(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.