A Bond Thicker Than Fireby Brie Stimson November 6, 2018
Nestled in the Stanislaus National Forest just west of Yosemite, Camp Tawonga is a refreshing escape from city life and a chance to reconnect with nature and Judaism. The 160-acre Jewish camp was founded in 1925. “We’ve been around for over 90 years and our mission has remained unchanged during that whole time,” says Casey Cohen, operations and communications director for Camp Tawonga. “It is focused on fostering positive self-esteem in children, a connection to cooperative community to appreciation for nature and to an appreciation for Judaism and a sense of spirituality.”
Tawonga runs classic summer camp sessions, but they also have a robust set of year-round programs, including family camps in the summer and fall, a two-year bar and bat mitzvah program and programs for alumni and people in their 20s and 30s who may not have children yet.
“They wanted to have more Tawonga in their lives,” Casey said of the community’s response to the bar and bat mitzvah program. “They wanted to have their children traverse this right of passage with Camp Tawonga and to have that sort of Tawonga brand of Judaism, which is a particular kind of Judaism.” She says it’s focused on an appreciation for nature and it’s not affiliated with a particular movement. “At Tawonga, we describe Judaism as sort of a buffet; you can choose what you like and so oftentimes the way that kids experience Judaism, they’re taking part in it themselves, so they’re hoping to create the experience so that it feels really meaningful.”
Campers lead Shabbat on Friday nights and in the bar and bat mitzvah program, they have family potlucks, hikes and students volunteer with nonprofits near the end of the program that hopefully inspire their mitzvah projects. They also have Jewish holiday programs, family volunteer days, toddler programming and local sports teams.
But all of that closeness was put to the test last summer when the Ferguson Fire forced Tawonga to close their last session near the end of the summer. Three hundred campers and 200 staff members had been at the camp for just two days when smoke from firefighters’ back burning tactics forced them to evacuate.
The fire was eight miles away from the camp, but the smoke posed a health risk for the campers. “Safety is our highest priority and that’s just never going to change,” Casey says. “The decision to evacuate was a really clear one and we’re so glad that we did.” Still, she says closing the camp was disappointing for all the children who had waited all year for the experience.
“For them to have to turn around and go home was just heartbreaking,” Casey says. “I think at the same time the experience of our community going through this showed the strength of the Tawonga bond.” There was a period of several days where they waited around to see if they would be able to resume the session. “During that time was when the resiliency really came through in our community, where families were hosting out of town campers,” Casey begins. There were 40 families who had sent their kids from LA, “So instead of coming to the Bay and picking up those campers, many of them were hosted by local families. And so it was sort of having these mini camp experiences in the Bay Area while we waited to see. And that really helped to sustain the spirit of Tawonga. And in addition, we were able to convene several gatherings for the session four campers. So there were several Shabbat gatherings, one was in Mill Valley, one was on the Peninsula. We also put together a camper Havdalah talent show in San Francisco that was pretty well attended, very fun to just sort of keep the magic going for the kids.”
Casey says another aspect to the experience that was uplifting was the response by alumni. “It was all hands on deck,” she says. “So many alumni community members offered to help, and they came in and they made phone calls so that every single family whose child had to evacuate, they were called directly.”
The potential for fire danger is something Camp Tawonga is always aware of, and they pride themselves on their close relationship with fire officials. “Cal Fire has [Executive Director] Jamie’s [Simon] number on speed dial,” Casey says.
The Ferguson Fire burned 96,901 acres of the Sierras, Stanislaus and Yosemite before it was finally 100 percent contained on Aug. 19. Two firefighters were killed in the blaze.
“We actually convene officials in the county every year, and we have them over for a barbecue at our camp, and it helps to really keep these relationships strong and connected so that when we do have to be in touch when there’s an incident, that relationship’s already there,” she says. “We’re just ever grateful for their bravery, for their courage for keeping the entire region safe, and for those who were lost in the fire, our hearts go out to their families. We’re just extremely grateful to them.”
Casey says the camp keeps in constant contact with fire officials. “Certainly the fires and the smoke and the potential to evacuate – it’s always something we are aware of and looking out for.” And while they know they will likely have to stay vigilant for years to come, “We’re committed to still providing wilderness experiences with children as long as it’s safe.”
“And though we weren’t able to resume the session, we’re just so excited to bring the kids back next summer,” she says. They were also able to run all of their fall family camps. “Fortunately, it was really just a blip,” she says. “We just hope we can bring all of the session four campers back so that they can have that Tawonga experience that they deserve.”
Casey adds that in the last few years, attendance has grown among campers from Southern California. “There is a certain rugged wilderness quality to Tawonga.”
Open registration for the 2019 summer sessions will start on Dec. 12. For more information or to enroll go to tawonga.org.