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After tragedy, Camp Tawonga alumni recall close community and meaningful summers

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Annais Rittenberg, Annais Rittenberg Camp Towanga, Camp Towanga

Annais Rittenberg, inset, a 21-year-old counselor, was killed when a massive oak tree crashed down on a campfire circle at northern California’s Camp Towanga, seen here. (Facebook)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — When a massive oak tree toppled over on a stage where five counselors were having breakfast at Camp Tawonga, killing one and severely injuring two others, news of the tragedy quickly rippled across the Bay Area Jewish community.

Founded in the 1920s, the camp located near Yosemite National Park is a pillar of California Jewish life, and thousands of Bay Area Jews are among its alumni.

The death of Annais Rittenberg, 21, a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an art counselor at Tawonga, in the July 3 accident hit close to home.

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

In the Bay Area, which has among the lowest affiliation rates of any major Jewish community, Tawonga’s pluralist, nondenominational approach has been a key to its success. Many campers come from homes that are unaffiliated with a synagogue or Jewish institution, and the camp’s philosophy reflects the population.

Tucked into a forest adjacent to Yosemite, Tawonga features many of the standard trappings typical of summer camps. But its pluralistic culture emphasizes spirituality over organized prayer and allows campers significant leeway in crafting their own approach to Jewish life.

“Maybe some like to pray, others like to connect to their spirituality through nature,” Jamie Simon, the camp director, told JTA. “We want to offer a lot of different modalities for connections to Judaism, and hopefully something will ring true for each child.”

The area where the camp is located is also near and dear to the hearts of Bay Area Jews.

At San Francisco’s Temple Sherith Israel, a stained-glass window installed in 1905 depicts Moses bringing the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments down from El Capitan, the vertical rock formation towering over the Yosemite Valley.

Hannah Horowitz grew up north of San Francisco in an area with few Jews. A former camper and counselor at Tawonga, she said the camp helped her connect to nature and make connections with other Jewish youth.

“For the first time, I had a whole community of Jewish peers that I was really close with,” Horowitz said.

Joni Gore had a similar experience. She grew up attending a Conservative congregation, but only at Tawonga was she was able to explore Judaism on her own terms, she said.

“Tawonga helped shape my Judaism by making me focus more on a cultural aspect and on what kind of a person I wanted to be, not necessarily that I have to go to synagogue every Saturday,” Gore said.

David Waksberg, CEO of Jewish Learning Works, San Francisco’s board of Jewish education, said the camp has been successful at helping the campers find their Jewish identity meaningful.

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

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