Bubbes and bunkmates: Clashing secret weapons foster forever Jewish identity

April 10, 2020

Homepage Posts

In ways both similar and different, Jewish summer camp and Jewish bubbes create a space for kids to grow up feeling good about being Jewish.

The Jewish bubbe is fun, free, and a little twisted: She sees no harm in spoiling her grandkids with chocolate chip pancakes for dinner and television 24/7. Her justification is that she sees them so little, especially if she lives on the opposite coast or in another country.

As a pop-culture fixture, the Jewish grandmother might passively aggressively challenge her daughter or daughter-in-law’s parenting or cooking skills. On the other end of the spectrum is the liberated bubbe, who was super strict with her own kids. Now she’s the parental wildcard, who lives to spoil her first grandchild with reckless abandon. She might be like Andie Helfant-Frye, a New York hippie who survived Woodstock circa 1969, and can’t wait to tell her grandchild the whole story.

A box of Lucky Charms never crushed anyone’s soul. What remains is memories and bonding, stories shared, sprinkled with a mini-lecture on what it means to be a mensch.

Sleepovers with bubbes look completely different than a week or month at Jewish summer camp, but both build Jewish character. Other than homesickness, nothing about summer camp is fleeting. Camp lessons stick.

Sierra Lautman is the director of Jewish Innovation at UJFT and a former religious educator with deep knowledge of Jewish engagement and bubbe hangovers. “Summer camp and Judaism have a built-in opportunity for song. At camp, singing prayers before meals is a communal experience. It becomes a habit,” says Lautman. “Unlike religious school or any other setting, this communal Jewish experience is seamlessly woven into everyday life and is totally immersive. That muscle memory can deepen into mastery over Judaism, and that’s where passion is born. Once you master the basics and develop those habits, there’s an open invitation to go deeper.”

Experience as a religious educator and wife taught Lautman that Jewish summer camp is a powerful and sustainable game changer for all Jews. “It doesn’t matter how engaged you are Jewishly, or how strong your family’s Jewish identity is. Summer camp provides a magical opportunity to spark a connection with your Jewish roots, or ignite true passion.”

Thirteen summers as a counselor, program director, and archery specialist at the JCC summer camp in Pittsburgh made a profound impact on Steven Lautman. Now married to Sierra and living in Virginia Beach where they’re raising two children, Steven Lautman grew up celebrating holidays like Passover and Hanukkah, but basically went through childhood without religion in his life, despite living in Squirrel Hill, a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

Neither his Catholic mother, nor his Jewish father went to church or synagogue. It was his father’s mother who made arrangements for him to attend a Jewish pre-school. “I’ve always identified more with my Jewish roots, but without going to synagogue regularly or knowing the prayers, I felt like an outsider in the community,” he says. It wasn’t until he was 16, when he had his first job as a counselor at the JCC summer camp, that he was exposed to daily religious practices like singing the hamotzi before meals and snacks, or reciting Hatikvah. When that started to feel more natural, he felt more aligned with his Jewish side. “Before camp, my preference for a Jewish partner didn’t exist.

“Now, I see friends from high school who have these unbreakable bonds that were forged in summer camp,” he says. “It was camp that brought kids together who would not have otherwise connected, and it’s a powerful thing to see.”

Jewish camp is also a wide-open opportunity to discover myriad activities to enjoy forever. For older campers, leadership skills and friendships for life are the take-away.

“Unlike Jewish summer camp or school, a weekend with my mom is pure downtime,” says Sierra. “Aside from plying my kids with sugar, and lots of kisses, cartoons are also another big one my mother spoils them with.”
That permanent sense of belonging that develops in a religious camp experience is what Steve and Sierra want for their kids. “It’s a powerful thing to see. I kind of envy it,” says Steve. “Sierra and I are in different places when it comes to daily religious practice, and she definitely feels it more deeply than me, but we both wish we had the Jewish camp experience, and are both working to make sure our kids will.”

Letter to the Editor