Serious Fun at a Jewish Community Summer Camp

Family, Judaism, and Israel

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Celia E. Rothenberg
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , July
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Summer camp in the United States has captured the interests of a number of cultural historians beginning in the early twenty-first century. Their work on children, space, and leisure, and how the nation’s racial hierarchy shaped these camps provides a strong foundation for a growing scholarly interest in youth and childhood.

Scholars of Jewish summer camps have been among the few to pay attention to the “religious” dimension of residential camps, despite their centrality to American camping. The great variety of “educational” Jewish summer camps reflects the diversity of American Jewish culture(s). Some of them—whether they were communist or socialist Yiddish culture camps, or socialist Zionist ones—do not engage Judaism in a conventional, religious sense. However, the majority of Jewish camps—from the inter-war period to the present—do.

Celia Rothenberg, an anthropologist, combines methods of ethnography, survey, and history to tell the story of Camp Ben Franklin [CBF], a community-based, cross- denominational Jewish camp in Serious Fun at Jewish Summer Camps. CBF campers are drawn from small towns with very small Jewish population from Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri, and Western Kentucky, as well as from the greater St. Louis Area. Since 1950—with the exception of the very early years—the camp has enrolled betwen 60-to-90 campers, with occasional years attracting somewhat higher or lower numbers. While most other Jewish summer camps are associated with a religious, political, or cultural movement, CBF is relatively unique in that its campers are small town Jews, and communal philanthropy—the area’s Federation—provides modest financial sponsorship for it.

Rothenberg’s aim is to explain what makes this camp effective as it exercises, what she terms “cultural labor,” in order to build on and reshape key aspects of American Jewish life. She focuses on the idea of the Jewish family, Zionism and religion. She does an excellent job of analyzing how the experience of small town Jews is central to the ways in which the camp creates a Jewish world. Rothenberg demonstrates that these campers bring  experiences and perspectives different from the young Jews who grow up in urban areas, where they are far less of a minority. Her research reveals, for example, that the camp’s pluralistic approach to Judaism is, in part, the result of the fact that smaller towns are, by necessity, more tolerant given that they can rarely afford to exclude Jews, even the ones with whom they might disagree about Jewish law. This tolerance is present among the Orthodox campers as well as those with virtually no religious background.

Rothenberg is most effective as the ethnographer with a strong grounding in the history of the region and the camp. She walks the reader through the life of the camp with a light, and sometimes, elegant touch. She analyzes visual culture, key themes selected for programming, and ideas central to the camp. From her survey of alumni she learns what has been most effective for former campers, and explains why that happened. She is particularly effective in analyzing the camp’s “soundscape.” She describes the transformative work of the staff member who shaped CBF around music and dance. This staff member’s teaching of songs in multiple languages for myriad occasions, as well as dance, created a remarkable environment that lent emotion and meaning to every part of the day. This feature of the camp was extremely effective in socializing campers, and transmitting ideas and feelings about Judaism and Jewish life. It is the aural link between campers and Jewish life that works effectively, if not more so, then any other feature of camp.

Paradoxically, Rothenberg’s historicizing of the camp experience is both its strength and its weakness. Her discussion of Zionism at camp is an important contribution to the study of American Jewry, as well as to the literature on Jewish youth. She demonstrates that, over time, the camp began to adopt a “Zionism-lite” approach that moved campers further from a pedagogy that sought to link campers to the centrality of Zionism in all of Jewish life. They no longer learn about the history of Zionism, or its historical significance for Jewish life. Rothenberg argues that even the representatives from Israel who work at the summer camp have begun to emphasize that Israel and the United States share a common consumerist culture, rather than emphasizing the uniqueness of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people—let alone encouraging them to move to Israel. Both Israeli and American politics and culture have transformed this once-central aspect of camp life.

However, Rothenberg overplays the difference between the ideology shaping Camp Ben Franklin and the rest of American Judaism and Jews by insufficiently providing the context for contemporary Jewish life. She draws on scholarly literature to drive a point that feels out-of-date after even a decade, let alone to Charles Liebman’s 1971 concept of a folk Judaism. The American Jewish world of the 1970s, or even the early twenty-first century with regards to Israel, has little in common with American Jews of the last few years. The deep polarization among American Jews on this issue, and the indifference of Jews under the age of 40 to Israel itself add up to a world that looks far more like this camp, than a unified vision of an ethnic American Jewish culture. Rather than CBF providing a contemporary counterpoint to Jewish life, it embodies that counterpoint for a significant portion of the American Jewish world.

The superimposition of ideas, often dated, about the nature of the Jewish family or Zionism over her very interesting account of the culture of Camp Ben Franklin does not overwhelmingly detract from the value of this study. Summer camps reveal a remarkable amount, both in how these cultural spheres operate, and about the historical processes that create them. Rothenberg’s ethnographic foray offers a glimpse into a specific time and place that is more reflective of substantial changes in American Jewish culture than she allows herself to suggest.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Riv-Ellen Prell is professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celia E. Rothenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University.


Celia Rothenberg

I am appreciative of Professor Prell's review of my ethnography. 

Here are a few corrections, however, to her interesting review: 

The name of the camp is Camp Ben Frankel, not Franklin.

The title of the book is Serious Fun at a Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel,  not Serious Fun at Jewish Summer Camps.

I do not use the term "Zionism-lite" anywhere in the text, but rather the term Israel-lite. 

Finally, Professor Prell argues," Rather than CBF providing a contemporary counterpoint to Jewish life, it embodies that counterpoint for a significant portion of the American Jewish world."  This point is, in fact, exactly what I argue; for example: "In sync with the broader currents shaping the ways in which young American Jews related to Israel, CBF [etc]. . . " (pg. 88). 




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