Longtime Tawonga director Ken Kramarz dies at 69 – J.
Ken Kramarz’s first official job at Camp Tawonga was as a unit head in 1981. It was just a few weeks one summer, but the impact was lifelong.
After he returned to work at his law firm in Southern California, he had a revelation about his career: “God did not give me one life to live this way, this is not my purpose,” Kramarz told J. in 2005.
He left L.A. and moved to San Francisco, beginning his 40-year affiliation with Tawonga, where within a few short years he became its executive director. “Tawonga was everything my life wasn’t,” he said. “It was pure and clean and fresh and spiritual.”
Kramarz, the longtime, visionary, guitar-playing Tawonga leader who influenced the lives of thousands of campers and counselors over four decades, died May 28 at home in Larkspur of prostate cancer. He was 69.
Kramarz himself probably couldn’t have predicted how his revelation all those years ago would change the course of his life. That included his personal life: In 1982, right before ca mp started, he greeted a new unit head in San Francisco. Her name was Felicia Bendit, and they fell in love over that summer. They married in 1983 and went on to have three children.
Born on Oct. 28, 1952, to Sol Kramarz and Leona Prusansky Kramarz in Los Angeles, Kramarz was raised in North Hollywood. He obtained his bachelor’s and law degrees from UCLA.
Though starting in 1984 he held the top title of Tawonga executive director, Kramarz shared the role with then co-directors Deborah Newbrun and Ann Gonski. This leadership model was the first of many groundbreaking initiatives Kramarz introduced.
“He was a cis white man with power who readily shared it with two powerful women, and as a result, we built one of the best camps in the country,” Newbrun said. “I can’t think of one woman directing a summer camp in 1984. The first Jewish summer camp conference we went to, we were the freaks from the West Coast, but slowly, they all began to follow what we were doing.”
His leadership style was praised by his colleagues, who said he truly saw the best in people and was happy to step aside to let others lead. If he saw a talent in someone, he urged the person to nurture it. He always put camp and campers first and taught staff to do the same.
Rather than giving staff lists of rules they had to memorize and follow, he created a “canon of ethics” to guide their decisions. “I am a professional,” was one. Another was about shared space and how it was a collective responsibility to keep it beautiful. New campers often mistook him for a janitor, as he was always picking up trash.
“I’m just remembering his name Ken means ‘yes’ in Hebrew, and he loved saying ‘Go with the yes,’” said Steve Gershik, a former board member who referred to Kramarz as “my teacher and my rabbi.”
“He always said, ‘Be a channel not a dam,’ meaning don’t block someone’s thoughts or dreams but channel them and make them feel respected and supported,” Gershik said.
Newbrun recalled how he encouraged her to come out to the camp board in 1992, making Tawonga the first Jewish summer camp in the country to have an out lesbian in a leadership role.
In 1998, Tawonga became the first camp in the country to offer LGBT family camp. Founded by Newbrun, the specialty camp continues today. Kramarz’s own participation in a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group led him to dream about inviting Palestinians to Tawonga, and with the help of Len and Libby Traubman, founders of the dialogue movement locally, as well as Gonski, he realized that dream with the first Peacemakers weekend in 2003. The program ran for five years.
Tawonga also was recognized in recent years for being among the first Jewish camps in the country to offer an all-gender cabin option for nonbinary campers, a decision that came under current director Jamie Simon-Harris. It reflected what she learned from Kramarz, she said. “He taught me to be brave and bold, and to do the right thing led by Jewish values even if it’s not popular and you’re the first.”
Nina Kaufman attended Tawonga as a camper in the ’80s and has worked on staff in numerous roles over the years.
“On the first and last nights of camp, he’d say that here we are creating the world we want to live in,” she recalled. “Then we’d go out into the world and spread it, because we knew what it looked like. That was his way of changing the world.”
In 2005, Newbrun took over for Kramarz when he stepped down to work at Hillel and pursue other interests, including emergency preparedness and studying the history of the Indigenous Miwok people who lived in the Yosemite area. But his relationship with the camp continued; from 2011 to 2015 he served as executive director once again.
“Even after he left, he remained my No. 1 call,” said Simon-Harris. “He had so much trust and confidence in me, and if he believed in you, you believed in yourself.”
Kramarz was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years ago. In January of this year, he sent an email to people in his close circle about a recent walk he had taken with Rabbi Sydney Mintz, during which he shared some of his “Stage 4 wisdom” (a concept he got from comedian Larry David).
He wrote: “Here it is: we’re all in Stage 4.’ (Imagine a mic drop here.) We should live each day as if it were our last. Maybe those of us in Stage 4 think about it more, but the fact is, we’re all gonna go and none of us know for sure how or when that will be.
“So today I want to encourage you to live this day as if it were your last. Be in the moment. Say ‘I love you.’ Forgive. Let it go.”
Kramarz is survived by his wife, Felicia, of Larkspur, son Ben (Noa) of Berkeley, son Jake (Nasim) of Oakland, daughter Anna of Oakland, and brother Robert (Karen) of Austin.
Donations can be made to the Ken Kramarz Fund at tawonga.org/support/donate; choose the “tribute gift” option.