Two weeks after the accident that claimed the life of 21-year-old Annaïs Rittenberg, the Camp Tawonga community is trying to heal from the loss of the beloved staff member.
Over the weekend of July 13 and 14, camp leaders held two separate memorials — one in San Francisco and one at the Jewish camp near Yosemite National Park — to honor the U.C. Santa Cruz student who loved art, nature and animals, and who made a lasting impression on most everyone who knew her. There was also a July 9 memorial for her in Berkeley, where she lived as a youth before moving to New York with her family.
Rittenberg died July 3 after being struck by a section of a 70-foot oak tree that fell where she and some other staff members were eating breakfast outside.
Four others young staffers were hurt. Two of them, Anya Schultz and Juliet Ulibarri, had minor injuries and are back working at camp, officials said. Another, Lizzie Moore, who suffered several broken ribs and other injuries, is recuperating at home. Cara Sheedy, whose injuries have not been disclosed, was recovering at a rehab center in Sacramento as of July 17.
On July 13, 150 people gathered at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco for a two-hour service “geared toward children who knew Annaïs,” said Jamie Simon, the camp’s director. The service was led by Becca Meyer, Tawonga’s associate director; song leader Marsha Attie; and Rabbi Sydney Mintz, a family friend of the Rittenbergs.
Campers shared memories of Annaïs, either in person or by having somebody read things they had written.
“She loved, loved, loved nature and all living things … she had great energy, you could feel it when she walked into a room,” wrote Chava Novogrodsky-Godt, 11, of San Francisco. “Annaïs will always live in my heart and in my memories.”
Attendees colored pictures — some paying homage to Rittenberg’s hummingbird tattoo — in her memory, which will be bound into a book for the grieving family. And since “she was famous around camp for her friendship bracelets,” Meyer said, others made friendship bracelets. Also, seed packets were handed out in honor of her love of nature.
On July 14, a memorial at the camp drew “pretty much the entire staff” of 150, Simon said. Twenty former Tawonga staffers served as fill-in counselors so current counselors could grieve or have some quiet time, Simon said.
Led by Meyer, Attie and Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, that service also included Deborah Newbrun, the Bay Area director of Hazon and a former director of Camp Tawonga, which has its main office in San Francisco. Newbrun visited camp for a few days, leading one Shabbat service and offering her support.
“I’m a huge fan of [Simon’s] leadership skills, and the whole team there is doing a really amazing job,” Newbrun commented. “I wanted to be there to provide help wherever I could. But [the staff] are the real heroes. And Chai Levy opened the service that way: ‘You guys have been heroes. You’ve been putting yourselves out there for the campers, and now is a time when it’s OK to kind of break open your hearts and cry and have the experience of not looking after anyone but yourselves.’ ”
Said Meyer: “One of the things I talked about at the [Tawonga] memorial was how we can’t go over this, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it — but we don’t have to go through it alone. And that’s the power of community, to be there for each other in difficult times.”
Although official memorials for Rittenberg are over, Simon said a group of staff members has been saying Kaddish and lighting a yahrzeit candle every night. Also, some 13-year-old girls who had Rittenberg as a counselor last year lit candles and shared memories, and next week they will have a mikvah ceremony (with blessings for healing) in the river that runs through the property.
“Obviously, it’s not enough. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to her life,” Simon said. “She was just so special, such an incredibly bright light in our community. We’re going to keep thinking about ways we can honor her every day.” n