Given the centrality of Shabbat celebration to the weekly cycle of Jewish residential camps, it is surprising how little Shabbat-at-camp has been studied. This participant observational study of three American Jewish residential camps has focused on how Shabbat-at-camp is created and how the ritual celebrations engage the older campers. This study found that when these camps encourage ritual innovation and invite their oldest campers to take leadership in ritual practice, the teens respond with great energy and dedication. Drawing a detailed portrait of these invented rituals, I argue that behind the carnival atmosphere lies a serious invitation to four distinct Jewish learning opportunities and a path to becoming leaders in their camp world.
“You can’t get enough of it” reflects what many alumni of residential Jewish summer camps feel about how Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, is celebrated at their summer camp. Some remember being caught up in the singing on a Friday night. Others remember the whole camp dressing in white or the community praying by the lake. Still others may simply remember the relaxed way they could stroll with their friends. Whatever the memory, there is a chorus of voices in the slim literature on Jewish camps that holds up Shabbat-at-camp as a special time, the source of warm, joyous Jewish memories.
This participant-observational study of Shabbat at three residential Jewish camps explores the first two of these questions: (a) how Shabbat-at-camp is created and (b) how the ritual aspects of the day actually engage the campers. The focus is on the oldest campers, who are being groomed for future camp leadership. How they engage with a set of Shabbat rituals and experience “leading” these moments mark a fascinating and untold story of how these camps prepare their oldest campers to take ownership of Shabbat celebration and, in some cases, become ritually innovative.
This research has been conducted at three well-established Jewish residential camps where I had confidence that the campers would be participating in robust communal Shabbat celebrations. These are URJ Eisner Camp, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and Camp Yavneh. While these camps are not representative of the entire range of American Jewish camps, my selection process was guided by a desire to observe the differences and similarities between Shabbat as celebrated in Reform, Conservative, and pluralistic camp settings.
This participant-observation study was conducted during the summers of 2015–2017.
These three camps are not representative of all residential Jewish camps in North America. I am not aiming for a representative picture (if such even exists). I want to capture the richness of these three camps and hope to show how Shabbat-at-camp is a remarkable reflection of the Judaism that each camp enacts. And while how the three camps observe Shabbat is of great educational significance, the focus of this study is on celebrating Shabbat. In focusing on how these camps celebrate Shabbat, I highlight how they structure the communal ritual activities to engage and educate their campers.
In contrast to those who have presented Shabbat-at-camp as an ideal day of celebration that campers and staff are meant to internalize, I have presented observational evidence that Shabbat-at-camp is a dynamic set of events that invite campers and staff to explore how they can invest traditional forms with new meanings. This exploration happens primarily through the invented Shabbat rituals in which older campers and their staff push the bounds of acceptable practice. When these camps encourage ritual innovation and invite their oldest campers to take leadership in ritual practice, the teens respond with great energy and dedication. The oldest campers seem eager to be ritual leaders when those rituals are performed at their energy levels and reflect their emerging sense of themselves as young Jews.
Some scholars may remain skeptical about the educational value of Shabbat-at-camp. Shabbat-at-camp can be seen as a carnival of fun that allows Jewish youth to enjoy bizarre celebrations while learning little about Shabbat that has relevance for their lives beyond camp. In response, this research has tried to find meaning behind the noise. These camp celebrations may be fun, but they are potentially much more. Shabbat-at-camp is carefully designed to provide campers with rich Jewish learning opportunities. By identifying four types of Jewish learning opportunities that Shabbat-at-camp provides, this research opens the possibility that these camp rituals can be seen as both engaging and educating campers.