Camp Ben Frankel taps camp alum as new director

Aaron Hadley is the new director of Camp Ben Frankel in Southern Illinois.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Camp Ben Frankel, a Jewish overnight summer program in Southern Illinois, has hired a new director who is charged with revitalizing an organization facing financial difficulties. 

Aaron Hadley will lead the camp and its parent organization, Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Kentucky. That area has experienced a decline in the number of Jewish families. 

The future of the camp, which at a capacity of 100 campers is relatively small, will depend in part on how well Hadley is able to fundraise among fellow alumni, he and others say. 

“I’m excited to do a lot of listening to our camp community to understand all the great things that are going right and to preserve those things, while also listening to their ideas for new programs,” said Hadley, who spent 11 years as a camper and counselor at Ben Frankel. 

The camp, founded in 1949, has had steady enrollment of around 75 to 80 campers in recent years, but the amount of money donated to the Federation, which sponsors the camp, has decreased significantly. In 1985, Federation had a budget of around $600,000, according to Phil Cohn, who is on the board of Ben Frankel and Federation, but that amount had decreased to $150,000 by 2016. He estimated there are also only about 60 Jewish families in Southern Illinois, but campers also come from the St. Louis area and other parts of Missouri as well as from Kentucky and other nearby states. 

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“There aren’t a lot of Jews in Southern Illinois but there are still enough where we should be more proactive in fundraising, and there are still alumni who are very interested in Ben Frankel’s survival,” said Cohn, who lives in Indianapolis. “The way Ben Frankel survives is by making sure Federation survives.”

Hadley replaces Rick Kodner, who spent six years as director of the camp and Federation. The new director has deep ties to the camp. His mother and her siblings were also campers and he met his best friends at the camp, located in Makanda, Ill., south of Carbondale. Hadley once attended a wedding where he, the groom and the other groomsmen had all been in the same cabin at Ben Frankel.

“Camp Ben Frankel for me was a transformative experience. I know how powerful it is, and it remains as powerful as when I was a kid,” said Hadley, 40. He described it as a place for Jewish “youth to learn leadership and inform their Jewish identity and to learn about and support Israel.”

Hadley also worked as director of operations at Imerman Angels, an organization that works to build connections among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers, and as chief operations officer at Camp Kesem, which runs free summer camps for children affected by a parent’s cancer. 

“There is something magical about the campfire and the guitars and the outdoors at camp,” Hadley said. He plans to establish a parent committee and to try and build engagement among alumni.

Cohn said he was excited about the hire in part because Hadley “came from our farm system.”

He said that while the number of Jewish families in the area has decreased, there are still alumni spread around the world who can help the camp. Locally, a number of the big local donors have died in recent years. In addition to the camp, Cohn hopes that Hadley will be able to build programming for the small Jewish communities in the three states. 

“He’s going to give life to us; he’s going to give youth to us,” said Cohn, 54. “One thing that I am so excited about is Aaron, being a direct product of Ben Frankel, has learned and taken away from Ben Frankel all of those positive attributes, and he will be able to” pass those “onto future generations.”