The DNA of Tawonga

Tawonga Camper Reflects on Camp in College Application Personal Statement

A long-time Tawonga camper sent this college application personal statement to some close Tawonga staff members. We’re so grateful to this individual for allowing Tawonga to share it with our broader community – enjoy!

Freilach is a tradition at Tawonga. Meaning happy in Yiddish, this is our name for the extended Shabbat evening song session that’s a highlight of my time at camp. Surrounded by 300 others in the packed dining hall, I let loose and dance (if you can call it that), belting out lyrics to everything from Billy Joel and the Beatles to traditional Jewish songs. Fast forward a few hours past Freilach and we’re still singing, arms wrapped around each other, sitting on half-cut logs in a pine forest. Somehow, these moments felt spiritual to me. But how could I know what “spiritual” felt like coming from such a non-observant family?

Growing up, Judaism was foreign to me, something I observed from a distance. I knew that my paternal grandparents had fled to South America during the Holocaust. They escaped to a Catholic world and left behind the cultural and communal aspects of their religion. Two generations later, my family never goes to synagogue, barely acknowledges Jewish holidays, and pokes fun at my dad for eating ham and cheese on matzah during Passover – about as un-Kosher as you can get.

I don’t know what inspired my non-practicing parents to send me to a Jewish summer camp, but there, Judaism morphed in my mind from almost mythical stories about my grandparents to a tangible and impactful culture whose ethos I wanted to embrace.

When I sing and dance my heart out, I don’t feel self-conscious or fearful of judgment from others. Tawonga fosters that openness, allowing all members of the community to accept and express their authentic selves and vulnerabilities. The result: an extraordinarily tight-knit community built on the tenet of inclusiveness and the promotion of self-confidence.

I had been a guarded, somewhat internal person until I recognized and absorbed these magical elements of Tawonga. I vividly remember sitting around a campfire with my cabin mates having a heartfelt conversation. We talked about everything from worries about school to divorce, anxiety, and depression. While I didn’t have anything particularly heavy weighing on me, I felt comfortable sharing and seeking advice about a strained friendship at home. Wiping away my emotional hesitancy came with another benefit. I found myself listening intently to and deeply processing what my friends had to say, giving them my best advice and even providing a literal shoulder to cry on. As my own willingness to be vulnerable had increased, my sensitivity towards my peers had as well.

What had all felt so random – how Judaism felt like such a prominent presence in an outdoor, rustic, somewhat hippie summer camp near Yosemite – started to make much more sense. From the alpine slopes of the Sierra Nevadas to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, community is the essence of Judaism. Even prayer, so important to some, must be done in a minyan–a group.

The spirituality that I felt–and still feel to this day–was no coincidence. It was a result of values so embedded in the veins of Tawonga that allowed me to feel so connected to individuals, to the camp community and more broadly to Judaism. I hadn’t previously connected the dots because those values were so covertly encoded in Tawonga’s DNA. It was only last summer when I became a counselor in training that the tenets surfaced fully for me. From emotional conversations around the campfire to Friday night song sessions, every aspect of Tawonga was designed to reflect their mission of creating an accepting Jewish community that fostered confidence, community and compassion.

I still can’t claim to go to synagogue, and to be honest, I only celebrate Hanukkah for the latkes, but the Tawonga culture which I’ve grown to love has made me a more spiritual and enriched person. While someone who prays daily and doesn’t dream of eating ham and cheese might object to my brand of Judaism, I carry that aspect of my identity with pride, spirit, and freilach – happiness.


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