weeks of comfort, reach out to Annaïs’ family and also to the Tawonga community, especially as they leave the supportive structure of camp and return home. Staff members have been superhuman in their handling of this terrible accident, but ultimately, they are simply human and they need all the comfort we can offer.

Rabbi Chai Levy is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and is president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.