An undated photo of Ann Gonski. (Photo/Courtesy Gonski family)
An undated photo of Ann Gonski. (Photo/Courtesy Gonski family)

Ann Gonski, Camp Tawonga leader for decades, dies at 72

Updated at 9:35 a.m. Dec. 28

From a young age, Ann Gonski was familiar with loss. She was 12 when her father passed away, and a teenager when her older sister, Linda, died in a car accident. But only decades later, she said, did she learn to grieve.

“Grief is an extraordinarily isolating experience,” Gonski told this publication in 1997. “You feel as if nobody has ever felt this way before. No one understands it and no one wants to hear about it.”

Gonski, a Berkeley resident and an administrative director for Camp Tawonga for more than 20 years, used her own experience to co-found Tawonga’s “Grief and Growing” retreat for families experiencing loss. Not only did she help develop the retreat, an idea she came up with at a national hospice meeting, but she also trained Tawonga’s staff for it and supported attendees before and after.

She had never before experienced a grief retreat in a Jewish context.

“She was to take all that grief she didn’t even know how to express and to not only learn about expression, but then create a healing retreat for others,” said Deborah Newbrun, who worked closely with Gonski at Tawonga for many years. “She was able to make other people’s lives better because of the experiences she had, and the willingness to metabolize it for the good.”

Gonski, whose personal experience and consequent interest in grief would inform much of her life, died Friday of complications related to a brain tumor. She was 72.

Now the Tawonga community is mourning a beloved longtime director for the second time in less than two years. (Ken Kramarz, who worked closely with Gonski, died in June 2022).

Born Oct. 10, 1951, Gonski was one of three children of Jack and Ethel Gonski of Johannesburg, South Africa. Both of her parents’ families were originally from Eastern Europe. She had a nanny, Caroline Mamkeli, who was a second mother to her and, despite the distance, Gonski remained close to her throughout her life. Gonski took her to Israel in her later years to visit the Christian holy sites and continued to be a loving and supportive presence in the lives of Mamkeli’s children and grandchildren in South Africa.

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Gonski came to the Bay Area in the late 1970s. She started her career in women’s health and had a brief stint reading the news on radio station KPFA. But in 1986, she was hired as administrative director of Camp Tawonga, where she worked alongside program director Newbrun and camp director Kramarz.

“Ken and I were the big personalities and were very comfortable as front of house, and we had the platform and microphone, but Ann was just as impactful without all of that,” Newbrun said.

In fact, most often, Gonski stayed in the San Francisco office during summer, fielding all the calls from parents and handling the administrative tasks.

“Ann was the proverbial glue behind the glitter of camp,” Camp Tawonga said in a statement.

Newbrun described Gonski as “our social justice conscience, in that she really walked the walk.”

It fell upon Gonski, for example, to wade through the numerous applications for scholarships. She would keep tabs on every family that asked and how their circumstances might have changed from the prior year.

“She was so trustworthy and we would never doubt anything she said or decision she made,” Newbrun said. “She was just brilliant, so ethical, kindhearted and generous, funny and irreverent.”

While serving as interim executive director of Tawonga in 2007, she oversaw the Noar l’Noar (Youth to Youth) program, which brought a diverse group of Israeli teens to camp, including Ethiopian Israelis  and Arab citizens of Israel.

“We want our community to see Israel in all its fantastic diversity,” Gonski told J. at the time.

Gonski also had a passion for peacebuilding. When Kramarz suggested hosting Israelis and Palestinians, as well as members of local Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups, at Camp Tawonga, Gonski put her imprint on that program, which ran for several years.

From left: Ann Gonski, Deborah Newbrun and Ken Kramarz when they were co-directors of Camp Tawonga.
From left: Ann Gonski, Deborah Newbrun and Ken Kramarz when they were co-directors of Camp Tawonga.

In a 2005 J. article that described one of the largest Oseh Shalom-Sanea al-Salam Peacemakers camps, with 140 participants, Gonski acknowledged that she wondered whether they could pull it off. Seeing it come to fruition made her “weepy,” she said at the time.

Melek Totah, a Palestinian American who lives in San Francisco, worked closely with Gonski as co-director to create the camps.

“Ann was so incredibly excited and passionate about the Peacemakers camp,” Totah said. “I was in awe of her calm, kind, confident demeanor and natural skill around bringing people together and creating magic.”

In 1994, Gonski married John Scott, who she met when they both were volunteering with AIDS patients at the Zen Hospice Center of San Francisco in the 1980s.

Gonski was an active member at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

She “graciously answered my urgent call” to briefly serve as interim executive director of the Reform congregation after she left Tawonga, Beth El Rabbi Emeritus Yoel Kahn said in a eulogy for Gonski.

After she stepped down at Beth El, she ended up joining the congregation, becoming a member of its Torah study group, leading grief groups and organizing around social justice. She then began a second career furthering her interest in grief and hospice work. She returned to school to obtain master’s degrees in social welfare at UC Berkeley and in gerontology from San Francisco State University. She worked with families impacted by a relative with dementia or in palliative care. She also served as a  death doula, guiding people and their loved ones through the dying process.

Gonski was a lover of books, travel and meditation. Despite the distance, she remained close with her England-based brother and his family.

In addition to her husband, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Gonski is survived by brother Richard Gonski and his two children of England.

Donations in her memory can be made to World Central Kitchen.

Update at 9:35 a.m. Dec. 28: Gonski’s brother clarified her cause of death. In addition, the origin of the Israeli-Palestinian program was incorrect due to an editing error and has been fixed.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."