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Down the Mountain

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience
Early Childhood
Community Building

Tawonga is leveraging the proven paradigm of Jewish summer camp to engage pre-camp aged children and their parents through immersive experiences of joyous Judaism and spiritual connection in nature. Tawonga will host over 1,200 such parents and children through a wide selection of Spring and Fall Family Camp weekends at our awe inspiring Yosemite facility, followed-up with year-round, locally based programs and activities.

We are applying ancient Jewish wisdom in new ways, blending Jacob’s epiphany in the wilderness, where he wrestles with God, with the imperative of King David’s Psalm 100: “Serve the Lord with joy and song.”

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

1) "Closer to G-d"

There is a hassidic story we tell at Camp Tawonga in which a rabbi is concerned about his child who—every Shabbat—wanders off into the woods to be alone in the forest. When asked why, the child says,

“I go to the forest to be closer to G-d.”

“That’s wonderful, but you don’t need to go into the forest--G-d is the same everywhere.”

“I know that G-d is the same everywhere...but I am not.” says the child.

This story reveals a truth that Jews have known from the beginning: that we feel closer to the source, and we are more likely to hear that “still small voice” when we are outdoors in nature. By removing ourselves from all the things that humanity has created—from buildings, appliances, vehicles etcetera—we can more easily reach the spiritual connection we all crave.

When Tawonga runs programs at our Yosemite location, people feel that sense of connection almost immediately. We are located high in the Sierra Mountains on the Tuolumne River, far beyond cell phone service, and our facility is intentionally designed to have zero visible technology. Every child and every parent is completely freed from digital distractions.

When we run programs locally in the San Francisco Bay Area (which we call “Down the Mountain”) we carefully select beautiful, natural settings, like beaches and parks and bring joyful song sessions to each as well. Even our Erev Rosh Hashanah services are held outdoors with .

In addition to the spiritual connection which being outside facilitates, the outdoors is a much easier space in which to engage pre-school aged children with Torah. Outdoors, their natural noises from fussing and fidgeting just dissipate into the open air. And if they are restless, they can safely roam around the sacred space because we have staff shmira posted all around with specific age appropriate activities aimed at engaging this young cohort. This freedom is liberating for the children AND their parents and as a result, everyone has a more rewarding religious experience.

2) “Diversity is Strength”

In another classic Jewish tale, a quarreling couple comes to the Rabbi. The husband gives his side and the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” Then the wife speaks and the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” The rebbitzen overhears this and complains to the Rabbi, “How can they both be right?”

“You’re right too!”

This is the humorous version of the Talmud teaching, Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim: These AND these are the words of the living G-d. (Talmud Tractate Eruvin 13b). The deep Jewish wisdom here is that there are many versions of the truth and we are made stronger if we can accept a diversity of interpretations.

At Tawonga, this is manifest in the way we engage Rabbi’s of every stripe, from Chabad to Conservative, Reform to Renewal. We give our parents and children a diverse buffet of ideas and practices and each person chooses for themselves. We never say, “This is the right way” to pray or to believe.

As a result, when they come to Tawonga’s Jewish buffet, they take more on their plates. With 34% of Tawonga families in interfaith relationship, the immersive, yet open form of Jewish practice fully resonates, bringing families back again and again to program and feelings of inclusion.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

For 90 years, Camp Tawonga have successfully inspired camp-aged children (aged 7-17) with these and many other Jewish values in our overnight camp programs. The new challenge Tawonga has taken on is to engage pre-camp aged kids (infants—6 years old) and their parents.

Clearly, these kids are too young for traditional overnight camp, so Tawonga has created an entire season of weekend family camps designed to serve the needs of young children and their parents. This year, we will host over 1,200 such kids and parents for weekends at our Yosemite site. In addition, at venues close to where people live, we will be offering large group programs (such as 800 people for Rosh Hashanah in the park) and small group programs (such as backyard Havdalahs and Tot Shabbats in the park) throughout the year.

This year-round cycle of engagement possibilities are designed so that a family can enter at any point. Its like a merry-go-round that you can get on or off whenever its comfortable for you. For some families, their first contact is one of our Family Camp weekends. There, they meet other families who live near them and we facilitate their post-camp reconnection. For others who prefer a more intimate starting point, they are invited to share Shabbat in the home of a Tawonga family. This then can lead to joining holiday programs or coming up to a Family Camp Weekend.

At every point of contact, our staff sets a tone that is warm and inclusive, welcoming people wherever they are on the spectrum of practice and belief.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Tawonga alums have become the innovators of many great ideas and programs. Urban Adama, G-dCast (now BimBam), and JOLT (Jewish Outdoor Leadership Training) were all created by Tawonga alums. Tawongans now sit on synagogue and school boards all over the Bay Area bringing Tawonga values and wisdom to their work.

Tawonga Family Camps and local year-round programs engage families during a phase in life when they are starting their parenting journey. By welcoming them to family camps with special young-child oriented programming and further building community by hosting targeted events for them in the Bay Area, we provide a unique space for families to incorporate Jewish values into their lives and meet other families with young children. These families even bring their friends to the local programming, extending our reach to even more Jewish families with children.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

The most important thing we’ve learned about applied Jewish wisdom that has contributed to our success is what we learned in 1991, when we hosted two Tibetan emissaries from the Dalai Lama’s community-in-exile (Dharamsala, India). Tawonga was the final stop of a nation-wide, nine-week tour of Jewish summer camps, spanning the range of orthodox, secular, movement, independent, zionist and JCC. The Tibetans spent this time living in Jewish summer camps because a group of rabbis had told the Dalai Lama that the most effective tool in maintaining Jewish identity in diaspora was summer camp (see “The Jew in the Lotus” by Rodger Kamenetz)

At the very end of their time in America, we held a public teach-out in San Francisco to hear what the Tibetans had learned. They said: “In Tibet, we have only one way to be Buddhist. In America, you have many ways to be Jewish. That is your great strength!”

To many in the audience, this hit like a lightning bolt. The differences of opinion, practice and belief which were the bane of many a Seder table were seen as a plus by the Tibetans.
From then on, Tawonga--as an independent, San Francisco based organization--has maximized its efforts to show our campers every kind of Jewish idea and practice.