Forward Thinking

Camp Tawonga and the Truth

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Annais Rittenberg

Camp Tawonga’s leadership faced a difficult decision last week when 21-year-old art counselor Annaïs Rittenberg, was killed by a falling tree. They needed to decide what to tell the campers.

The camp decided not to tell the children that Rittenberg had died — a decision that angers Rittenberg’s father.

“It’s a tragedy,” Mark Rittenberg wrote on Camp Tawonga’s Facebook page. “Everyone needs to know and everyone needs to embrace it.”

Upset at the praise shown for how the camp administration handled the situation, Rittenberg pointed out the anguish it caused her family.

“The love and prayers should go to Annaïs Maya Rittenberg. She is the one who died. Where are her pictures on your Facebook page?” he asked. “Where is the Shabbat service to honor her? This would mean that everyone at camp including the campers would know that their beloved art teacher was killed. “

Rittenberg died on July 3 when a 70-foot-tall black oak tree toppled on her outside the dining hall at the Jewish camp near Yosemite National Park in northern California.

Although it was widely reported within hours that Rittenberg had died, the campers at the sprawling camp did not know the extent of the tragedy. And officials decided to keep them in the dark, in part because the camp session ended at the end of the week.

On the evening of July 4, a day and a half after the tragic accident, executive director Ken Kramarz sent an email to parents explaining the decision to tell the campers only that a tree had fallen and that some staff members had been injured.

“We concluded that you, their parents, have the right to determine what to share about the incident based on your own assessment of how your child is doing and in accordance with your personal beliefs about death,” he wrote. “We feel strongly that you — the parents — should be able to decide when and in what way to discuss this with your children.”

The email also included some suggestions from the camp’s therapeutic team on how parents could speak with their children when they arrived home at the end of the session on July 5.

Some people, from within the Tawonga community and from outside it, agree that glossing over the truth was the correct way to handle the issue.

Steven Pressman of San Francisco, whose son is currently a Tawonga counselor after having been a camper for many years, believes the camp handled the situation in “a highly responsible and sensible fashion.”

Sharon Horovitz, who lives in San Jose, Calif. and has 12-year-old twin girls at the camp, concurs. With the camp session set to end in two days, she thinks the leaders wisely avoided the chance of a “communal hysteria” breaking out upon telling the 350 campers about Rittenberg’s death.

“The first encounter with death is a traumatic event at any age, and I think that I would be the best person to deliver such news to my children. I know best how to support them while and after they will hear the news, and I will be there for a long time to observe and look for signs if additional help might be needed,” Horovitz says.

“We were told that there will be a memorial service for Annaïs here in the Bay Area at a later date. As long as they are recognizing the need to come together as a community to give everyone a chance to grieve the loss together, I think it’s fine to let the children find out from their parents, at home where they are most comforted,” offers Caren Drezner-Gans of Mountain View, Calif., whose 12-year-old daughter was at camp.

For Mindee Levinger, the Jerusalem coordinator for OneFamily, an organization supporting Israeli victims of terror and their families, Mark Rittenberg’s point is well taken. While emphasizing that she is in no position to judge Camp Tawonga from afar, and that there is no a priori clear-cut path for dealing with tragedy, she does suggest that things would be handled differently in Israel.

From her experience in helping hundreds of people handle sudden loss, Levinger believes that children must be immediately told the truth—in a calm manner, and with a lot of love and care. “Children know how to deal with it in their own way,” she says.

If such a tragedy were to have occurred at an Israeli summer camp, Levinger says the children would have been brought together and told the sad news by the camp leadership and therapeutic staff. The rest of the day would have been devoted to age-appropriate group activities for the children to process the information and express their emotions. No child would be left alone.

“The message would be that a terrible thing happened, but that we are continuing the camp, that we are doing it in her memory,” Levinger says.

Levinger also disagrees that the best person to break the terrible news to a child is his or her parent. In Israel, the job is always left to a mental health professional. A parent, family member or trusted teacher or counselor is always on hand for support, but it’s the professional who does the talking.

Clearly, there is no absolute right or absolute wrong way to handle the situation faced by Camp Tawonga. However, Annaïs Rittenberg’s sudden and untimely death reminds us that such tragedies can come crashing down on us at any time, and that it’s worth giving some thought to how to deal with the crushing shock and grief.


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