“Camp became a way of life, a basis for young kids to grow into fine young people in our community.”
Camp Tawonga dates back to the early 1920’s when the Young Men’s Hebrew Association was the sponsor. It was the first Jewish overnight camp for children in San Francisco. At first, it was located at Quincy, and then later at Myers, California.
In 1942, the camp was discontinued because of the war. The land was sold off. It is now the location of the South Lake Tahoe Airport. After World War II, a new site was purchased from Columbia Boy’s Club, located near Camp Mather about five miles west of Yosemite.
As I write this story, there is still a strong bond among many Jewish men in our city. We continue to have reunions every five years of Tawongans pre-World War II! The ranks are thinning. Gray hair is now our badge of membership. I will vouch for the fact that every man attending the reunions still remembers the words to our nostalgic camp songs.
It is more than difficult to determine the reason for these deep and fond memories. In some ways, there was a common denominator; each experienced the fulfillment of a need that was satisfied at camp.
To Tawonga by Train
The trip to Myers, a few miles from Tahoe, was long and tedious, but worth every minute of the twelve hours. We left the San Francisco Ferry Building on our first leg across the Bay. Then, a train to Sacramento. We were met there by a convoy of buses to start the long and bumpy ride to Camp. There was a two-lane highway with potholes and numerous hairpin turns. Car sickness was the rule of the day. Eight hours on an exhaust-filled bus from Sacramento to the High Sierras was the test of a true Tawongan!
Tawonga summers were the happiest days of my young life. From the age of eight, it became my home away from home for the next ten years. As I mentioned earlier, these years (1932-1942) were in the heart of the depression. The total value of our recreational facilities at camp did not exceed $10. Our swimming was done in the Truckee River. Baseball was played using dry cow dung for bases; this made sliding into bases a very dangerous undertaking!
The big event on the week was the camper-counselor baseball game on Saturday afternoon. The winner had two desserts for dinner that night. “Capture the Flag” was also big. All we needed were two bandanas and we were busy all day. Showers, once a week. Greasy mess kits were followed by the epidemics of the GIs.
The Mysterious Aura
So what is this mysterious aura that I tried to describe? Wait, you’ll see. Pluck an eight-year-old from the city streets and plant him in G-d’s country. Let him breathe the clean mountain air of the Sierras and swim in refreshing ice water.
Surround him with children from all walks of life. Let the star-filled sky be an extra blanket on his bed at night.
Teach him to go on a three-day backpack trip climbing the highest peaks in the Sierras.
Put him at a campfire each night where the entertainment is his responsibility. Teach him camp songs and cheers. Run his fanny off from sunrise to sunset. Teach him to say the Hebrew blessing over bread before each meal.
Remind him to dress in clean clothes for the Shabbat dinner. Let a ten-year-old give the sermon at the service. Listen, marvel and learn.
Teach him to advance in his swimming class and pass his Junior Life Saving test.
Let him grow at his own speed socially, physically and spiritually. Let him wander the trails of the High Sierras, finally reaching the solitude of a lake. Let him feel that he is the first human to gaze on the beauty of that lake. Let him stand on the peak of Mount Tallac or Freel’s Peak and experience the thrill of accomplishment unequaled by anyone in the world.
Give him the thrill of preparing a skit with his bonded tent mates for the campfire that night.
Let him hero worship those older counselors who, at age sixteen, could do anything and everything.
Teach him to get along with a society where honesty, cooperation and loyalty prevails from day to day and from summer to summer.
Denied a Campership
One year when I was about fourteen, the well at home was dry. 1938 was deep into the Depression, and there were no fifty-eight dollars for camp. I approached the director that spring. With all the courage I could muster, I asked for a scholarship to camp. It was denied, and I finally went to camp with a job washing dishes.
That day of asking for charity was the blackest day of my childhood. I was humiliated beyond what words can describe this very day.
In later years, as President of the Board, I was able to seek out funds in San Francisco to aid financially deprived children. No child from that time on has ever been refused a campership. Years later, Grandma and I established the “Colvin Campership Fund” at Camp Tawonga. At least one needy child will attend camp each year in perpetuity. I hope he or she will be stronger for the experience that so enriched my life.
I am the oldest living Tawongan camper who still believes he is Tent Captain of Tent 21, Band “A.”
Oh, I can remember that day in July 1932 that our old yellow bus went down the hill and into my dream world of Camp Tawonga. I was 8 years old. That was 79 years ago and seems like yesterday.
It was the start of my attending camp for 10 years and the beginning of a lifelong affiliation. First, I have to explain that the word “camp” was the expression that meant Camp Tawonga to hundreds of young Jewish boys and girls in the Bay Area, just as it still does.
Camp was not just a place for a four-week experience. It was not the spirit or the outdoors in the beautiful Sierras that defines this word.
Camp became a way of life, a basis for young kids to grow into fine young people in our community. We were all there on a level field — with the opportunity to live with people, become individuals in an atmosphere of fair rules, mountains to climb, icy river water for swimming, a cow pasture for our world series baseball games, a couple of bandanas to play capture the flag, Shabbat services, a motzi before every meal.
We had about 18 dollars worth of equipment in camp, but the most important ingredient was the campers. We were a tough bunch of kids with gentle and warm hearts who knew the true meaning of Tawonga, an old Indian word for “I can,” and we did!
When the season was over, we brought that same warm friendship back home and continued a lifetime of friends with a warm handshake, a wink of an eye or a few minutes of agreeing that we belonged to a time in our life that will never be as good as our days at camp!
Camp Memories, 2006
We drove to Camp Tawonga recently and my thoughts carried me back 73 years — to the age of 8, when I started Tawonga at Lake Tahoe.
Tawonga isn’t just a wonderful kids’ camp but a spirit that’s difficult to define. Something magical happens there that remains in your heart for a lifetime.
Shabbat is the highlight of the week.
The Shabbat I was there was dedicated to deep discussions. I sat in with 18 Israelis, emissaries who talked about war in Israel. Many tears streamed down those sunburned faces.
No Shabbaton is complete without Tawonga’s “freilich.” And away the campers danced, led by song-leaders Isaac Zone and Gal Friedman. Saturday morning services were conducted in the beautiful natural amphitheater, with camp director Debbie Newbrum conducting services.
Sunday, we watched kids going to arts and crafts activities, the swimming pool, ball games and welcoming former camp director Ken Kramarz, bringing in a group from a hike in those beautiful Sierras.
Memories, memories of my days at Tawonga in the ‘30s and continuing my association with camp for all these years. I’m a lucky guy at 81. May all the campers be Tawonga campers all their lives.
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