Camp Tawonga Refuses Accountability in Death of Annais Rittenberg

On July 3, 2013, Annais Rittenberg was crushed to death by a massive falling limb from an 80-foot oak tree as she ate breakfast at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Yosemite. Annais, 21, was an art teacher at the camp. The Tuolumne County sheriff, who isn’t a certified arborist, quickly labeled Annais’ death a “freak accident” and an “act of nature.” The camp conducted no investigation and chose not to tell its campers what had happened. The camp’s director, in an email to parents, wrote that the next session would start as scheduled, promising campers “the great Tawonga experience that they know and love.”

 Camp Tawonga simply wanted this to go away. But its leadership failed Annais, Annais’ family and its own mission. As another summer approaches and new information about the camp’s systematic failings is finally coming to light, this community and especially parents of campers should know the full truth about Camp Tawonga’s darkest hour.

 It’s time for accountability.
Read the documents to see for yourself.


  • In December 2012, a PG&E arborist inspecting the tree because their power lines ran through the camp, expressed concern to the director about its structural weakness.

  • The tree stood in an area known as “Downtown Tawonga,” above the fire circle and next to the dining hall.

  • When the limb fell, it damaged the wall of the dining hall, demolished the fire circle, destroyed half of the wooden stage, benches, and brought down the electric wires.

  • David Isaacs, PG&E’s arborist, testified that he had a moral obligation to voice his concerns about the tree limb needing to be cut back, because this was a frequently used seating area. 

  • The camp’s director stopped Isaacs, saying the camp had its own arborist to check trees.

  • The tree was had been due for inspection by the camp’s arborist. However, the camp director waited five months before scheduling an inspection for July 5, 2013.  This was two days after Annais was killed.

  • If the limb had fallen five minutes later, a large group of children could have been hurt or killed.

  • The day after Annais Rittenberg was killed, Tawonga’s director wrote an email to all the campers -- “In an abundance of caution, an independent certified arborist will re-inspect all of the oaks at camp tomorrow.”

  • But camp arborist Denice Britton had been scheduled to come for months. She testified she was shocked to see portions of the tree cut up when she arrived.

  • An independent arborist inspected the trees three weeks later learned that key 6-foot sections of the branch had gone missing.

  • These sections could have helped investigators measure the compression side of the branch and determine why it failed. 

  • Several days after Britton’s inspection, the director wrote to her about “preserving the architectural and historical vegetation” of the area, not mentioning the branch.

  • The camp’s approach to tree safety concerned those both inside and outside the camp. Mark Patton, who has pruned trees at Camp Tawonga since the 1980s, testified that the camp “resisted any recommendation to remove any tree.”

  • A former camp director, in a November 2013 email to the current director, recalled his opposition to her removal of two trees in 2006 that were deemed unsafe by both Britton and PG&E.  “Board members who served with me as [executive director],” the former director wrote, “still reflect to this day on how difficult you made taking out these two unsafe trees.”

  • The camp rarely brought in its own arborist for tree inspections. In March 2006, Britton inspected the tree that would fail and recommended inspections at least once a year. However, she was not brought back until July 2010, upon which she recommended that the camp inspect the trees every 18 months. Britton wasn’t brought back for three more years.

  • The camp never notified Annais’ family of her death. Her mother only found out after repeated calls to the camp.

  • The camp director on July 3 notified the campers parents of the tragedy with the subject line “EVERY CHILD AT CAMP IS FINE,” which resulted in some of Annais’ friends and family learning of her death through social media and on the radio.

  • Yet the camp director didn’t call Annais’ father or brother for two days.    

  • One of Camp Tawonga’s core principles is fostering “positive Jewish identity in children.” However, the camp had no one accompany Annais’ body after her death, violating the sacred Jewish law that the dead are never left alone. Only after repeated demands from Annais’ family did the director find someone to accompany her body home.

  • In the days after the incident, the San Francisco Jewish Federation pledged financial assistance to Annais’ family for funeral expenses as well as those associated with the long grieving process. Months later, following much legal wrangling, the Federation offered the family money on the condition that it “cease all public criticism” of the camp or the Federation. The family declined the hush money.

These are some of the facts obtained through sworn depositions in a recently settled lawsuit with all four counselors children affected by the tragedy.  Camp Tawonga has positively impacted a lot of people, and it has used the powerful emotional bonds between its community and the camp to distort and disguise the truth about Annais’ death.

Annais didn’t have to die, the camp leadership should be replaced, and every Tawonga parent should be asking important questions to ensure the safety of their children.  Why?   Because it is the right thing to do.

Rest in power, Annais!