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Push for ceasefire puts Jewish summer camp on unfamiliar ground

Camp Tawonga ‘seems to be a microcosm of the divide we are hearing about in Jewish communities all over,’ says camp director Aaron Mandel

This article originally appeared in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, and was republished here with permission.

Eli Newbrun-Mintz has lots of love for Camp Tawonga. After all, the 28-year-old spent almost every summer of his childhood at the venerable Jewish camp, which is nestled in an idyllic spot by the Tuolumne River near Yosemite.

“It was a tremendous part of my childhood,” said Newbrun-Mintz, son of Rabbi Deborah Newbrun, who was the camp’s director for 24 years. “I really believe the values I got from Tawonga are a big part of who I am.”

He said those values of compassion and justice are why he joined more than 450 campers, parents and staff — former, current and prospective — in signing an open letter to Tawonga urging the camp to support an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

“We call on Tawonga to uphold their values and vision and join a growing and collective call for a ceasefire,” the letter states, citing the Jewish values that the signatories say they learned at Tawonga such as tikkun olam, or repairing the world. “We believe that the safety of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as Arabs, Muslims, and Jews around the world depends on an immediate and permanent ceasefire and an end to Israel’s bombardment of and ground war on Gaza.”

The letter was posted in early December, and a related Instagram account, “Tawongans4Palestine,” was created shortly afterward.

The letter has caused friction inside the Tawonga camp community. The call for an “immediate and permanent” cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war remains a controversial position within the Jewish community. Many Israel supporters believe that Hamas will continue to pose a dire threat unless it is destroyed or severely weakened.

However, the letter speaks to the generational and political rifts that have strained the Bay Area Jewish community as the war has progressed since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre. It has also put Camp Tawonga in the unenviable position of having to handle contradictory demands.

Tawonga posted a response on its website days after the cease-fire letter was released. Its statement, titled “Affirming Tawonga’s Mission in This Moment,” reiterated the camp’s connection to Israel and stressed that the camp embraces “diversity of opinion” within its community.

“Recent tensions within our community are compelling us to clarify that as a Jewish camp, Tawonga has a long and cherished relationship with Israel — with Israelis, with its culture and its language, and with the rich diversity of Israel’s people — and this will continue,” it said.

The statement also obliquely addressed the open letter.

“We want to be clear that any views expressed by individuals in our community are solely those of the individual and do not represent Camp Tawonga,” it said. “We are not a political advocacy organization, and we will continue to focus on planning and running our transformative, mission-centered programs.”

It concluded: “We may not always get it right, but we are working to navigate the diverse views within our community with deep listening, kindness and care.”

The statement was signed by the “Camp Tawonga team.”

Tawonga, a nondenominational Jewish camp that’s almost a century old, has long ties to Israel, as do most Jewish summer camps. One part of the Tawonga experience is its shlichim program, where Israeli young adults, many fresh out of their military duty, come to camp as counselors. The program, which is a part of the Jewish Agency, places more than 1,500 Israelis annually in camps across North America.

The camp is also known for its progressive values. In 1998, it launched an annual LGBTQ family camp. In 2019, it was the first camp to introduce a non-gendered cabin. Two years later, it hosted its first Jewish families of color weekend. And in 2023, it became the first Jewish summer camp to appoint a full-time diversity, equity and inclusion director.

Registration has already opened for summer sessions. According to a 2022 report from Tawonga, over 2,800 people come to the camp to attend its year-round programs, while another 2,400 participate in off-site activities.

Tawonga leadership declined J.’s request for a sit-down interview. With CEO Rebecca Meyer on sabbatical, camp director Aaron Mandel answered questions over email.

“Many Jewish camps are experiencing division in their communities over the war, to varying degrees, as is every Jewish community around the world,” Mandel said in his email to J. “Tawonga seems to be a microcosm of the divide we are hearing about in Jewish communities all over.”

He added that Tawonga tries to stay out of politics.

“For Tawonga, we followed our policy that we are not a political advocacy organization and therefore are not engaging in political advocacy work,” Mandel said.

Asked whether donors have weighed in on the matter, Mandel said, “We’ve experienced a range of responses from various stakeholders connected to this issue. We have had productive conversations with so many.”

Some Tawonga parents are worried about what the open letter might mean for their kids at camp.

