by Suzanne Rosenberg
Before sharing my opinions about the events surrounding the death of Annais, I want to acknowledge that I am friends with both Mark Rittenberg and Penny Kreitzer and I love them both. I also knew and loved Annais as well, as the very special person that she was. I have refrained from commenting on the issues surrounding Annais’ death until more information was available and the investigation from the arborists’ trial was complete.
In spite of my emotional proximity to this tragedy, I am writing now as investigative documents and discovery have been made public and there is enough information on the record to have a productive review of the incident at Camp Tawonga. I have therefore examined the documents provided from the investigation and made available in the Justice for Annais site.(1) I would also like to note that Mark and I were once counselors and program directors at a Jewish camp which encouraged Jewish values and therefore have a good sense of how a Jewish camp can be run.
After a careful review of the documents and depositions, there are four issues that require analysis and comment. They are: 1) the condition of the tree which came down as the “proximate” cause of Annais’ death, 2) when and how to tell the campers and counselors about the disruptions as a result of the death, injuries and the power outage at the camp and how if at all, the upcoming sessions’ campers were informed about the incident. Was there adequate psychological support forthcoming for the staff? And 3) the timely notification of Annais’ family of her death and finally, 4) responsible behavior toward the living and the dead one should expect from a Jewish camp and institution which proposes to teach and uphold Jewish values.
1. The condition of the trees at Camp Tawonga:
From the depositions and documents filed, it is clear that the condition of the trees at the camp and this particular “downtown” tree at Tawonga was identified for re inspection and arbor attention long before the incident involving Annais Rittenberg on July 3, 2013.(2) More than one arborist had warned about the safety and stability of the trees in camp and this tree in particular. At least two arborists and the individual responsible for pruning the trees at the camp acknowledged the “downtown” tree’s potential weaknesses. This begs the question as to why the inspections weren’t carried out according to the recommended timetable and why Mr. Kramarz waited until staff and campers were already at the camp and the second summer session of 2013 had begun (in fact days after a substantive part of the tree fell taking the life of Annais and injuring others) to schedule a re-inspection.
Perhaps the most tragic revelation came in an email from the former Tawonga Camp Director Deborah Newbrun who had known of the trees’ weaknesses and passed the information on to the Executive Director, Ken Kramarz, assuming that he would follow through with the recommended and timely arbor inspections. In the email entered into the record however, Newborn recounts how difficult Mr. Kramarz made it for her to implement the arborists recommendations. In addition, there is a second letter in which she indicates her own grief and I believe betrays some concern about any responsibility and negligence regarding the tree incident.(3)(4) Clearly her concern is appropriate given the circumstances.
The resistance by Camp Director Kramarz to authorize pruning back the potentially dangerous trees was also entered into the deposition by Mark Patton who was employed by Camp Tawonga to take care of the grounds.(5) Mr. Patton’s statement also indicates that conversation, recognition and consideration regarding the stability and safety of the camps’ trees took place prior to Annais’ death. Finally, Ms. Denice Britton, the arborist, recommended that an arborist come back and inspect the trees at the camp every 18 months. The recommended inspections were never carried out.(6)
The timeline document, Talking Points July 8, 2013, written by Jamie Simon-Harris representing the camp, contradicts the deposed statements of the arborists regarding the safety of the tree in question on the camp property.(7) However, it does reveal the time between acknowledging Annais’ death and the notification of the family.(see # 4 below) Additionally, even when asked not to move or touch the limbs of the fallen tree due to the ongoing investigation, when an arborist came to do an inspection after the accident, he was surprised to discover that one part of the tree was cut up and placed in a different area and another, a six foot part of the tree, was missing completely (8)(9) It is reasonable to assume that the removal and dismembering of the tree in question hindered the outcome of an otherwise successful investigation. This is yet another inappropriate action taken by Kramarz regard to this incident.
