Teen “Winter” Retreat

By: Aaron Mandel, Camp Tawonga Associate Director

What’s it like to be at Tawonga in the winter? It’s like coming home, even though the seasons have changed.


41 Tawonga teens recently spent three days of their winter break at Tawonga, enjoying some normal Camp activities and participating in some special, off-season, winter-only programs too. 


As everyone gathered for the bus ride up to Camp, the excitement was palpable as Tawongans from our teen leadership programs and longer summer sessions all united to head up the mountain. 


Everyone packed lots of warm layers, prepared for frosty conditions – and when we arrived at Camp, it was…beautiful. Unseasonably warm weather during the day led the teens to dub it, Teen “Winter”Retreat, quotes included. 


The lake had a nice ice sheet over it, and we broke holes in it with stones, leading the teens to invent many games.


We hiked the ridge for a view over the whole region. 


Just like in the summer, where campers participate in Tikkun Tawonga programs, inspired by Judaism’s call for all to work in healing the world, teens contributed to some of Tawonga’s important off-season work during this retreat. Down on the banks of the Tuolumne River, teens worked with great zeal to make burn piles of dry, dead underbrush as part of our fire safety and forest stewardship plans. In less than an hour, the teens created three massive burn piles that we will light on a county-approved day. To celebrate, the teens joined the “polar bear club” and dunked their heads in the icy waters of the Tuolumne. 


We also had time for electives where teens chose between making latkes (it was Chanukah while we were there), going on a reflective nature walk and learning about and creating performance art. We sang, we danced and we drank approximately 489 cups of hot cocoa. 


We also shared some deep experiences. Teens celebrated Chanukah and learned about the story and themes of the holiday. They reflected on political issues that will be of personal importance when they are all old enough to vote in the next presidential election. Teens thought about their New Year’s resolutions for 2017, and much more. 


Some reflections that really stood out to me were when teens answered the question, “what do you need to feel good and be happy?” Their answers, simple in their beauty, seemed to be inspired by the basic but powerful premise of getting Tawonga teens together for three days in the winter and the great community and experience that was created, even without all the trappings of normal summer camp.


These teens will be the future leaders of Tawonga and the world beyond. After spending three days at Tawonga together, I can say the future is as bright as the fire we kept burning all day and night in the Dining Hall. 


It’s always great to be home.