Camp Tawonga

Camp Tawonga

Camp Tawonga is a residential Jewish summer camp located a few miles west of Yosemite National Park. For more than 80 years, Tawonga has brought children and families together in nature through its wide array of programs. Tawonga's mission focuses on building positive self-esteem, creating a cooperative community, a partnership with nature, and fostering positive Jewish identity. The camp operates as a non-profit service of the Jewish community and is affiliated with JCC movement camps.


The land on which Camp Tawonga is located today was settled about 4,000 years ago by Native Americans, likely Sierra Miwoks. The influence of this settlement can be seen today in many human-made marks on the large boulders on the site which feature many carved indentations. Camp Tawonga itself was established in 1925, at a site near South Lake Tahoe. It was originally an all-boys camp but was quickly made co-ed. The camp was moved to its current site, on the middle fork of the Tuolumne River in 1963.

Programs and Campers

On average, Camp Tawonga welcomes about 250 campers to each of its four summer sessions. The average age of campers increases as the sessions become longer. The first session is one week, the second two weeks, and the third and fourth sessions are three weeks. A second two week session for 3rd through 6th graders runs during the first two weeks of fourth session. The youngest campers first session are about 7 while the oldest in third and fourth session tend to be 15 or 16. The camp is broken up into five age groups or "units" each session. Youngest to oldest, they are: Carmel, Galil, Eilat, Haifa, and Chalutzim. The first four are named after locations in Israel, while "Chalutzim" is Hebrew for "Pioneers". Each unit typically consists of four bunks of 12 children, two bunks of girls and two of boys. The majority of campers hail from the San Francisco Bay Area or other parts of Northern California; however, there are several campers who come from Southern California and the Central Coast of California, and even from other states and countries. During the first two sessions, Tawonga has a "SCWIT" program (specialists, counselors, and wilderness staff in training) in which 15-17 year-old campers learn the skills in their certain area to prepare to be on staff in the future. During fourth session, Camp Tawonga also welcomes a delegation of campers from Israel as part of its Noar L'Noar (meaning "Youth to Youth" in Hebrew) program, usually numbering around 20.

In addition to summer camp, Tawonga also runs several other summer programs. The camp sponsors Teen Quests, which are long backpacking and road trips to various destinations around the U.S. In the past Tawonga has also sponsored trips to other countries, such as Costa Rica, El Salvador and most recently Israel as part of its Teen Service Learning program. Additionally, Camp Tawonga has six weekend programs before and after the summer sessions: three general family weekends, a gay and lesbian family weekend (the only such program in the country), a camp for bereaved individuals, and an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue weekend. Overall, Tawonga serves nearly 2,000 children, teens and adults each year in its programs.


During the off-season, Camp Tawonga retains a dedicated full-time staff of 12 individuals who work in the year-round San Francisco office.

During the summer, Camp Tawonga employs about 150 staff working as counselors, unit heads, wilderness leaders, lifeguards, program specialists, infirmary staff, kitchen staff, maintenance staff, and drivers. All staff go through a week long "In-service" training week prior to the first kids arriving each summer. Additionally, staff who work with children get certified in CPR and first aid and wilderness staff have at minimum a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification and most have a Wilderness First Responder.

Staff members must be at least 18 years of age and many staff members are college students. Camp Tawonga also participates in the Shlichim program of the Jewish Agency, through which a delegation of about 10 staff members from Israel work at Camp Tawonga each year.


Camp Tawonga has many traditions which are passed down over the years.


Shabbat is the most powerful Jewish experience at camp. When Friday arrives, the whole tone and direction of camp begins to shift. Everyone comes together at 5:30 P.M. for the "Shabbat Stroll" which officially brings the Sabbath into camp. This tradition was developed in the 1980's with guidance from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. The Shabbat Stroll begins when the camp directors and songleaders meet at the Dining Hall to take the camp's Torah scroll out of the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark). They carry the Torah to the furthest cabin in camp and begin to gather all the campers with songs of Shabbat. Before eating, campers are told the story of the camp's Sefer Torah. This particular Torah was originally from a small town in Czechoslovakia called Vodnany. When the Nazis conquered the region, the Jews were sent to Thereisenstadt and all of the religious objects were sent to a warehouse in Prague. The Torah was to be displayed at a museum to the "vanquished people's" but after the war it was rescued, kept in England and eventually made its way to Camp Tawonga where it joins the children in the dining hall at every meal.

ong Sessions and Music

Music is very central to Camp Tawonga and is a presence at many activities. There are many songs that campers and staff find synonymous with Camp Tawonga, however, the official camp song is "Country Roads" by John Denver. In the Camp Tawonga version, the words "West Virginia", "Blue Ridge Mountains", and "Shenandoah River" are replaced with "Camp Tawonga", "Sierra Mountains", and "Tuolumne River", respectively. Other camp favorites include "Stars in the Sky," "B'tzelem Elohim," "Tall, Tall Trees" as well as many more songs by artists such as the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. The song sessions are a favorite part of camp for many campers, occurring after breakfast and dinner, with a special freylach after Friday night Shabbat dinner. The Camp produced a CD featuring campers and staff singing camp songs in 2004 as well as an earlier version in the mid-90's.

Backpacking Trips

Every Tawonga camper who comes for two or more weeks will go on a backpacking trip in or near Yosemite National Park. Trips are led by Tawonga wilderness leaders and are one or two nights depending on the age of the campers. The trips often go to places like Snow Creek, May Lake, Lyell Canyon and other backcountry destinations in Yosemite. On the trip, campers learn principles of Leave No Trace and help with food and camp tasks while also enjoying swimming and games at their destination and along the trail.

Challenge Course

A favorite day for many campers is on the Challenge Course, a series of group and individual "elements" set up around the property designed to facilitate communication, group building and pushing campers to challenge themselves to step out of their comfort zones. Elements such as "The Perch", "Jacob's Ladder" and "The Flying Squirrel" see campers working individually or with partners to complete challenges while safely roped in to a belay system in the trees.

The Sweat

The Sweat is located on the banks of the Tuolomne River, at a location known to Tawonga as Pipeline. The Sweat is a specially built enclosed structure in which a group of people sit around a pit with burning rocks. Water is poured into the pit, and the steam creates an extremely hot and moist environment, usually leading to copious amounts of perspiration hence its name. While pouring water in the pit, often the Sweat leader, who must be certified, will lead the campers in chants and songs, as well as opening up the area for personal reflection, creating a spiritual experience for them. After sitting in the sweat between a half hour and an hour, participants usually proceed to jump into the Tuolumne River to cleanse their bodies.


Ga-ga is a form of dodgeball thought to have originated in Israel. It is common for Tawonga campers to be seen playing this game in the official "ga-ga pit" at all times of day with bunks sometimes playing other bunks or free-for-alls taking place.

Thumb Wrestling

During campfires, which happen each Saturday night as well as at the beginning and end of each session, many skits are performed. One tradition is that of thumb wrestling. Essentially, thumb wrestling at Camp Tawonga is a parody of professional wrestling, with good and evil characters, intro music, and storylines that can stretch across sessions and sometimes even across summers.

Getting Gnarly

Most cabins "get gnarly" once during their session. Getting gnarly consists of several things. Participants are known to coat their bodies with many "gnarly" substances, including slip (watery clay), paint, and oobleck, a mixture of corn starch and water. Once their bodies are unrecognizable, the campers will run wild through the camp, typically shouting and chanting. Getting gnarly usually culminates with the campers jumping into the Tawonga lake, usually used only for boating.

External links

* [ Camp Tawonga's official website]

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