More than 25 Years in the Making: New Tawonga ED Was Raised for Her Role

Becca, Jamie and Ken
Becca, Jamie and Ken

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Internal candidates surface in about 30 percent of searches for senior nonprofit roles, according to research by the Bridgespan Group. In an online article, Kathleen Yazbak, former partner with The Bridgespan Group, said she would typically advise organizations that have an inside candidate who is 70 percent as strong as an outside choice to hire the insider.

“I always tell clients that it’s a huge opportunity if somebody matches your culture and is already successful in your environment because your risks on the search are far lower – there is a greater risk when you bring somebody in from the outside that it won’t work out,” said Yazbak.

Two months ago, the leadership at Camp Tawonga, a 160-acre residential Jewish summer camp located on the middle fork of the Tuolumne River, made just that decision by announcing the hiring of Jamie Simon-Harris as the incoming executive director. Simon-Harris is likely more than a 70-percent fit; the previous camp director, she has been involved with the camp as a camper and then staff member for more than 25 years.

“She embodies our mission so fully, in large part because she experienced it as a child, a teen, a young adult and today, as a mother, spouse and leader,” says Board President Ilana Drummond. “Because of Tawonga, Jamie hit the four targets of our mission: she built self-confidence; she discovered the power of community; she developed a partnership with nature; and she fostered a love of Judaism.”

Campers and staff alike refer to Simon-Harris as intelligent, warm, instinctual and humorous.

“Her voice and energy exudes warmth and excitement, which makes you feel welcome and safe,” says Abigail Taubman, a former camper and staff member.

“In countless ways, Tawonga has made me who I am today,” says Simon-Harris. “It was at Tawonga where I knew I wanted to be Jewish.”

Simon-Harris’ leadership catapulted Tawonga as a camping leader on issues such as gender inclusion and teen health education. Camps and other organizations look to Tawonga when considering their policies around teen sexuality and transgender campers.

“That is largely due to Jamie,” says Drummond.

Simon-Harris’ selection was part of a several years-long process, according to Drummond, who explained that the board had been working on a strategic plan to take the camp into its 100th year as an agency; the camp is 90 years old. During the process of shaping its strategic plan, current Executive Director, Ken Kramarz, who has been with the camp for 30 years, started a conversation about his desire to change his role.

“What culminated for the board was that we started mapping out what leadership change and leadership continuity would look like for our organization, in light of our strategic plan. We looked at leadership change from many angles both from within the not-for-profit sector and also how private organizations go through leadership transformation. As we mapped out the evolution of our agency along with the current and future role of our next executive, we began to realize that the right person was already within the agency,” says Drummond.

The board’s process is one that many organizations could learn from, according to Rebecca Meyer, who was appointed to replace Simon-Harris and was working at the camp under Simon-Harris during the strategic planning. Meyer called the process “thoughtful” and says she watched as they assessed what skills were needed for the job and what her predecessor had to offer, on the one hand, but also what the transition would look like – there will be a year-long overlap between Kramarz and Simon-Harris – and what the communication plan should be for announcing the news.

“Through the board’s thoughtful process, they secured the buy-in of key stakeholders. As a result, when it was announced that Jamie would be the next ED, this news was met with unanimous support from the community,” says Meyer.

“They decided to have this transition with overlap. And it is not just overlap with Ken, but the new camp director will overlap with me. In this way, I will be both learning and teaching. It’s very exciting,” notes Simon-Harris.

Working at a camp can be a desirable position, but there are fewer positions in camps than some other traditional Jewish communal professional roles – possibly because of a camp’s seasonal nature. For example, in December, there were eight camp management positions listed on, as opposed to 105 for administrative support and 127 for fundraising/development positions.

As part of its strategic plan, Camp Tawonga is expanding its programming to offer year-round and lifelong engagement opportunities for children and families. Beginning in 2017, the organization will launch a bar and bat mitzvah program, Kibbutz Tawonga for young adults in their 20s and 30s, and a 10-year multifaceted campus expansion to improve the camp’s property in Yosemite.

“Tawonga is a place where individuals can seek refuge from inequality, injustice and dependence on technology. … We strive every day for Tawonga to be a place where people can be who they are without judgement, where differences aren’t just tolerated but celebrated, and where everyone is welcome, says Simon-Harris. “As my husband and I raise our son, there is no doubt that Tawonga will be a teacher to him and that he will be better for it.”