Limud by the Lake Revisited: Growth and Change at Jewish Summer Camp

From Section:
Informal Education
Mar. 10, 2011

Source: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies 


This report follows up on the seminal study of Jewish camps, Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Potential of Jewish Summer Camps and the subsequent book, “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. This report presents the results of a summer 2008 study of Jewish summer camps. It describes changes in the field over the previous eight years and presents new data on the families and staff that comprise the camp community. It concludes with a set of questions about the future of the field and five recommendations for expanding and deepening the Jewish summer camp experience.



Limud by the Lake Revisited is a multi-method study. Based on data gathered from a variety of sources, the research examines the camp experience from different perspectives. It is also a longitudinal study. To the extent similar measurements were used, 2008 findings are compared with those from 2000 to assess changes over time.


Background to the Current Study


In 2000, The AVI CHAI Foundation asked the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to undertake a study of Jewish summer camp that would map the landscape of Jewish residential camps, describe the types of camp experiences available, and explore how these camps socialize young people as members of the Jewish community. The foundation insisted that the research be practical. It should not only describe the current status but also point to what could and should be done to help camps fulfill an educational mission.

The study was based on an inventory of the field, observations at 18 camps in summer 2000, and a survey of staff at these same camps the following summer. Findings were first presented in a policy report (Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Educational Potential of Jewish Summer Camps, 2002) with seven recommendations:

  1. Expand the reach of Jewish camping.
  2. Make camp a model of Jewish education.
  3. Prepare directors to enhance Jewish life at camp.
  4.  Focus on Jewish staff as a target group in their own right.
  5. Bring more Jewish counselors to camp.
  6. Provide the training and support counselors need to advance on their personal Jewish journeys and flourish in their work as Jewish role models.
  7. Conduct research to inform the field of Jewish camping and ground its future development in reliable information.

This report was followed by a seminal book on Jewish summer camps, “How Goodly Are They Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (2004).

Eight years after our first foray into the camp world, the foundation asked us to return to camp to examine how much progress had been made in these areas and what lay ahead for the field. In some regards, the follow-up study is a replication of the original work, as it includes a participant observation study and a survey of staff at most of the same camps we studied in 2000-2001. During the course of our site visits, we spoke with nearly 500 informants at all levels in the camp system—executive directors, directors, assistant directors, unit heads, specialists, bunk counselors, and shlichim (Israeli emissaries). It also includes additional data collection and analysis: a survey of families who send their children to these camps; a survey of families who could send their children to these camps but do not; an analysis of data from Foundation for Jewish Camp’s annual census of the field (a descendent of the inventory we established in 2000); and a re-analysis of data from applicants to Taglit-Birthright Israel, both those who have been to a Jewish summer camp and those who have not.

Among Study Findings:

  • In many regards, the campers in our study are Jewish "elites." A majority are receiving Jewish education during the school year and have a connection to Israel. Their parents are members of a congregation and are themselves products of Jewish education.
  • Most parents say that the camp is more Jewishly observant than their home. The decision to send the child back the following summer is not influenced by the camp's level of observance but by whether or not this level of observance is what they want for their child.
  • Two-thirds of the staff have a strong connection to Jewish traditions and customs and to Israel, far greater than the percentage among the broader population.
  • The Jewish young adults who work at camp place highest value on their friendships and their intellectual lives. Lowest ratings go to physical fitness and social activism.
  • For the Israelis, the strongest feelings evoked by camp are a sense of pride in being Israeli, serving their country, and being Jewish. Indeed, 86% said that their summer at camp "very much" made them feel proud to be Israeli.

From the report:

"The data are incontrovertible: Camp is a great source of Jewish friendships. But it is not just a numbers game. Camp friendships are special. They are born of intensive living together over weeks or months, in an isolated youth community, apart from the outside world and all of its distractions. The bonding among camp friends can be profound. Asked what their child took away from camp, close to 2,500 parents wrote about how much their children love camp, how eager they are to return. They wrote about social and personal development, skills learning, and Jewish learning and experiences. In all of the data and lists of gains from camp, one constant stands out; namely, the centrality of friendships to the camp experience. Camp creates friendships and it is these friendships that determine whether or not campers and staff will return, not just after the first year but in each succeeding year, as well. Camps will do well to remember that fun and friendships are Job #1."

Updated: Feb. 07, 2017
Camps | Informal education | Research