2) The decision when and how to tell the campers and counselors and upcoming sessions’ campers about the fatal incident and any psychological support which should be forthcoming:
Even if we acknowledge that It is difficult to handle/manage the death of anyone at a summer camp and particularly the death of Annais Rittenberg at Camp Tawonga on July 3, 2913; there are some troublesome questions which arise as a result of this incident and deserve to be explored. How and when did the camp deal with the sensitive issue of Annais’ death with the children and the staff? My understanding is that the camp chose not to notify the campers due to the fact that the session would be ending in a few days, thereby leaving it to the parent’s discretion whether and how to deal with the issue. How and in what manner was the camp community notified about the death of Ms. Rittenberg and the injuries of the other counselors as well as the cause of the electricity outage for three days as result of the fallen tree? Were the next sessions’ campers told about the incident? Were there grief counselors available for the staff and friends of Annais and the injured in the immediate aftermath of the incident?
3) The timely notification of the family of Annais’ death:
The behavior of Camp Director Kramarz regarding the timely notification of Annais’s family remains disappointing and irresponsible. The camp was not the first to notify Annais’ family of her death. In fact, Penny did not learn of her daughter’s death for hours and from neither camp personnel nor a uniformed officer. After hearing a report about a felled tree resulting in a fatality at a Jewish camp on the news, another in Penny and Mark’s family alerted Penny to the incident. After calling the camp repeatedly for approximately five hours, Penny finally learned of Annais’ death. The coroner told her the news about Annais and not the Camp Director. Annais' father and brother were never formally notified by the camp. Why did it take so long to notify and engage the family? Why did the leadership of the camp choose not to speak with Penny and notify her of the incident?
4) Responsible behavior toward the living and the dead for a Jewish camp and institution infused with Jewish values:
This fourth occurrence at a Jewish camp is inexplicable. Leaving a body alone after ones death is clearly prohibited in Jewish law. Not allowing the parents to accompany the body or asking one of Annais’ colleagues to stay with her until the parents or other family could get to her is nothing short of disrespectful. Just as in other areas of observance, a camp attendee and their family should assume that the camp respects and incorporates recognized traditions regarding the Jewish rituals of the dead.
With the corroborating statements made under oath in the depositions regarding the safety and stability of the trees, Penny and Mark’s suggestions on the advisability of the board and directors of the camp stepping down should have been given more serious consideration. All of the arborists interviewed reinforce the evidence that the leadership of the camp was both resistant to pruning the trees or at best lax regarding timely tree inspection. It is also evident that the camp ignored the requests concerning moving or tampering with the subject tree during the investigation of the incident. Finally, there is also the disturbing issue regarding Jewish tradition and respect for Annais’ body in the aftermath of her death.
All of these elements have led me to agree with Penny and Mark about the manner in which the whole incident surrounding Annais’ death was handled and to determine that they have been treated very poorly by the camp and the the community. While trying to heal, Penny and Mark have been forced to investigate the circumstances surrounding the safety of the nature and the trees at Camp Tawonga themselves since neither the camp, nor the community, nor any legal apparatus stepped in to do it for them. While the incident which occurred causing Annais’ death might appear to have been an unavoidable accident of a spontaneous nature, it is now very obvious that there are very real and concrete reasons this avoidable accident might have occurred.
Penny and Mark have been called stubborn and unrelenting in their pursuit of the facts surrounding their daughter’s’ death. As a result, they have been made to feel not welcome within the Bay Area Jewish community and a schism has arisen between the Tawonga community and Annais’ family. This is unfortunate since Annais loved Camp Tawonga.
What then, have we learned from the camp’s behavior and the documents shared in JusticeforAnnais? If the lack of transparency and respect for Annais’ family surrounding her death at Camp Tawonga on July 3, 2013, and the subsequent mourning period are as described; we should indeed question the wisdom of having the same Director and Staff which was in place at Tawonga at that time, maintaining their positions. This is true for the Board which supports these individuals in their positions as well.
The revealing investigation and documentation produced as a result of Rittenberg/Kreitzer vs Denise Britten Associates and Hartford Insurance Company, and made public by Penny and Mark has done a service to those in the California Jewish community and to those who send their children to Camp Tawonga. By revealing the details of what they know about the governance and leadership of the camp and through telling their story; Penny and Mark have given those in the California Jewish community information regarding their choices of where to send their children to summer camp. The choice as to whether or not to entrust their children to the Tawonga community under its present leadership - or whether to lobby for a change.
