Spunky. Fearless. Creative. Open. Compassionate. Teacher.
These words were spoken over and over again on July 9, as the family and friends of Annaïs Rittenberg gathered at U.C. Berkeley to remember their daughter, sister, colleague and friend. Rittenberg, a 21-year-old art teacher at Camp Tawonga, died the morning of July 3 after being struck by a section of falling tree in what’s being called a freak accident at the camp on the edge of Yosemite National Park.
The memorial, the first of several planned for Rittenberg, drew at least 300 people. Rabbi Sydney Mintz, a friend of the family, and Rabbi Lee Bycel both spoke about how difficult it was to comprehend the death of someone so young, with such a vibrant spirit.
The crowd, which spilled out of Cal’s Alumni House into the courtyard, included many Tawonga counselors and staff, who were bused in on a daylong break from the Jewish summer program. They held each other close throughout the service, as Rittenberg’s parents, brother and friends painted a portrait of a young woman whose inimitable zest for life, sense of humor and love of nature and animals touched everyone she encountered.
“She did more living in her 21 years than I have in my 31. More than a lot of people have at 61,” said her brother, Adam Rittenberg, noting that though the siblings were opposites — she the “flower child” who loved wilderness adventures, went to Burning Man and once pierced her own nose; he a straight-laced pragmatist — they were each other’s best friends. “She absorbed life like a sponge, she had that much passion.”
Bryanna Whitney, Annaïs’ roommate at U.C. Santa Cruz for the past two years, was one of three speakers who also described her as their best friend. “She was the kind of person who nurtured you, made you feel welcome and understood, from the moment she looked into your eyes. She was my other half,” said Whitney, recalling a recent time at the Santa Cruz beach when a school of dolphins swam by and Annaïs could barely control her whoops of joy.
Annaïs Maya Rittenberg was born in Berkeley on Oct. 18, 1991, to parents Penny Kreitzer, a South Africa–born actress and speaking coach, and Mark Rittenberg, a professor in the business school at U.C. Berkeley. She was an inquisitive, mischievous child with a flair for the dramatic, said her mother, recalling that when Annaïs played dress-up, she would often include the family dog. She also made a habit out of asking for new pets: When Kreitzer told her the house likely couldn’t accommodate another dog — and the family already had pet rats — Annaïs inquired about a horse.
She attended Berkeley’s Black Pine Circle Elementary School until 2000, when the family moved to New York City. Summers were spent traveling, often to South Africa, where her father’s research was based. There, as a 13-year-old, Annaïs began volunteering with the SanWild Wildlife Trust, a habitat for injured and orphaned animals, making friends with (among other creatures that terrified her family members) a baby rhinoceros.
In New York, she attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, a performing arts school where she blossomed as an artist and a writer; she also studied at the International Center of Photography. Meanwhile, Rittenberg used the city as a playground, according to her mother.
“A street pole was for climbing, a hill in the park was for sliding down on a piece of cardboard,” said Kreitzer, donning a flamboyant red sun hat her daughter had insisted she buy on a recent Mother’s Day shopping trip on Piedmont Avenue, after informing her mother that she wore too much black.
As a student at U.C. Santa Cruz, where she was to begin her senior year, Annaïs considered film and anthropology before settling on environmental studies. She also worked as a DJ at the campus radio station KZSC, where she had a regular show that highlighted her extensive knowledge of world music.
In October 2011, Annaïs was walking in a crosswalk on campus in the middle of the day when she was struck by a car, badly injuring her shoulder and leg, and essentially immobilizing the right side of her body; she had to be airlifted from the scene and required multiple surgeries over the next year. Adam Odsess-Rubin, a close friend, recalls going to see her in the hospital. “She said ‘I’m so, so happy to be alive,’” he said. “That’s how she always was — just bursting with passion for life. I’ve been thinking since then that every day with her was just a gift.”
Though her recovery was slow, Annaïs remained positive and hopeful about her progress, applying to be a counselor at Camp Tawonga in the summer of 2012 after Odsess-Rubin told her how much fun he’d had working there.
On a memorial Facebook page, counselor Kira Cohen wrote about sharing her first summer at Tawonga with Annaïs. “I was incredibly nervous … worried about meeting friends … The first person I saw when I got outside was a girl with a huge smile, big curly hair, and a name tag explaining how to pronounce her name in three parts. … She immediately wrapped me up in a massive hug. From that moment on, I knew Annaïs to represent pure love.”
A letter from the mother of a camper, read by Adam Rittenberg at the service, thanked the Rittenberg family for raising such a giving daughter. The camper, Sophie, was terribly homesick and had told her mother that Annaïs took the bunk next to hers so they could tell stories and be close during the night. “Clearly she made a huge difference in her short time here,” she said. “Thank you for teaching her to make friendship bracelets … and to dance instead of cry.”
During her junior year, Annaïs was deeply inspired by the university’s natural history field study program, which sent her trekking into the wilderness on camping trips with classmates. Her many journals were full of detailed notes and diagrams about plants and insects; she was fascinated by the interplay between science and the spirit in nature.
“She was a role model of nonjudgment, but she would also lead by example, and she was a natural teacher,” her father said, recalling a recent time when, chiding him for his less-than-perfect recycling habits, his daughter asked him, “Daddy, what are you doing for the Earth besides using it up?” He plans to buy himself the composter she had vowed to get him for his next birthday.
Returning to Tawonga this summer as an art teacher, Annaïs was nearly fully recovered from her injury. Just days before her death, she achieved a goal she’d had her sights on since the previous summer — climbing to the nearly 10,000-foot summit of Clouds Rest in Yosemite.
“The last time we talked … she had just climbed this mountain. It sounded like it had been a really beautiful moment for her,” said her brother, who lives in Chicago. Though he isn’t much of a camper, he said, he plans to take his unborn son, who is due this fall, on camping trips to honor his sister — to tell him about his “weird, wonderful Aunt Annaïs.”
Annaïs Rittenberg is survived by mother Penny Kreitzer, father Mark Rittenberg, both of Berkeley, brother Adam Rittenberg and sister-in-law Christina Lanzona, stepmother Ingrid Gavshon, grandmother Lucy Kreitzer, and uncles and aunts Mel and Sharon Kreitzer, Josee and Joe Scanlan and Maureen Rittenberg.
Camp Tawonga will hold a memorial service for campers and parents at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to SanWild, the nature preserve that Rittenberg loved since she was a child, at www.sanwild.org, or to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, www.marinemammalcenter.org.