We are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land. It is also something on our minds now more than ever as we endeavor to use events outside our control as a catalyst for responsible growth and stewardship.
On August 17, less than one week after the last of our summer campers went home, the Rim Fire ignited in the Stanislaus National Forest, mere miles from Camp Tawonga. A hunter’s illegal campfire caught the surrounding brush on fire and for the next month a wildfire, that spread over 400 square miles, would become the third largest in California state history, destroying landscape, livelihoods and property.
Through the heroic efforts of firefighting personnel and our own fire suppression practices, Camp Tawonga was spared the worst of the damage, losing three of our 71 buildings and suffering (repairable) damage to some of our program areas. You can see some of that impact in these photos and this video we shared with our community.
It is easy to rush into decisions when a new building or programming space is needed. It is easy to listen to the loudest voice in the room, the voice promising the quickest results or the cheapest options. But we know from years of experiences across all aspects of camp operations that “people support the things they help create.” Knowing that, we take this opportunity to bring people together from across our community to hear their vision not only for what camp will look like next summer but in ten summers.
When constructing something new on land that we were gifted and on which we will ultimately be only passing visitors it is important to consider many factors. These factors include, but are not limited to money, aesthetics, our mission and ethics, green practices, safety, legacy and stewardship. Aligning these vectors may be a time consuming process but will yield results that are lasting and loved.
The four following spiritual reflections lie for us at the heart of all land use decision making:
- We are grateful for all that has been given.
- We are mindful that we are only temporary stewards of this land, holding it for those to come.
- We accept the mitzvah (commandment) to tikkun olam (repair the world).
- We believe it is idolatry to worship the things of our own creation.
By keeping these reflections in mind we harken back to that initial God-given charge to our ancestors, protect and guard the earth.
The Jewish values of Klal Yisrael and Am Yisrael speak to an idea of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish communal unity that are often described in the past tense, as some relic of days gone by. At Camp Tawonga, in this moment, these values are alive, and flourishing among the Jewish camping community.
This summer, Tawonga endured a tragic incident that claimed the life of one of our beloved staff members. This experience has been unbelievably sad and trying for everyone who is part of this large, loving and caring community.
When a tragedy strikes it is easy to shrivel up and shut out those around us. Similarly, when something happens far away, it can be easy to thank our lucky stars it did not affect us directly and move on. Our Jewish tradition teaches us to ignore this path, and to seek help when in need and to give support when those in your circle need it most.
From the moment that our community began hurting, grieving and being in need of help, it came. No one decided to simply be grateful that they could go on unaffected in their own lives; instead, they took the ideas of Klal Yisrael and Am Yisrael to heart and reached out.
Local therapists and grief counselors from our community and from places like The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and Jewish Family and Children’s Services offered support immediately and came to our remote location to help us in a time of need.
Our “neighborhood” camps in California like URJ Camp Newman, Camp JCA Shalom, Ramah California, Camp Hess Kramer and many more - sent condolence cards, said Kaddish at their services and even donated to us one of their holy ark’s.
Camps from around North America sent messages of strength and condolence. In the midst of their busy summer seasons, many offered to send us their staff if they were needed. The Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Community Center Association, who provide support and guidance on movement levels across Jewish camping, reached out immediately to support us.
Many local rabbis were the first to call. Rabbi Dev Noily and Rabbi Chai Levy joined our community to lead services and offer support. Rabbi Levy wrote a wonderful piece after her time with us.
This entry could stretch on endlessly about the people and organizations that continually offer support to our Jewish community. We will absolutely reach out when we are able to express our deepest and sincerest gratitude to them all.
We read week after week in this blog about the transformative power that the Jewish communal experience known as summer camp can offer. We read about the joy, the fun and the lifelong bonds that are created. We learn about the incredible communities each camp creates for its campers and staff. Through the many contributors herein, we continually discover the larger community of Jewish camps across North America.
If the measure of a community is how it responds during times of crisis, our Jewish camping community is rock solid.
This is the last in a series of four blog entries called “Why Camp?”
Part 4: Spirituality and Positive Jewish Experience at Camp Tawonga
Summer camp is the ideal environment for positive Jewish engagement because it is the place children experience what sociologist Emile Durkheim coined, “collective effervescence.” This is the uniquely powerful shared group phenomenon in which a certain “electricity” is generated that transports the participants to a higher level of spirituality. It happens when campers stand with their arms around each other watching the sunset. It happens when children’s voices are joined in joyous song. It happens when a touching story is shared around the campfire.
Such experiences require the confluence of three elements, all of which camp provides: immersion in an intentional community; removal from the mundane distractions of home; and the absence of inhibiting factors like parents, school mates etc. This combination enables enduring positive associations with whatever ritual behaviors are incorporated, thus making the camp director’s content choices extremely important. These choices are driven by the underlying mission of each camp.
