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Finally, A Deep Breath: Tawonga’s Inaugural Women’s Weekend

The shock of the Tuolumne River’s freezing water instantly awakened – and inspired – some 60 women. One by one, immersed in a reflective mindset, they plunged beneath the surface after shouting out with childlike glee the thing they wanted to bring into their lives: 

“Connection.”

“Presence.”

“Hope.” 

Each woman emerged from the river feeling just a bit lighter. In that moment, some of the stress, worry and loneliness accrued over the past 18 months disappeared.

This mikvah, or Jewish cleansing ritual, was just one of the many powerful experiences shared at Camp Tawonga’s inaugural Women’s Weekend in September. 

As one participant put it,

“This weekend, I was able to take a deep breath for the first time in a year and a half.” 

“Women’s Weekend was a long time coming,” explained CEO Jamie Simon, who helped design and launch the program along with Associate Director Myla Marks and Program & Operations Manager Liz Chenok. “We kept hearing from community members that they didn’t want to have to wait for our summer season to have these transformative experiences in Jewish community, up at Camp. They wanted more opportunities throughout the year to tap into the magic,” said Simon.

Year-round Tawonga programming has steadily increased in recent years, both at Camp with offerings like Women’s Weekend and a Teen Winter Retreat and in the Bay Area with programs like our two-year Bar, Bat & B’nai Mitzvah Program. The campsite has also increased its year-round housing capacity  with new all-season cabins built in 2017 and a brand-new Health Center completed in 2021.

Why a Women’s Weekend now? “As we know, the pandemic took the heaviest toll on low income individuals and on people of Color; we also know that women were disproportionately impacted, especially working mothers,” Marks explained.

“With this in mind, the time was finally right to offer a Women’s Weekend in part as a way to heal from the grief, lack of connection and loss of this year.” 

In total, 108 woman-identifying adults (and a few nursing infants) attended Women’s Weekend, which provided a COVID-safe experience thanks to precautions like an outdoor dining pavilion and pre-program COVID testing. 

Each came with her own set of goals and expectations for the weekend. They were sleep-deprived mothers of young children yearning to de-stress, 20-somethings excited to reunite with friends and unplug from their phones, mother-daughter pairs hoping to bond in a shared experience and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s eager to connect with friends old and new. One participant shared that after losing her mom last year, she now considers this Tawonga community her family. 

These women represented a broad array of backgrounds – parents, non-parents, single, partnered, queer, straight, Jewish, “Jew-ish” and questioning. There were long-time Tawongans and first-timers – and a sense of unconditional belonging for everyone.

“Tawonga’s been a really special place for my whole family … but until this weekend, it never felt like my place. I’m usually in the background,” Kim Hoffman, from Oakland, shared on the last day of the weekend.

“But, this weekend felt like I belonged. The crafts, the joy, the dancing til midnight. Especially after this rough year and a half, that was the most fun I’ve had in as long as I can remember.” 

Fun was a defining theme of the weekend – from daily 5 o’clock happy hours to a silent disco (one of the more fun COVID-safe adjustments!) –  but there were also moments of deep learning, growth and connection. Some women climbed to the top of the high elements of the Challenge Course; some tried their hand at landscape watercolor or paddled on the lake. Others simply sat in serenity on the back porch of the dining hall reading a book. There was no agenda, no to-do lists, no outside pressures or obligations.  

Certain moments from the weekend were particularly poignant – a community of women covering their eyes to bring in Shabbat; the passing down of Tawonga’s Torah during Saturday morning Shabbat Services from the eldest participant to the youngest; an intimate concert of female performers sharing their talents; a soulful circle of women, arm-in-arm, at the closing Shalom Circle. 

“I was just heartbroken when we couldn’t be here in 2020 together,” staff and camper alum Eliza Reisfeld shared at the closing circle. “To be here and to be held by this incredible group of women, it means the world to me.”

In 2022, the agency will advance the vision of “more Tawonga for more people.”  Nine weekend program offerings from May through December will include another Women’s Weekend and a special weekend for families of color and multiracial families.

As this first Women’s Weekend came to a close, the need for affinity spaces to celebrate and support specific segments of the Tawonga community became clear. Packing up, many of the participants were already counting down the days until next year’s Women’s Weekend. Together, they established a sacred inter-generational community where women could support women, share meaningful intentions – while shivering in an ice-cold river – and lift each other up. 

As Tawonga mom, Lisa Wachtell shared,

“I came here trying to find my inner goddess, and this has been nothing less than the perfect weekend for that.”

What woman wouldn’t want that?