Serious Fun at a Jewish Summer Camp

Camp Ben Frankel, a community-based Jewish summer camp, plays a pivotal role in the social development of young Jews and their culture, faith, relationships, community, and identity.

McMaster Researcher


Rothenberg, C. E. (2016). Serious Fun at a Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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What is this research about?

This close examination of Camp Ben Frankel (CBF), a community-based Jewish summer camp in Southern Illinois, addresses the overarching question: “Why is attending a Jewish summer camp such a deeply meaningful experience for most campers?” 
Examined as a “liminal” cultural space, this study of CBF emphasizes the subjective aspects of the summer camp experience. Liminal spaces are locations that exist outside of the normal boundaries of one’s daily life, allowing for deeply meaningful and powerful experiences of friendship and community. Located far from campers’ normal lives both geographically and culturally, camp is a markedly distinctive experience for campers. Camp does not allow electronics or offer WiFi; children are housed with agemates rather than family members; meals are communal; and, there is limited personal space. Campers are themselves liminal in the sense that while attending CBF they are no longer defined by their immediate families, their school or friends, their physical abilities, or their parents’ economic status. 
This book discusses three main themes: first, the various means and techniques of Camp’s creation of the experience of Jewish “family” for campers; second, camp’s changing emphases since its founding in 1950  until the present time to teach campers about what it means to be Jewish and, third, about the relevance of Israel.

What did the researchers do?

The primary source of data for this study comes from ethnographic fieldwork (i.e. participant observation) at the camp and an examination of the camp’s history based on the local area’s newspapers and archived camp documents. Several questions are addressed:

  • Why is it significant for campers to be part of a large, extended, Jewish family?
  • How is Judaism itself experienced and taught at the liminal locale of summer camp, far from the family, classroom, synagogue, Hebrew school, and Sunday school?
  • How, and in what ways, does Israel enter into this liminal location?

To collect data, the researcher observed and participated in various activities at CBF over three summers, including staying at a lodge down the street from the camp, eating meals at CBF, attending activities and prayer services, and watching evening programs. Formal interviews and informal discussions were conducted with all senior camp staff and some counsellors over the age of 18.
The ethnography was further supplemented through a search of the Southern Illinois Jewish Community News (SIJCN), microfilms available from local area newspapers, Facebook blog posts made by CBF staff, camp yearbooks, and odds and ends relating to the camp’s mission. Finally, a survey, with over 100 respondents, was conducted and limited to CBF alumni and counsellors older than 18.

What did the researchers find?

The close examination of CBF’s history and present reflects on a changing social world. Key themes are uncovered:

  • CBF provides an opportunity to understand the history and future of small-town Jewish life in the American Midwest;
  • The camp, while separated from American Jewish centers, is intensely connected to national and global dimensions of Jewish life;
  • The study of CBF questions the conventional wisdom that American Jews are united by Israel;
  • Jewish summer camps as liminal locations  allow for alternative constructions of Judaism and Jewish family life than those found in daily life;
  • As a liminal space CBF creates an ideal opportunity for intense social bonding within uniquely constructed communities;
  • CBF alumni reflect positively on their experiences at the camp, emphasizing that American Jews will be held together by experiences and memories from the camp.

How can you use this research?

This research highlights the importance of focusing on both the experiences and outcomes of attending Jewish summer camps, and may also be used to spark discussion surrounding participation in summer camps more generally.

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