Academic journal article American Jewish History

Serious Fun at Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Serious Fun at Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel

Article excerpt

Serious Fun at Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel. By Celia E. Rothenberg. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. ix + 144 pages.

Historians, anthropologists, and education scholars alike have long explored the history and character of American Jewish summer camps. Demographers have performed myriad studies, often with the support of Jewish philanthropists, analyzing camps' effectiveness as incubators of Jewish identification and affiliation. Most studies on Jewish camping have focused on denominational and Zionist organization-affiliated camps, which draw from populous Jewish communities, leaving community camps serving Jews from rural areas largely out of the picture.

Celia E. Rothenberg's Serious Fun at Jewish Community Summer Camp: Family, Judaism, and Israel contributes to this literature by providing a detailed ethnography of a pluralistic, communal, local Jewish Federation-sponsored summer camp in Southern Illinois: Camp Ben Frankel (CBF). Rothenberg's stated objective is to explain why attending Jewish summer camp "is such a deeply meaningful experience for most campers, powerfully remembered by them as adults, scrutinized by researchers, and invested in--financially, emotionally ... by so many" through the example of CBF, a camp serving children mainly from small towns in Southern Illinois, Southeastern Missouri, and Western Kentucky. Rothenberg simultaneously seeks to evaluate the camp's "cultural labor" toward its overarching goal that "nothing Jewish should be unfamiliar" and to uncover how and what alumni remember about their time at CBF (1).

The first chapter explains the foundational years of CBF, describing its leaders, early influences, and a short history of Jewish camping. In Chapter Two, Rothenberg analyzes campers' experiences of "family connection with one another and with Jewish song," a connection achieved through enduring cultural practices (58). In Chapter Three, Rothenberg examines "camp religion" and argued that CBF's "enduring and changing emphasis on what constitutes meaningful Jewishness ... allows us to theorize, historicize, and develop nuances in our understanding" of the "powerful experience" of Judaism at camps (59). In Chapter Four, Rothenberg describes the nature of Israel-centered and Zionist education at CBF, explaining that while camp religion has always promoted "love" for Israel, CBF's approach shifted over the decades from a historicized and politicized Zionism to an "Israel-lite ... romanticized [and] depoliticized" approach (90-91).

Rothenberg successfully utilizes CBF to shed light on broader trends in American Jewish history and current life, and on Jewish camping more specifically. Yet the book's strength lies much more in its expansion of scholarly understandings of the "peripheral" Jewish experience, a subject all too often missing from studies of American Jewry. In her chapter on spirituality at camp, furthermore, Rothenberg makes insightful connections between the concepts of folk religion and CBF's specific "camp religion," characterized as pluralistic or, in her words, "Reconformadox," a mixture of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism (4). …

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