A staff member was killed and four others were injured when a tree fell on a campfire circle at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish overnight camp in Northern California, on Wednesday.
Annais Rittenberg died when the tree spontaneously fell, crushing the five young people outside of the camp’s dining hall. According to Rittenberg’s Facebook page, she was a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The New York City native had just completed her junior year.
Lizzie Moore, Cara Sheedy, Juliet Ulibarri, and Anya Schultz, all staff members, were injured and taken to local hospitals. Sonora Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Gail Witzlsteiner told The Times of Israel that Ulibarri, 21, and Schultz, 20, were treated for minor injuries and released from her hospital’s emergency room. The other two women were being treated in Modesto—Moore at Doctors Medical Center and Sheedy at Memorial Medical Center. A spokesperson for the hospital said they were in “good condition.”
Ken Kramarz , Camp Tawonga executive director, confirmed in an official statement that the campers were inside the dining hall having breakfast when the incident occurred, and that no children were injured.
Kramarz said that on-site staff therapists were working closely with first responder grief experts to support the campers and the rest of the camp community. Camp Tawonga, which sits on 160 acres in Groveland, Calif., outside Yosemite National Park, has 150 staff members and 250 campers.
Emergency responders arrived within minutes of the tragic accident, coming from Yosemite, Cal Fire, US Forest Service, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, and the Office of Emergency Services.
Part of the falling tree struck a power line, temporarily cutting off some of the camp’s electricity. Repairs are underway while generators provide backup power.
The camp promised to send parents an email update by 6:00 p.m. Wednesday evening with further information. The update would doubtless be welcomed by Tawonga parents, many of whom learned of the accident through social media hours before receiving communication from Kramarz.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder of San Francisco, whose teenage son is a counselor-in-training at Tawonga, told The Times of Israel she was frustrated at not having received any official communication from the camp for hours after media reports of the accident first surfaced. “I heard about it from Twitter,” she said.
No one answered the phone when she called the camp’s office.
“As a parent of a kid at this camp I cannot describe the anguish and fury at not having any idea about how my kid is doing and learning about this through the web. We cannot afford not to communicate, it gets out whether we want it to or not,” Abusch-Magder wrote on Facebook.
Amy Friedman of Palo Alto, California, whose two young sons are campers of Tawonga, learned of the news from a reporter’s phone call. “What accident?” she asked with surprise, before logging on to her social media accounts to check for messages.
Camp Tawonga is a beneficiary of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation. The Federation’s acting CEO, Marsha Hurwitz offered her condolences to the camp community. “Camp Tawonga is a vital part of our Bay Area Jewish community, and we are profoundly saddened and shocked by this tragedy. We have offered whatever assistance we can provide to the camp, its families, and staff in responding to today’s events,” she said in an official statement.
The accident at Tawonga is the second tragedy at an American Jewish overnight summer camp in just four days. On Saturday, lightning struck at the Goldman Union Camp Institute, a Reform Jewish camp near Zionsville, Indiana. Three children were injured in that incident.