Beloved Berkeley High graduate Eli Kane, right, pictured with brother Jesse, died July 15 in a drowning incident.
Beloved Berkeley High graduate Eli Kane, right, pictured with brother Jesse, died July 15 in a drowning incident. Courtesy: Kane family

When Berkeley brothers Eli and Jesse Kane went to sleepaway camp near Yosemite several summers ago, the older Eli devised a system to treat his younger sibling’s homesickness. 

Eli made up a “bird call” for Jesse, and told him to shout it out during their daily “rest hour” if he needed support. Eli would recognize the call as a sign to meet his brother in the bathroom and hug him, giving him the strength to go enjoy the rest of the afternoon. 

Even at age 12 “he knew what someone needed,” said his mother Nancy Kane. “He was an observer of people. He really saw you.” 

Eli, now 20, was working as a counselor at that same camp, Tawonga, when on July 15, he spent his day off at a popular swimming spot along the Tuolumne River with several friends. He drowned there, and despite attempts by his friends to administer CPR, was pronounced dead at the scene when emergency responders arrived. 

In the days since the tragedy, his family has received an endless flow of visitors whose lives Eli touched, from a preschool teacher to 50 or so University of Michigan classmates who flew in from all over the country. 

“It was almost like every single person who crossed paths with him” was deeply touched by him, said Nancy. She and husband Scott Kane, Eli’s father, spoke with Berkeleyside at their North Berkeley home Tuesday. 

Eli Kane was passionate about soccer his whole life, leading the Berkeley High team to victory in the NCS championship.
Eli Kane was passionate about soccer his whole life, and served as captain of the champion Berkeley High varsity team. Courtesy: Kane family

I knew Eli and Jesse when they were young children, as their occasional babysitter, roughly between the years of 2005 and 2010. I also attended Camp Tawonga during a similar time period. I had not been in communication with the family in around eight years before interviewing them for this article. 

Eli built the “almost cult following” that showed up in Berkeley this past week through a natural “confidence and swagger,” said college friend Jaden Katz. It was a self-assuredness that rubbed off on those in his circle. “I’m a much better, kinder, and stronger person because of Eli. His positivity made me much more accepting of who I am,” she said.  

“He was so incredibly empathetic, with every single person,” said friend Jack Ferris, who grew up with Eli in Berkeley. “Any problem that another person would get annoyed at, he just understood.” 

But “he also wasn’t afraid to call people on their bullshit,” holding his loved ones to high standards and teaching them how to be better people, said friend Seth Pierson. 

Eli’s tight-knit family is devastated. Eli was born with a ventricular septal defect, a congenital heart condition that Scott said is an apt metaphor for how the family is feeling now. “He was born with a hole in his heart. It closed and he grew up to be such a big-hearted person,” he said. “Now he’s left us with a hole.”

Soccer champion and rom-com lover

A tight-knit group of Berkeley friends has suffered two devastating losses this year. From left: Kinlay Watkins, Eli Kane, Jack Ferris, Seth Pierson, and Ross Schultz, who died in May.
A tight-knit group of Berkeley friends has suffered two devastating losses this year. From left: Kinlay Watkins, Eli Kane, Jack Ferris, Seth Pierson, and Ross Schultz, who died in May. Courtesy: Kane family

Eli thrived in leadership roles. Friends said he was the “decision-maker” of the group. At his fraternity, he’d burst into each room every morning, the first to greet the brothers. Eli was captain of multiple soccer teams, including Berkeley High’s varsity team in 2018-19, when it won the North Coast Section championship. He made the University of Michigan’s prestigious club soccer team as a freshman too.

While Eli was the BHS team’s “best player,” his closest friends on the team valued the relationship they were able to build off the field more than their time playing together, said Pierson. Eli, Pierson, Ferris, Kinlay Watkins, and Ross Schultz were all soccer teammates and a close group of five best friends who all graduated from Berkeley High in 2019.

Eli Kane as a child in Berkeley.
Eli Kane as a child in Berkeley. Courtesy: Kane family

“The relationship we had was not of a typical male friend group,” said Ferris. “We’re a lot more emotional and affectionate. We cuddle all the time.”

And as much as he could seem like a “cool jock,” Eli “was also addicted to tea and rom-coms,” said Nancy. 

The soccer team and the group of five friends, in particular, suffered a devastating loss in May when Schultz died with his girlfriend and Berkeley High classmate Dixie Lewis in a car crash near Truckee. Now a community already reeling from those losses is confronting another unexpected death just over a month later. 

Two other recent Berkeley High graduates — Kerry Reid, class of 2020, and Aidan Price, class of 2019 — died this summer as well.

“The Berkeley High School community is deeply saddened by the passing of Eli Kane,” said Principal Juan Raygoza in an emailed statement. “We will miss Eli dearly, and our hearts go out to his family and friends at this moment.” The school said counseling is available for grieving students. 

The three friends left in Eli’s group said they’re struggling to process his death without the person they always turned to for help and wisdom.

“We feel broken — it’s a physical pain,” said Ferris, who also worked at Tawonga this summer. “It’s still true from Ross, and now from Eli. Eli was the only person who could make it feel better, and now he’s not here to do that.”

“He taught us how to grieve”

Next to the soccer field, camp was Eli’s favorite place. Tawonga is a 95-year-old Jewish camp located next to Yosemite, and Eli spent summers there as a camper and counselor.

“He was the counselor that every other counselor wanted to be paired with and that every kid wanted to have,” said Executive Director Jamie Simon. “He was able to balance being gentle and kind and being fun and dynamic.”

Eli (left) and Jesse Kane, as children.
Eli (left) and Jesse Kane, as children, wearing Camp Tawonga gear. Courtesy: Kane family

Eli had to work on his own sort of balance this summer, struggling to fully enjoy camp while mourning Schultz. He began meeting regularly with Simon to process his grief. Years after developing a support system for his homesick brother, he came up with a structure for himself. 

He told Simon, “I spend a little time every day grieving, and a lot of time every day leaning into joy.” 

After Eli died, Simon relayed his method to his father. “Even in his death, he taught us how to grieve,” Scott said.

Simon said the spot on the Tuolumne River where Eli died, Atlantis, is a popular destination for counselors, but campers aren’t taken there. 

“Details surrounding the incident are still unclear,” Tuolumne County Deputy Sheriff Niccoli Sandelin said in an email. Eli’s parents said they were told by camp staff who were there that Eli had swum by a waterfall and gotten stuck underwater for 30 minutes. The currents were too strong for his friends to reach him, but eventually another counselor lowered himself down with a rope, retrieving Eli before the rescue crew arrived.

Sandelin did not answer multiple questions about whether there have been other recent drownings at Atlantis.

Eli’s brother was his best friend

The Kane family on vacation. From left: Eli, Scott, Jesse, Nancy.
The Kane family on vacation. From left: Eli, Scott, Jesse, Nancy. Courtesy: Kane family

Eli’s remarkable relationship with his brother came up constantly in interviews. 

“He was the best big brother,” said Scott. “Jesse was the most important person in his life.’

In a 6th-grade get-to-know-you assignment, Eli was asked to write about the best thing that happened to him. “Obviously my brother being born was the best,” he answered. 

When Jesse was accepted to UCLA this spring, “I’ve never seen him more proud of anything,” said Katz. 

While away at college and camp, Eli called his brother and parents often, sharing observations, accomplishments, and fears. “As parents, what you want is to be invited in,” and Eli did that, Nancy said. 

In that same middle school assignment, students were prompted to tell their teachers “important things about yourself.”

“I love school, I love my friends, I love sports, I love my family,” Eli wrote. “But most of all I love life.” 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...