After Annais Rittenberg, a 21-year-old UC Santa Cruz student who was working as an art teacher at Camp Tawonga — a Northern California Jewish camp — was killed at the camp on July 3 by a falling tree, her mother, Penny Kreitzer, remembered the best of her child: “With a daughter sometimes it’s difficult in their teenage years, but we had become so close,” Kreitzer said. “I am sure that she was laughing and joking when this happened.”
She added that when Rittenberg was previously a counselor at Tawonga, she loved to comfort young campers who were having a tough time being away from home.
“If there was a child that was crying, Annais would go into her bed and hold her, and tell her stories,” Kreitzer said.
The accident occurred 8:25 a.m. at the 160-acre summer camp near Yosemite National Park, outside the town of Groveland. Four other adult staff members suffered nonfatal injuries, according to a press release the camp posted on its Facebook page. Rittenberg, a rising senior at UCSC, was meeting with other camp staff around a campfire circle when the oak tree snapped and landed on her.
The campers were all inside the dining hall nearby. None of them were injured, but according to an e-mail to parents from Camp Tawonga, which was also posted on the camp Facebook page, the campers “heard two loud cracks and a crashing boom.” The tree also took down a power line, which activated the camp’s safety siren.
According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, Rittenberg was studying environmental conservation and worked at the college radio station. Kreitzer told the Journal that Rittenberg was an outgoing, energetic girl with a particular love for nature.
After Kreitzer learned Wednesday morning that there had been an incident at the camp, she said she called the camp’s offices, but wasn’t able to get through for about four hours. When she phoned local hospitals to see if they knew anything, she began to have some hope when her daughter’s name didn’t match that of any patients. But Kreitzer said that in the early afternoon, when she reached someone at the camp, she received the news she feared most.
“I said, ‘Is she all right?’ and he said, ‘No, she isn’t,’ and I said, ‘Is she dead?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”
The news, Kreitzer said, was “horrific.”
For several hours, news reports about the incident included some inaccurate information, and calls from parents and media swamped the camp and the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office. Because campers at Tawonga are not allowed to have cell phones — as is customary at sleepaway camps — families did not know what was going on until the early afternoon, when the camp sent an e-mail to parents with a subject line in all capital letters reading, “Every child at camp is fine.”
“The campers are doing well and are participating in camp activities away from the scene,” Tawonga’s Executive Director Ken Kramarz wrote in the e-mail now posted on Facebook.
Later that evening, Kramarz sent another e-mail saying that a staff member had been killed, but that the camp had decided to not tell the children.
“We believe that you, their parents, are best suited to share the sad news that one of the injured staff did not survive,” he wrote. “Our on-site staff therapists are closely monitoring the well-being of the children and staff.”
Kramarz did not respond to interview requests from the Journal.
The incident occurred just two days before the final day of the camp’s second session, so the campers returned home shortly after the accident. The third session began on July 7.
Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, said Camp Tawonga is known for its response to emergencies, and he called the camp’s decision to wait and let parents tell their children about the death of Rittenberg a judgment call.
“I respect the call that they are making,” Levine said. “I think they made it with the children’s best interests at heart.”
Levine added that Camp Alonim staff told campers in its oldest teen program about what had happened, and he said they had written a postcard to Camp Tawonga showing their support.
Rabbi Joe Menashe, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai, called Camp Tawonga a model for accident prevention, and said he recently consulted with Kramarz on how to best respond to emergencies.
“Our hearts go out to them,” Menashe said. “We feel this loss.”
Summer camps routinely maintain and inspect on-site trees as a safety precaution. Because the tree that fell at Tawonga was near power lines, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) was responsible for its annual inspections. Company spokesman Brian Swanson told the Journal that the tree in question had last been inspected in December and that it showed no signs of disease or decay.
“What we do on an annual basis is inspect all of our power lines, and part of our inspection is to look for tree limbs that are growing near power lines and look for any obvious signs of decay and defects,” Swanson said.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Sgt. Jim Oliver also told the media that “there was nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with this tree.”
“Basically, it was a freak accident, as far as we can tell,” he said. In an e-mail on July 4, Kramarz and camp director Jamie Simon wrote to parents that “an independent certified arborist will re-inspect all of the oaks at camp.”
Dalit Shlapobersky, executive director at Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, said that the camp had removed all the diseased trees on its site last spring as a precaution against wildfires.
And like Camp Tawonga and many other sleepaway camps, Camp Gilboa’s staff includes social workers and psychologists to help campers deal with a range of issues, including emergencies and traumatic incidents that might occur during the course of the summer.
Similarly, Douglas Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu, said that Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp — the temple’s two camps — have therapists on staff and have “well-developed protocols” to contact parents in the event of a camp emergency.
Bill Kaplan, executive director of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, a sister camp to Camp Tawonga, said arborists — tree experts — come every year to trim trees and check for stability and rot.
“Sometimes a tree has outlived its life; it’s just ready to come down,” Kaplan said in an interview. “You never know when you are dealing with nature.”
In solidarity, JCA Shalom sent a huge postcard to Tawonga, reading in part, “We send our support, strength, and love in your time of need, kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh” — all of Israel is responsible for one another.