Who Said Camp Has to Be in the Summer?

Camp Tawonga Down the Mountain

There was a time when the sound of the final school bell in June instantaneously prompted the thoughts of thousands of Jewish children to turn toward a tradition that dates back more than a century: summer camp. It was a place where, through nature, sports, arts and crafts, and song, kids could find camaraderie, build self-esteem, and have a whole lot of fun. Ask just about anyone who has partaken in the Jewish camp experience, whether it was last summer or the summer of ’69, and that person will likely regale you with stories of friendships and connections to the Jewish community that have grown stronger with time.

That tradition holds firm at Camp Tawonga, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, despite the economic and programmatic challenges that almost all summer camps are facing.

In fact, the summer camp tradition is thriving so vibrantly at Camp Tawonga that it has migrated, as it were, to other months of the year so that, today, the “Tawonga camp experience” can be enjoyed in every season.

“We call it Tawonga Down the Mountain,” said Camp Tawonga’s development director, Lisa Wertheim, from their San Francisco office. “Meaning that we now have programming for the entire year. For example, our 2016 Erev Rosh Hashanah celebration had over 1,000 people in attendance, providing a family-friendly space for people to attend services who might not otherwise be members of a synagogue. It was enormous! There are also camp reunions, orientations for new camp families, Chanukah parties, tot Shabbats for families with young children, and we are creating partnerships with Jewish Community Centers to further our engagement with the general community. So those are just a few examples of how we are bringing the magic of camp, as we say, from the Sierra Nevada mountains to San Francisco.”

Indeed, Camp Tawonga is summer camp and a whole lot more.

Another innovative example of Camp Tawonga’s move beyond the summer months is its recently inaugurated, non-denominational b’nai mitzvah program: a “two-year alternative experiential learning program” that culminates in bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for dozens of Bay Area children.

The team at Camp Tawonga refers to it as their b’nai mitzvah preparation experience because it is not a conventional, inside-the-synagogue process. “It’s more of an alternative, individualized, flexible program,” said Wertheim. “Because it incorporates nature, community building, social justice, and experiential learning, making it almost like a buffet model of what works for each individual child. And what we have learned is that when the children guide their own learning, they are more engaged and more involved. The information and impact of what they are doing sinks in more, and that makes them more excited about it.”

That excitement is on full display by 60 Bay Area families that have already signed up for the program. And the enthusiasm of those families is shared by the Federation, which has awarded Camp Tawonga a $100,000 two-year grant to help the program double in size by next year.

Camp Tawonga's San Francisco Bar & Bat Mitzvah class hiking hiking in the Presidio

Additionally, Camp Tawonga has received grants through the Federation’s Jewish Women’s Fund for single mothers and their children to attend two family camp weekends. The grants will help subsidize everything from scholarships to babysitting so that these Jewish families can also “feel welcome, comfortable and supported at family camp.”

“The Federation has been incredibly instrumental in their support for Camp Tawonga operationally, as well as focusing on campership,” said Wertheim. “For example, we send about 400 children to camp on scholarship and spend over $500,000, and the Federation has been a huge part of making sure we meet that goal every year.”

Wertheim added that the Federation’s support has grown beyond the financial and philanthropic and into a genuine collaboration that now includes a dedicated liaison within the Federation, Wendy Verba, who “informs us of granting opportunities, helps us brainstorm for programmatic ideas, and even connects us with potential funders. So we are really grateful to have that kind of partner.”

Though Camp Tawonga has just celebrated its 90th anniversary, its commitment to responding to the needs of today’s Jewish community is as fresh as the day of its first campfire.

Camp Tawonga is just one of the grantees funded by more than $1.1M in new Endowment Fund grants, dispersed over five years, to outstanding community partners actively engaged in building and deepening Jewish community.

For more information on all of Tawonga’s camp programs, please go to its website at tawonga.org.


October 20, 2016


Jon Moskin