Levi Strauss Explains Tawonga’s Gold Rush Program

By: Aaron Mandel (a.k.a. Levi Strauss)

Howdy folks and welcome to the year 1855 in the mining camp of Hangtown (a place to be known as Camp Tawonga in the distant future). The Tuolumne River is awash in gold nuggets and people from all over the world who have rushed in, trying to strike it rich. Every spring, it somehow seems to be 1855 again in May as fourth grade students arrive by covered wagon or boat from far away to try their hand in the diggins’.


For well over 20 years, Camp Tawonga has run the Gold Rush Living History program for fourth grade “Greenhorns” (inexperienced miners) from seven Jewish day schools throughout Northern California. Students, studying California history as part of their 4th grade curriculum, time travel back to 1855 at the height of California’s Gold Rush to experience a three-day simulation of life in that era.
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The Hangtown “Sourdoughs” (crusty, experienced miners who often look suspiciously like Tawonga staff) take the Greenhorns through a slew of activities like gold panning, visiting the general store, dancing, gambling in the saloon, cooking their own meal on a fire and more.  Staying “in character” the entire time, the staff help bring alive the people, places and events the students have been learning about all year in books, movies and classroom activities.


This program, like all Tawonga programs, is mission-based. Greenhorns’ activities are designed to be challenging at an age-appropriate level, where, alone and in their mining teams, they work through decision-making like how to cook their dinner and how to pan for gold. Students leave the program feeling very accomplished after using decision-making authority that is all too rare at their age.


The students live and work together in mining teams with a focus on teamwork, cooperation and communication. Teachers often report that upon return from the program, their class is much more bonded than before. These immersive group experiences, as we know from our summer camp programs, are often the key to developing social skills, communication in groups and providing the foundation for lasting friendships.


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That proud moment when Greenhorns become Sourdoughs, receiving their certificates of completion of the Gold Rush program.


One of the highlights for students as well as teacher and parent chaperones alike is getting to be in “Hangtown” on Tawonga’s glorious 160 acre property in the Sierra Foothills (where real Gold Rush-era relics are present). Released from the four walls of a typical classroom, students have a chance to stretch out and run free; fostering an appreciation for the natural world is a key part of the program.  


Getting their toes wet in the Tuolumne River as they pan for gold, singing around the campfire at night under a bed of stars and seeing the forest bursting with spring greens are experiences that last far beyond the trip’s three days.


Lastly, Judaism is an integral part of the Gold Rush experience, with kosher food served from the kitchen and ample time duringthe day for prayers and Jewish teachings. Some of the characters portrayed by staff are real Jews from the Gold Rush, including me, Levi Strauss. I wonder if you’ll still know who I am in 2016.