Camps & education | Camper for life: Chance visit to Tawonga propels career amid redwoods

Ken Kramarz never set out to be a camp director, and he had “no intention of doing anything Jewish in San Francisco” when he arrived in the city in 1977.

At the time, he was a law student at UCLA, and he saw his summer internship at the district attorney’s office as a steppingstone to his legal career. However, a serendipitous meeting with an old friend proved to be life changing.

“Did I ever think I’d run Camp Tawonga?” he asked himself four decades later. “No. Definitely not.”

Kramarz (right) and other song leaders during Shabbat stroll

But in fact, Kramarz, 62, has been affiliated with the 90-year-old camp near Yosemite for more than a third of its existence.

His bond with the camp has deepened his personal life. He met his wife at camp. His three children went and worked there.

The connection that thousands of people have felt over the years on the 160-acre camping ground in Stanislaus National Forest, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, is strengthened by the history of the location itself, he said.

“One of the things that deepens the experience at Camp Tawonga for people is that we’re mindful that it was a Native American village for thousands of years,” Kramarz said. “It probably goes back about 4,000 years.”

He said that history helps him deliver the Jewish message of the camp.

“If you had to summarize [the message],” he said, “it’s respecting tradition and history and learning from it. When we demonstrate that same sort of respect and curiosity for the Native American culture that preceded us on the land the kids become more interested and respectful of [the Jewish] narrative.”

A simple hike is one of the best ways for people to connect.

“In one 90-minute hike you can experience thousands of years of history and see some unbelievable nature,” he said.

In the summer of 1977, such bucolic experiences were not part of Kramarz’s game plan when he arrived in San Francisco. At the time, he was living in an in-law apartment two blocks from the JCCSF, where he rekindled his friendship with Judy Edelson, whom he knew from his camping experience at JCA Shalom Malibu. Edelson, who was Tawonga’s director, invited him to visit the camp.

“I was charmed by the camp,” he said. “It was really rustic. Really rustic.”

Ken Kramarz helps camper Gabe Newbrun-Mintz at Saturday morning Torah services.

Kramarz didn’t become an official counselor at the camp that summer, but he stayed for a few weeks and helped wherever he was needed.

“I brought my guitar and played songs around the campfire,” he said, “and was just a general helpful person.”

The summer ended, however, and Kramarz returned to law school in Los Angeles and didn’t think he’d be working there again. After finishing law school he became an attorney in L.A. and later spent time in Japan practicing law.

He returned to California in 1981 and got a phone call from Edelson. She wanted him back at Camp Tawonga. Kramarz resisted.

“At first I said no,” he said. “I thought by this point camping was somewhere in my youth. But [Edelson] called me a few more times and badgered me into it, and I said ‘fine.’ ”

Kramarz’s experience that summer led him on a new career trail. As a unit head at camp, he was asked to supervise various programs and took on a higher level of responsibility.

 “It was a complete antidote to the life I was living as an L.A. lawyer,” he said. “It was apparent to me it was time to leave Los Angeles and leave lawyering and come to San Francisco and see if I could join these Tawongans.”

Kramarz returned the next summer as the camp’s assistant director. That’s when he met Felicia, his soon-to-be wife.

She was working as a unit head that summer, and Kramarz met her at Tawonga’s San Francisco office a week before camp began.

“We met and kind of hit it off and I said to her, ‘Let me show you around San Francisco and the Bay Area before we head to camp,’ “ he said.

They grew closer at camp as the summer came to an end.

“We said, ‘We should hold onto this relationship,’” Kramarz said. And they did — they got married four months after they first met.

“I still wonder if I rushed into it,” joked Kramarz, who later settled with his family in Larkspur, joining Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

In just seven years, Kramarz went from camp helper with a guitar to camp director. He took over following Edelson’s departure in 1984.

His tenure has seen the growth of the camp and experiments that have been lauded. He became executive director, leaving to pursue other options in 2006. He teamed up with local agencies to teach disaster response techniques, which he had worked on at Tawonga, and also served as executive campus liaison for Hillel’s Schusterman International Center. In 2011, the Tawonga board invited him to “fill in” as executive director for the summer. Four years later, he’s still there, planning for the camp’s 100th anniversary in 2025. “Who could turn down an opportunity like that!” he wrote in an email.

From 2003 to 2008, Tawonga hosted the “Peacemakers Camp,” a weekend-long activity that involved hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims, some of them flown to Tawonga from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We had earnest conversations about dialogue,” Kramarz said, “and lived together at camp and did the kinds of things you’d do at Camp Tawonga. It was a wonderful experience.”

Kramarz says the camp’s future is strong and is gradually expanding into people’s everyday lives back home. One of the goals is to help people become more Jewishly involved, whether they’re Orthodox or if they’re just interested in Judaism, which he calls “J-curious.”

Part of that is because of the camp’s nonaligned platform.

 “We try to put out an eclectic buffet of ideas and experiences and let people make their own choices,” he said.

Camp Tawonga has expanded its reach by hosting Rosh Hashanah services at Tilden Park in Berkeley, as well as holding Hanukkah services in the Bay Area.

“It’s a very good future,” he said. “It’s all about bringing the experience down the mountain.”