Q&A with Toni
Written by: Toni Davison Levenberg
As the sun rises higher and the days grow longer, there is a certain sense of anticipation in the air as another summer at Interlaken approaches. With it comes the promise of boundless adventures and unforgettable memories. It’s also a milestone summer for Toni Davison Levenberg, our Executive Director, as she walks into her 18th (chai) summer as a director at Camp Interlaken! As Toni and the rest of the CIL team make their final preparations for a season filled with excitement, growth, and endless possibilities, we thought it would be fun to do a Q&A with Toni!
As you’ve been preparing for summer 2023, what’s been your focus?
Making sure that every camper who wants to attend Camp Interlaken gets to join us has always been a top priority for me. This year, more than ever, families need financial assistance to be able to send their children to camp. The focus of our B’nai He-Atid Annual Campaign has been to raise funds that support camp scholarships. To date, we’ve awarded more than $130,000 in scholarships, and we expect to distribute even more before the summer begins. I am so proud of the commitment of our community to enable every camper to attend camp this summer, regardless of their financial circumstances. This support embodies our camp values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Kehillah (community), and Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh (all are responsible for one another).
You didn’t go to Interlaken as a camper, and you’re not from Milwaukee – how did you end up here?
It’s a long story – I’ll try to keep it short! I grew up at a JCC overnight camp in Philadelphia called Arthur-Reeta. In college, when I wanted to work at camp, the camp was sold, so I needed to find a new camp to call home. Being a JCC kid, I made my way to Camp CHI in Wisconsin (the Chicago JCC overnight camp), where I spent the summer as a counselor. Due to college classes and an internship (side note: internships always seem to get in the way for the best camp counselors!), I was unable to return until I found myself with an opportunity to take a summer leave of absence from my software engineering job when I was 23. So, I made my way back to CHI to be part of the leadership team. After that summer, I knew that I was on the wrong path professionally and I wanted to figure out how I could work full-time in Jewish camping. Shortly after that summer, my company folded after 9/11 and Camp CHI offered me a full-time position to move to Chicago and help run the retreat center at CHI. I knew this opportunity would get my foot in the door to Jewish camping and I had to take this opportunity! After two years, I had an opportunity to be the Assistant Director of a camp for inner-city Chicago youth. Another two years later, I learned that the Assistant Director position at Interlaken was open. I applied, moved to Milwaukee, quickly found a family in the community, fell in love with Camp Interlaken and the J, and that brings us to today!
You’ve spent time at many camps; what makes Camp Interlaken so special?
Our community truly is a family. Everybody knows everybody, and it doesn’t matter when you went to Interlaken or if you overlapped with others who went to Interlaken – everybody considers you family. Also, our campers and staff have such deep love and respect for our camp and our community, and they truly carry themselves in a way that reflects the way they feel about camp. I feel so lucky to be at the helm of such a beautiful and special community.
What’s the funniest thing someone has said to you about your career at Camp Interlaken?
My first couple of summers at Interlaken, we were just starting to regularly post photos online. I love photography, and I always had my camera on me so I could snap some great photos to add to our lot of mediocre pictures. A staff alum – who had been a camper in my first few summers – told me when she was on staff that she had always admired my promotion from Camp Photographer to Camp Director. I laughed and shared with her that I was actually the Assistant Camp Director at the time. She and I laughed about that for many years!
As you’re getting ready for each summer, what is the one thing you most look forward to?
That’s a hard question – there are so many things! Starting at the very beginning, I am always so excited for Staff Orientation; I love spending time with our staff getting to know them, imparting our vision for the summer, and working together with an amazing army of people to bring Camp Interlaken to life for our campers. They arrive incrementally, starting with our leadership team; a few days later our international staff arrives; a few days after that, the rest of the summer team arrives. I love watching them when they arrive at camp – with excitement, trepidation for the summer, happiness to be home, nervousness to be new, and then as the week progresses, everybody becomes a family. It’s a pretty amazing thing to experience!
What is your favorite campfire song?
I’m going to go with Olam Chesed Yibaneh. It’s a fairly new song (within the last 10 years or so), but I love the message and it’s easy to sing along with. The song means the following: I will build this world from love; You can build this world from love; and, if we build this world from love, then God will build this world from love. We have this staff tradition where the staff gather around the campfire at the end of the session while the Ozrim take their campers back to the cabin, and we sing a few songs together as we remind everyone of the schedule for the next 12 hours. When our voices come together to sing Valerie or I Will Follow You Into the Dark, those are truly special moments that I will never forget. Outside of a traditional Interlaken opening or closing campfire, I love all the best campfire folk songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary; Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Harry Chapin, and the Indigo Girls to name a few.
What’s one activity you hope to do this summer?
I am so excited about this! Every Saturday, for a “Shabboption,” Diane Boland and I lead a group to explore the local bike paths. With limited time, we typically ride about 12 miles total, and the group that joins us loves it and always asks for more! One day last summer, Diane and I drove next to the bike path in the Northwoods to map out a camper bike trip experience. Because of the Covid-19 outbreak at camp in the past week, we were never able to take this bike trip, so we are really excited to do it this summer! We’re going to invite 8th-10th grade campers to join us for a 30-mile bike trip from Boulder Junction to St. Germain. We’re going to make it happen, and we hope to incorporate more cycling into camp in the future!
What is something you love to do at camp that nobody would guess (unless they’re at camp with you?)
Hmm…this one is tied! I love spending time on the basketball court. Anytime I feel like I need a break from the office or I’m feeling tired, campers and staff can find me shooting hoops! I also LOVE DJing at the Silent Disco. If you ask our campers and staff what my favorite evening program is, they’ll probably tell you it’s the Silent Disco! I always run on the red channel, and I start working on my playlist in the spring!
Imagine – it’s the first day of camp at the opening campfire. What’s your wish for summer 2023?
My wish for the summer is to create an unforgettable and transformative experience for every person who walks through our gates. I wish for our camp to be a place where each person can grow, explore, and discover themselves in a safe and nurturing environment. I wish for our campers to form lifelong friendships, develop essential life skills, and gain confidence in themselves. I hope that they can try new activities, challenge themselves, and embrace the joy of learning through hands-on experiences. I wish for our staff members to be passionate, dedicated, and inspiring role models for our campers. I hope that they can develop their leadership skills, create meaningful connections with the campers, and find joy in making a positive impact on young lives. I wish for the summer to be filled with laughter, adventure, and cherished memories. I hope that our campers and staff leave with a sense of accomplishment, resilience, and a renewed love for nature and the outdoors.