Jet’s Jewish Journey: A Tribute to Jewish Camping

By Chuck Cohen

Our grandson, Jet Cohen Bautista, was born October 18, 2002 in Palm Springs, California with a rare congenital syndrome: Goldenhar syndrome, characterized by incomplete development of the ear, heart problems, and asymmetry of the mandible. At three months, Jet was rushed to Loma Linda Children’s Hospital because of breathing difficulties. Over the next seven months, Jet was on life support and had a variety of surgeries – tracheal reconstruction, two open-heart surgeries to repair holes in his heart, nissen fundoplication surgery to permanently prevent gastric reflux, gastrointestinal tube insertion for feeding – and, ultimately, a tracheotomy. Jet had gained only one pound during this ordeal, but finally he started to thrive.

While wearing the tracheotomy tube, Jet was unable to speak, so he learned to communicate with sign language. At age three, when his tracheotomy tube was removed, Jet started to grow into a normal little boy, but he still had some disfiguring birth defects. When he started school, he was subjected to the teasing and bullying that all too often plagues anyone who looks and talks differently. Needless to say, Jet’s self-esteem was slow to develop.

To give a little background, Jet’s mother, our daughter, Danielle, was raised in a Reform Jewish tradition, had a Bat Mitzvah, and is a strong cultural Jew. She married Ron Bautista in a Jewish ceremony officiated by a Rabbi. Jet and his older sister Blaze know that they are Jewish but have neither belonged to a Temple nor attended religious school with any regularity. Our older daughter Amy and her family are modern Orthodox Jews who live in Skokie, Illinois. Amy’s four sons, the youngest of which (Gilad) is one year younger than Jet, have long attended Camp Moshava, an Orthodox camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. For years, whenever Jet would visit his cousin Gil, he would play with him and his friends on Shabbat, and felt very accepted – completely unlike his experiences at school.

One day, about four years ago, Amy, aware of the social problems Jet was experiencing, suggested to us that he might like to go to Camp Moshava with her boys. My wife Karen and I said we would take care of it, if Jet and Danielle were interested, and they were! To prepare his friends for the arrival of his cousin Jet at camp, Gil told them to make a special effort to help Jet feel comfortable. The friend whose house Gil was visiting told his mother about Jet. When she asked Gil about his cousin, Gil cried as he explained the situation.

So that summer, Jet attended Orthodox camp for four weeks. He was the most popular kid at camp. All the counselors loved him. His growth – particularly in self-respect – was remarkable. When Jet returned home, he said, “Grampy, I want to go back next year!” Knowing that, obviously, we were going to let him go back, I said, “Well, you’ll have to do some things to earn the right to go, like brushing your teeth and taking a shower every night.” Jet agreed.

Jet’s family had moved over the summer, and when he began attending a new school that fall, he reported that he was being bullied. Danielle decided that Jet needed a smaller classroom environment and enrolled him in Catholic school. Having just returned from Orthodox camp, Jet was now having to attend Mass at school. He put his fingers in his ears so he wouldn’t hear. When I asked him once if he was going to baseball practice that night, Jet said he couldn’t because he had to study for a test on the 14 stations of the cross. Jet did okay at Catholic school, though. He was the best player on his 7th grade basketball team and, even though the team was terrible, Jet gained greater self-esteem.

The next summer, Jet returned to Camp Moshava for six weeks. Again, he had a great time and told me that he wanted to return the next summer. I told him we wanted to hear more detail about what he did at camp so we arranged a Facetime call. He told me all about Tisha B’av, that it was a fast day but they had an optional breakfast. I asked if he had eaten breakfast, and he said he had. Then they went to daven, came back to rest, then went back to daven some more. I said, “Wait a minute. You mean they davened?” “No” he said, “I davened, too.” I said, “How could you daven?” To which he replied, “They’re teaching me the aleph bet.” That gave me a thought. Amy was planning Gil’s Bar Mitzvah to be in Israel and, though not wanting to take any of the limelight away from Gil, I asked Amy if we could have a Bar Mitzvah for Jet in Israel. She said that would be fine, but perhaps Jet would enjoy having his Bar Mitzvah at camp with his friends. So, last August, at Camp Moshava, surrounded by his family and friends, Jet had his Bar Mitzvah.

After having his Bar Mitzvah, Jet received this email from one of his counselors at Camp Moshava:

“On the first day of camp two years ago I was very excited, not only because I was back in machaneh and the summer was finally getting started, but also because I had a chanich who was new to camp. His name was Jet, and he was coming all the way to Wisconsin from Palm Springs. As I met Jet that night, we got to talking and he told me he was a little nervous because he wasn’t so familiar with all the Jewish stuff. I told him that we both had a lot of time together and we could help each other out. So that night we made a deal: I would help Jet out with the Jewish stuff and he would help teach me how to be cool. That night me, Noah and Elliot taught Jet the shema and from there he’s flown. That summer and the following I had the privilege of either being Jet’s counselor or being his chavruta on Shabbat afternoon. I’m not sure how much cooler I’ve gotten, but Jet has made tremendous strides in ” the Jewish stuff” and has taught me and many others so much along the way. One big lesson I learned was last year on Shabbat afternoon. I had asked Jet why Shabbat was his favorite day besides for the Shabbos walks. He answered with something that sticks with me every week. “On Shabbat,” he said, “everyone has a place and everyone can join, no matter who they are or where they came from.” I’m so proud of Jet and all that he’s accomplished, and I am so happy to have him as a part of my Moshava family. Mazal tov, kid, and see you soon.

Jet’s journey is far from over, but his growth and maturity have absolutely taken off, and much of this can be attributed to his Jewish camping experience.

P.S. Jet now attends public school.