Jewish overnight camp can be a magical experience; it’s an institution that allows kids to develop confidence, independence and a sense of self, while building a supportive, safe and inclusive community that in many cases, lasts a lifetime. For so many Jewish sleep away camp veterans, camp is the place where they first felt they truly “belonged.”
But what if you added an extra dose of magic to the camp algorithm: Grandparents?
Bubbie Zaydie Family Camp was started at Tamarack Camps in Ortonville, Michigan 30 years ago, with the goal of giving grandparents and grandchildren a chance to enjoy a Shabbat weekend of fun activities together in a beautiful camp setting, while also fostering bonds amongst the grandparent cohort.
Helayne Shaw, Director of Family Camping at Tamarack, runs eight Bubbie Zaydie camp weekends a summer. The program is so popular, Shaw said, that registration has to be held by lottery: this year, they were sold out, with wait lists for all weekends at the lottery’s conclusion.
Each weekend averages about 85 people in total, with many grandparents bringing multiple grandchildren at once.
Child attendees at Bubbie Zaydie camp are generally aged 4 to 12. Most families attending camp, Shaw said, are composed of Michigan-residing grandparents who have grandchildren that live further afield. Coming together for a weekend of Bubbie Zaydie camp allows families that may not see each other regularly to strengthen bonds and enjoy Shabbat with a community of friends.
“Other than FaceTime, the cousins don’t see each other all year,” said Bev Tepper, who will attend her seventh Bubbie Zaydie camp weekend this summer. “Our Bubbie Zaydie weekend is not only a tradition for the eight grandchildren to have quality time together and with us, but it gives their parents — my three children and their spouses –quality time together,” Tepper said.
A weekend of Bubbie Zaydie camp is action-packed. Families arrive in the afternoon on Friday and after getting settled, embark on their choice of activity, whether it’s fishing or sports or art. At 6 pm, the group gathers for flagpole and then Kabbalat Shabbat services.
Tamarack is a JCCA community camp, and draws campers and families from across the Jewish spectrum. Shabbat services are accessible, with songs, candle lighting and, of course, blessing of the grandchildren.
Shaw added that for some participants, the grandchildren are part of interfaith families, and camp is a way to expose the grandchildren to Judaism in an inclusive way.
With Federation making a large allocation to the camp, and the guidance of the Va’ad of Metropolitan Detroit, Tamarack is a kosher facility but hosts people from a wide range of religious observance, Shaw said.
Grandparent Bobby Schostak has attended Bubbie Zaydie camp five times, and called the Shabbat celebration a fundamental bonding piece of the experience.
“The highlights of the weekend are Shabbat, connecting with other grandparents who have the same values as us, and the Jewish traditions and fun activities,” he said.
After family-style Friday night Shabbat dinner, orientation and family introductions, the groups split up according to the ages of the grandchildren: the young ones have a bedtime story with puppets, and two other groups go on a “night hike” (while it’s still light outside, at 9 pm in Michigan!). Grandparents don’t have to come along on these events, though they’re welcome to do so, Shaw says. Many opt to stay behind and reconnect with one another.
This summer, Roberta Ingber will be taking four grandsons, ages 9, 7 and 4-year-old twins, to Bubbie Zaydie camp for her 11th year. A big part of the appeal of the camp, Ingber says, is the community forged by the grandparent attendees.
“One of the side effects of going to Bubbie Zaydie camp was building stronger bonds with the other grandparents,” Ingber said. “We reconnected with many old friends.”
Once the kids return from their evening activity, everyone drifts to bed. In the morning, there’s a light nosh for early risers at 7:15, and then breakfast and flagpole and Shabbat morning services from 8:45 am on. Afterwards, families can choose from six different activities depending on their degree of Shabbat observance. And after lunch, the group heads to main camp for the beach, where grandparents and grandchildren swim in the lake with the option of going canoeing and kayaking as well.
After cleaning up, Shaw said, outside entertainment comes in. Last year, Cirque Amongus, a DIY circus, came in and taught kids how to do trapeze, balance beams and other activities and then put on a show. This year, it’s ninja warrior training.
Dinner, a choice activity and havdallah follow, along with an optional movie night, and then it’s Sunday. “Campers” go to the main camp, where they can do rock climbing, horseback riding and enjoy a “frontier” section of camp with the opportunity to take photos and make hand-dipped candles. At the end of the weekend, each family gets an award.
“We do push a lot into the weekend, but everyone has a great time,” Shaw said. “It’s uninterrupted time for families, and everyone cries when it’s time to go home!”
While the weekends are full of creativity, interaction, activity and fun, Shaw says the magic is, simply, No Parents Allowed. “It’s grandparent rules only.”
“The kids love the freedom,” she added. “There are very few, if any, meltdowns, because everyone is so happy just soaking up the fun.
“The grandparents are making and taking memories that last a lifetime,” Shaw added. “We have many alumni that will always remember coming to Bubbie Zaydie camp as a child. It’s truly a l’dor va’dor experience – from generation to generation, we are making lasting Jewish memories.”
By Jordana Horn for The Covenant Foundation