One Tawonga parent from Oakland, a former camper himself, spoke to J. but did not want to give his name in case it would cause an issue for his two young children. He has been planning to send them back to Tawonga this summer, but the open letter has given him pause.

“I think that a Jewish camp can’t be staffed by people who are essentially saying that we don’t think Israel has a right to exist or defend itself,” he said.

He brought his concerns to the camp’s leaders, he said, and they have been understanding.

“I don’t think that there’s anything that Camp Tawonga can necessarily do about it and so I’m not looking to them to take a position,” he said of the letter. “But I also want to make sure that the people that work there are generally aligned with my values because I’m entrusting my children to them.”

Former Tawonga board member Jessica Colvin was a camper and staffer who met her husband there and sends her kids to the camp. She said she approves of how Tawonga is handling the situation.

“It makes sense to me that they are focusing on their programs and mission and reminding the community that Tawonga is not here to engage in political advocacy work — as it’s not their mission,” she said.

Some people who signed the letter have been disappointed by the camp’s response.

Ariella, 22, is a longtime camper who preferred to use only their first name because of the sensitivity of the topic. Ariella, who uses they/them pronouns, took part in a diversity fellowship at Tawonga, where there were deep conversations on the morality of action and inaction. They want to see those principles applied now, too. Ariella is committed to working for Palestinian rights, they said, and was at first surprised when there wasn’t an outcry in favor of a cease-fire from Tawonga’s leaders.

“We talked about being a bystander, and how remaining silent is to choose the side of the oppressor,” they said, referring to Tawonga’s statement, which does not call for a cease-fire.

Newbrun-Mintz likewise noted that Tawonga instilled in him important values of tolerance, justice and compassion.

“It fits with Tawonga values to come out against a war I believe is taking so many innocent Palestinian lives,” he said.

J. spoke to other members of the Tawonga community who expressed strong support for the open letter.

Taavi Wolff Kirshenbaum, 22, a third-generation Tawongan who spent seven years as a camper and staffer, signed the letter and said it fits with what she sees as the values the camp espouses.

“If they are going to post about racial justice and make land acknowledgments, those sentiments need to extend to Palestinians too, or else it was never actually about taking a principled stance against discrimination and oppression,” Kirshenbaum said in an email to J. “I really just want Camp Tawonga to live up to the promises that they have made over all these years, because I want to believe that they really care about being a force for justice and liberation in the Jewish community at large.”

Kirshenbaum’s grandfather Paul Wolff is a Holocaust survivor from Germany and attended Tawonga in the 1940s, she said.

The 94-year-old also signed the open letter, writing in the comments: “As a Holocaust survivor I am seeing Netanyahu’s policies achieving more world-wide hatred of Jews than Hitler ever did. I am calling for an immediate ceasefire because one act of inhumanity does not justify another act of inhumanity.”

Tawonga is not the only Bay Area camp where former campers and staffers are calling for a cease-fire. Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, which is affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism, has dealt with the same issue, although less directly.

letter from people who have or formerly had ties to URJ programs, including camps and youth groups, has more than 1,200 signatures. More than half of them come from current or former campers, according to the organizers. The letter asks URJ leadership to “publicly and unequivocally call for an immediate ceasefire.”

Ari Vared, Camp Newman’s executive director, told J. the signatures include those of some Newman alums.

By contrast, Geoff Menkowitz, executive director of Camp Ramah in Northern California, a Conservative movement camp in Watsonville, said the community had been “unified in our support for our brothers and sisters in Israel.” He added that Ramah is working on age-appropriate curriculum to talk about the war with campers this summer.

“Our campers and staff members have been engaged in pro-Israel activism, our families have been involved in raising funds for organizations serving Israeli society and, most of all, we have all been reaching out personally to our campers, staff members, and alumni living in Israel — many of whom have been called up for reserve army service,” he said.

Mandel said Tawonga is trying to respect everyone’s values.

“We understand how important Tawonga is to people,” Mandel said. “We understand the passion we inspire in our community. But our community is not monolithic, and it is our role to focus on our mission and the important work ahead.”

Ariella, though, believes that advocacy for the Palestinians should be part of Tawonga’s work.

“We have the power to shift the narrative,” they said.

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