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). [End Page 414]
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). Her contextualization of CBF within its specific social geography is also a major boon to her work.
However, Rothenberg also makes some side claims that detract from the weight of the book overall. In one example, she observes how the camp’s “Israel-lite” programming “calls into question the applicability of the conventional wisdom that the ‘civil religion’ of American Jews still centers on Israel,” CBF’s more recent Israel-lite offering an example of “a Jewish pathway that may be useful in an era when many young adult Jews are shying away from formal Jewish movement affiliations and Israeli politics” (103). The claim warrants further investigation but is not connected to the stated goals of the book. Such additional arguments may be owed to the fact that as a CBF alumna, for whom the study felt “like a return home,” Rothenberg aimed to accomplish too much (19). The combination of observational ethnography, conducted mainly in summer 2012, interviews with twenty alumni and some staff, and ample historical research leads to fuzzy boundaries between the memories of one generation and the current experience of another. Furthermore, her relationship to the camp—as an alum, a camp parent, and the children of alumni—requires a more detailed discussion. As is [End Page 415] common in anthropology, it would have been appropriate to describe how her position affected both her access to and reading of...