Almost two years on, the camp’s position is somewhat puzzling. Given the fact that under California’s no-fault Workman’s Compensation statutes regarding any claim of negligence there is no civil or criminal liability on the part of the camp or its leadership; it is stunning that more has not been done by the camp for Annais and her family - if only in good will. This was not Annais’ first summer at Tawonga. She loved the camp and as is the case with most summer camp experiences, the friends, campers and experiences she had there were significant and meaningful to her. The friends and family of Annais, including many of her Tawonga colleagues and campers, have worked to set in motion memorials on her behalf at the University of California Santa Cruz and in South Africa.
So again, given the fact the camp is responsible under the law for no more than funeral expenses and there is no cause for alarm on the part of the camp regarding additional legal liability; it is even more disappointing that Camp Tawonga hasn’t been more forthcoming, emotionally and in acknowledging Annais and her family. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the action of the camp has been to keep silent offering up neither responsibility, any concrete commitment to Annais’ memory and little reference to the tragic death which occurred on their property. Again, even after the leadership and the camp board knew that there would be no legal accountability, they did not step in to assuage the needs of the Rittenberg/Kreitzer family, even minimally.
Whereas the family wanted kindness and generosity of spirit, discovery, respect, consideration and perhaps actions which aligned with their own Jewish values while they endured the painful period following Annais’ death, they received none of these, thereby making their mourning all the more devastating.
Two years have passed since the tragic turning point in the lives of the Rittenberg/Kreitzer family, friends, relatives, classmates and colleagues of Annais Rittenberg. Only as a result of the lawsuit was a thorough independent investigation completed on the safety of the grounds and trees at the camp. The investigation clearly indicates that the Executive Director’s negligence in not acting upon the recommendations of the specialists was in fact the most likely cause for the incident. I was shocked and appalled to discover that Mr. Kramarz is still listed as the Executive Director of Camp Tawonga. I assume therefore, that he remains the principal decision maker on maintaining the grounds and trees in proper and safe conditions.
Frankly, if I were sending my daughter or friends of mine were considering sending their children to Camp Tawonga; I would be extremely concerned about their safety knowing the Mr. Kramarz continues to be the only oversight and decision maker regarding maintaining the safety of the grounds and trees at the Camp. The documents and sworn testimony clearly indicate that Mr. Kramarz primary concern was the aesthetic appearance of the grounds and trees and not their safety for those individuals on the camp grounds. The question that everyone should be asking is. has the camp followed up on all the arborists recommendations regarding tree safety at the camp? If so, when?
I only wish that these questions regarding the psychological safety of the campers and staff, the safety of the people at the camp and honoring the Jewish traditions of the deceased would have been answered forthrightly regarding the staff, campers and the grounds of the camp. It would appear that the camp did not follow the culture of transparency and the values which it teaches.
Perhaps it is time for the board and leadership of the Camp to take affirmative steps to honor the memory of Annais Rittenberg. Perhaps now there can be an area of the camp named after Ms. Rittenberg and program in “green camping” or “arbor safety” created in her memory. Additionally, a scholarship program provided to an underprivileged camper in each session in her name can be offered and finally, a peaceful and tranquil grove named for her. These are appropriate measures to honor the memory and spirit of Annais on the part of the Camp Tawonga community.
(2) “Downtown Tree” This is the camp location of the tree in question as it was referred to in the documents.
(3) Deborah Newbrun’s quote
(4) Deborah Newbrun’s quote
(5) Mark Patton, who has pruned trees at Camp Tawonga since the 1980s, testified that the camp “resisted any recommendation to remove any tree.”
(6) 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 recom-mended that the camp inspect the trees every 18 months. Britton wasn’t brought back for three more years.
(7) Documents 6a, 6b, 6c and Document 7
(8) (9) Document 9 & Document 10