A spectacular treehouse honors the life of ‘gentle giant’ Jonathan Bahm
A fitting tributeEmma Kaufmann Camp

A spectacular treehouse honors the life of ‘gentle giant’ Jonathan Bahm

Mason Solomon: Jonathan Bahm was a “pillar, literally in height, stature, but also in just the way he carried himself as an example that future staff members can look up to,”

Jonathan Bahm and campers at EKC in the summer of 2018 (Photo courtesy of Amy Bahm)
Jonathan Bahm and campers at EKC in the summer of 2018 (Photo courtesy of Amy Bahm)

When he was a counselor at Emma Kaufmann Camp, it wasn’t unusual for Jonathan Bahm to forfeit his time off if it meant being able to spend meaningful time with those in his charge.

“Jonathan was known by his friends at camp as someone who would make time for his campers, no questions asked,” said Aaron Cantor, the director of EKC, an overnight camp in Morgantown, West Virginia.

And it was the youngest campers — those in the camp’s Sabra unit, grades 2–4 — to whom Jonathan was most devoted.

Jonathan Bahm of Mt. Lebanon passed away last spring at the age of 23, a victim of an act of violence. To honor his memory, a spectacular structure was erected at a place he loved — EKC — for use by the campers and counselors who meant so much to him.

A view of the treehouse honoring the life of Jonathan Bahm (Photo by Aaron Cantor)
The structure — a treehouse of sorts measuring 20 feet by 32 feet, with a 30-foot bridge — was completed in April, and a private dedication ceremony will be held later this month.

Dubbed “Ha’Etz Natan” (“The Tree Gives”), the treehouse reflects the kind and generous nature of the man it honors.

“Natan is the root of Jonathan’s Hebrew name, Yonatan, and is a palindrome – spelled the same backwards and forwards,” a draft for the structure’s signage explains. “Much like the act of giving can work in both directions, when you give, you also receive.”

Everyone at EKC will be able to enjoy Ha’Etz Natan, but the Sabra campers will have first dibs.

“Jonathan always gravitated and worked at camp with the youngest kids,” said Amy Bahm, Jonathan’s mother. “He was sweet and nurturing.” Tall in stature, “kids climbed over him like a tree.”

Jonathan’s affinity for the Sabras can be traced to his own experiences as a first-time camper at EKC.

“When he was a Sabra camper, it was hard for him to go to camp,” his mother recalled. “He wasn’t super adventurous, but his counselors helped him feel comfortable. He grew up to be the person he was because of his Sabra counselors.”

Jonathan spent the next 12 summers at EKC, eventually becoming a beloved counselor there. Several of those summers were shared with his younger brothers, Bryan and Evan.

After Jonathan passed away, his family wanted to create a tribute in his memory that would benefit the whole camp, but especially the “littlest kids, to keep them coming back — to create something impactful enough to change the camp experience,” Amy Bahm said.

The structure is built into the trees, with a roof but no sides, and is situated within earshot of a waterfall.

Another view of the treehouse honoring the legacy of Jonathan Bahm (Photo by Aaron Cantor)
“Younger campers are the most vulnerable when they’re at camp,” Cantor said. “They need the most help in finding their love for camp, and so they tend to lean very hard on their counselors for that initial connection to camp. To be able to provide them this treehouse, a place where they can have a distinctive memory of spending good quality time with their counselors in their cabin groups, seems like the perfect way to honor Jonathan’s memory and love of camp.”

Ha’Etz Natan can be used for everything from camper overnights to staff training to lessons in Jewish values, Amy Bahm said. Mostly, it will be a spot where relationships are forged and cemented.

“Jonathan’s strength was that he was a connector,” said David Bahm, Jonathan’s father, adding that he was an anchor for his high school friends. “Everyone says, ‘Jonathan was my best friend.’”

Jonathan graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 2017, was a 2021 graduate of Chapman University’s School of Engineering and was an aspiring video game designer. In addition to his family, he left behind many close friends who loved and admired him.

Jonathan Bahm and friends at EKC in 2019, from left: Jacob Halbert, Ezra Gershanok, Jonathan Bahm, Leo Julian and Jonathan Levy (Photo courtesy of Amy Bahm)
“The way I would describe Jonathan is that he was just so, so sweet,” said Ezra Gershanok, who met him when they were both young campers at EKC. “Another word that comes to mind is ‘pure.’ There were moments where, you know, he just couldn’t even imagine things — like if we were taking food from the dining hall or something. It was like kind of naughty, but he just couldn’t even fathom doing something like that.”

Gershanok and other friends created a plaque that was unveiled during a memorial service at camp for Jonathan Bahm and Jonathan Levy — another EKC friend who passed away — depicting a child riding on Jonathan Bahm’s back.

“He was kind of like this gentle giant,” Gershanok said. “That’s the best way to describe him.”

“He was so sweet with the kids,” said Jacob Halbert, who also met Jonathan at EKC when they were both young campers. “The kids loved him. He was so natural with them. And he was a big guy but incredibly gentle and loving.”

One of Jonathan’s favorite things to do was to visit Disneyland, Halbert recalled.

“I have this great picture of us at Disney, and we didn’t even go inside to the park,” he said. “We literally just drove to Disney, we parked and we just walked around some of the shops on the outside, and just kind of enjoyed the Disney atmosphere. That was so him. He loved it.”

Mason Solomon met Jonathan about 10 years ago at EKC, and the two bonded while on a trip to Israel two years later. They spoke and texted almost daily. Solomon describes Jonathan as his “best friend.”

“He was caring, deeply caring,” Solomon said.

At camp, Jonathan was a “pillar, literally in height, stature, but also in just the way he carried himself as an example that future staff members can look up to,” Solomon said. “I was thinking about it, and it is like magical what he did at camp and how he operated. I can’t explain it … I think I’m good with kids, and then I look at Bahm with kids and it’s like, that’s a different level. I’m a preschool teacher and I think I operate pretty well, but he did even better.”

The new structure is an appropriate tribute, he said.

“It’s very fitting because, hopefully like the structure [will be], he was always there for these kids,” Solomon said. “He was unwavering.”

A sign will be posted inside the treehouse, celebrating Jonathan and his values, as an inspiration for future generations of EKC campers and counselors. It reads, in part:

“The trees that support this treehouse represent both Jonathan’s physical presence and his character… Sabra campers would climb on his long limbs, and he happily carried them around with pride and a huge smile on his face …The roots he developed at camp ran deep, giving him the foundation to be himself and to branch off to follow his dreams.”

Funding for the structure was provided by Jonathan’s loved ones, friends and the EKC community. “Their hope,” the sign reads, “is that this treehouse provides for generations of staff and campers what EKC provided for Jonathan – connection, personal growth, fun, happiness, and peace.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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