Eli Kane, flanked by his parents Scott and Nancy Kane (Photo/Facebook)
Eli Kane, flanked by his parents Scott and Nancy Kane (Photo/Facebook)

Tawonga counselor, Berkeley High grad drowns near camp

Berkeley native Eli Kane was on his day off from Camp Tawonga on Thursday when he and some other counselors headed to a river in the Stanislaus National Forest. It was a popular swimming hole for Tawonga staffers, off camp property.

Somehow — the circumstances have not been determined — he drowned. He was 20 years old.

He was the son of Scott and Nancy Kane and the brother of Jesse Kane, all of Berkeley. Both boys became bar mitzvah at Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Eli was a 2019 graduate of Berkeley High School, where he played on the soccer team, and he was a student at the University of Michigan, according to several media sources. It was his first summer as a counselor at the Jewish overnight camp near Yosemite National Park. 

Yesterday evening, Tawonga’s administration sent out a global email to some 10,000 people, including all parents of campers and staff members.

“We are heartbroken to inform you that Eli Kane, a beloved member of the 2021 Camp Tawonga staff, died on July 15 after drowning at a river spot away from camp,” it read. “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. Eli was a bright light, beautiful spirit and an adored Tawongan.” Noting that Kane was a longtime Tawongan camper before becoming a counselor-in-training and, this year, a counselor, it continued: “Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with Eli’s family, and we are grieving with them.”

The Tawonga email, much of it posted on its Facebook page, noted that several other staff members were with Eli at the swimming hole, but none of them were injured. No campers were present.

Emergency personnel from Cal Fire and the Forest Service responded. According to Tuolumne County Deputy Sheriff Niccoli Sandelin, his office received the call at 12:52 p.m. July 15. When officers arrived at the swimming hole, witnesses were giving CPR to Eli. Lifesaving measures were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead. “Details surrounding the incident are still unclear and exact cause of death will be determined at time of autopsy,” Sandelin told J. in an email.

Campers at Tawonga were informed of Eli’s death on Friday, and he was memorialized during services Saturday morning, as described on the camp’s blog: “This morning, we honored Eli Kane during a beautiful, soulful and powerful Torah service. Together, as a community, we took a moment of silence to honor and remember him.”

Campers and staff said Kaddish as a community and joined in a Mishebeirach, the Jewish prayer for healing, for Eli’s family. Grief therapists arrived at camp today to supplement the on-site staff therapists in supporting campers and staff.

Meanwhile, leaders and staff at Tawonga are struggling to balance their own grief and the desire to mourn as a community with the need to keep camp moving forward for the children. “We hope to retain the magical Tawonga experience for the campers while also holding the sadness of this tragic loss,” Tawonga CEO Jamie Simon wrote on the camp’s Facebook page Friday. She added that the campers are “all safe” and taking part in their regular camp activities.

On Friday, Congregation Beth El sent out an announcement to its synagogue community. Along with his family’s synagogue involvement, Eli was a camper and recent staff member at the congregation’s summer day camp, Camp Kee Tov.

Berkeley High School Principal Juan Manuel Raygoza shared the tragedy with staff on Friday, saying the school community was “heartbroken.” One of Eli’s teachers, Rebecca Villagran, wrote that he “was an amazing young man, brilliant and sweet.”

The Kane family is receiving visitors at their Berkeley home through Monday. A funeral has not yet been held.

Staff writer Gabriel Greschler contributed to this report.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].