At Tawonga, our mission is to create positive associations with Judaism and the global Jewish family. This goal is primarily about FEELINGS, so our choices in program, staffing and liturgy are always made with their affective value in mind. Although we hope children also pick up some knowledge of our custom and culture, our priority is to build emotional ties. There is a tradition amongst Hasidic Jews to give children a taste of honey when they start to read Hebrew so that they associate Torah with sweetness. In a parallel way, Tawonga aspires to be the experiential equivalent of that honey.
In our first blog post for The Canteen, we wrote about the first goal of Tawonga’s mission: building children’s sense of self-worth, pride and confidence. This works synchronously with our spiritual goal because a key component of self-esteem is knowing one’s own heritage. When these goals are pursued by staff who fully embrace the mission, children return from their time at camp with a new sense of personal identity, group belonging, and connectedness to their people, their history, and to the greater global community.
Jamie Simon and Aaron Mandel are the director and assistant director (respectively) of Camp Tawonga in Groveland, CA.
This second in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here.
Part 2: Creating a Cooperative Community
“The friends you make become a part of you.”
These words are sung as part of the classic camp song “Stars in the Sky.” Ringing out from the voices of children around the Camp Tawonga dining hall, they speak to some of the most profound benefits that camp can provide for children: friendship, connection to others and the skills needed to participate in community.
When a child first comes home from camp they’ll talk excitedly about how high they climbed on the ropes course and show off a lanyard or a friendship bracelet made at the art studio. These material takeaways from camp are exciting and important but as the passage of time fades them away, the more permanent truths of camp emerge: the friends.
The weeks and years at summer camp teach young people some very important skills about how to live together in a group. We emphasize this through the “group centered” camping model to which Tawonga subscribes. This model allows our counselors to deeply get to know each of the campers in their bunk and the group as a whole, as they are not asked to also double as activity specialists. Their only jobs are supporting the campers and leading the bunk. The counselors are trained in camper management, building the group, leading bunk discussions and facilitating consensus-decision making.
Spending these weeks together in such close community forms a bond between camp friends that is unlike any other. The mere weeks spent together at camp create a bond between friends that far surpasses that which is formed in the endless months of school. Why is this? It is because the time at camp is a time where you are living for more than yourself. You are part of a group, in good times and bad, your failures and successes interwoven with those of your bunkmates in an intricate latticework of solidarity.
The world we live in is a communal one; to have successful and fulfilling lives almost everyone needs to participate in various communities and groups. As noted journalist David Brooks said, “Creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks… when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.” Friendship plus group skills is a simple equation for success. Beyond the skills to simply succeed remains that timeless truth of camp, friendships that last a lifetime. We have seen countless friends who met at camp standing hand in hand under the chuppah together, sharing a freshman dorm room in college or calling each other for parenting advice, tapping forever into that sense of community and camaraderie that is such a treasured part of camp.
Jamie Simon and Aaron Mandel are the director and assistant director (respectively) of Camp Tawonga in Groveland, CA.
This first in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga.
Part 1: Positive Self-Image and Self-Esteem
For children, going away for the first time to overnight summer camp is a rite of passage, a major step in the growing up process and an incredible opportunity to pack years of growth and learning into a few short weeks. Some of the biggest benefits of the camp experience are the positive changes in a child’s self-image and self-esteem.
When a child comes to camp, it represents a fresh start, an opportunity to form a new identity outside of school, home and family. This “healthy separation” from some of the constants in life puts children in the position of making their own choices about everything from how to connect with their bunkmates to what to put on their plate for lunch! It also gives them a blank slate free of pre-existing pressure or judgments and allows them to be whoever they truly want to be.
Counselors and camp staff who reflect back and nurture all the special aspects of each child’s unique personality compliment the freedom of the summer camp experience. For the camper who harbors ambitions of being a famous artist but is too shy at home or school to give it a shot, there are friendly, encouraging staff at the arts & crafts studio to give them the skills and supplies to indulge their passion while showing how truly “cool” it is to put all your ideas, no matter how wacky, into action. For the camper who dreams at night of a future playing basketball for their high school, but fears they are too short or too small, there is a patient instructor who creates age-appropriate games and drills that develop skills alongside confidence.
By catering the camp experiences to the kids, instead of forcing kids to fit into a mold of what camp “should be,” individual expression and confidence is given room to blossom. A good camp program takes into account the age, skill and interest of the kids and leaves them feeling successful, independent and capable at the conclusion. When a camper completes a hike up a steep hill they were convinced they couldn’t climb or learns a dance routine they never thought they could master, that confidence and feeling of accomplishment gets stored away to be accessed at a later time when it is needed again.
When a camper comes home and shows their parents the art project they made and the photos of them completing an element on the ropes course, it will be as if a new child has returned, and indeed, one has. The camp experience gives kids the confidence to be themselves and to succeed in all aspects of their life as well as a source of strength to draw on when a challenge looms. They can picture their counselor encouraging them onwards and remember how great it felt when they received validation for simply being who they were.