Makom Shalom, the outdoor amphitheater where Shabbat services are held at Camp Tawonga, was donated by the Leslie family. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Makom Shalom, the outdoor amphitheater where Shabbat services are held at Camp Tawonga, was donated by the Leslie family. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Camp Tawonga receives ‘transformational’ $5 million gift

Camp Tawonga, the Jewish summer camp near Yosemite National Park that’s been a fixture in the Bay Area’s Jewish community for nearly 100 years, announced Wednesday it has received its largest-ever financial donation.

Mark and Debra Leslie of Portola Valley, along with their adult sons and their spouses, Seth and Sharon Leslie and Josh and Sara Leslie, are donating $5 million to the sleepaway camp, a record-setting gift to launch the camp’s capital campaign. The campaign is currently in the quiet phase and will begin actively seeking donations in February.

“We certainly want to see Tawonga sustained for future generations,” Debra Leslie said. “We feel a special responsibility to support Jewish organizations that supported us when we came here as a young family.”

Her sons both previously sat on the camp’s board, and two grandchildren have grown from enthusiastic campers to a counselor and counselor-in-training at Tawonga.

“Their financial generosity is quite significant and transformational,” said Jamie Simon, executive director of Camp Tawonga. “I feel so honored to know them, and to get to work with them, and to have their support. They’re really a special family.”

Fifteen years ago, Mark and Debra Leslie donated $25,000, their first large gift to the camp, to build Makom Shalom, the picturesque amphitheater where outdoor prayer services are held, Simon said.

The family also stepped up after the 2013 Rim Fire burned three of the camp’s buildings.

In 2020, Tawonga took a $4 million hit when it had to close for the whole summer due to the pandemic. Many families from around the Bay Area donated the fees that would have paid for their kids to go to camp. The Leslie family made a significant contribution at the time as well. Altogether, the donations allowed the camp to make up for last summer’s financial losses.

“We were really lucky; because of the generosity of our community we were able to get through that. And the Leslie family was a big part of that,” Simon said.

JCamp 180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, recognized the multigenerational Leslie family with the Outstanding Philanthropist Award at its annual conference earlier this month. Camp Tawonga nominated the family for the award.

“The Leslie family is worthy of this award for their commitment to making a transformative gift to Tawonga at this important moment in the Camp’s history as they prepare for their centennial,” said Sarah Eisinger, director of JCamp 180. “This gift helps Tawonga build for future generations. We know that their generosity, leadership, and vision will inspire many others to support Tawonga’s vision and will ensure pride for Camp. With this award we hope that many other Jewish families might follow their example with their own combined family philanthropy.”

“You have to lead by example,” Debra Leslie said, noting that the family typically prefers to keep their charitable donations out of the public eye, but understand how their giving to Camp Tawonga can influence others to do the same. “If we don’t do it as a family in the Jewish community who can, how can we ask others?”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.