Family time at heart of Pinewood Derby race
Pack 1818Jewish Scouting

Family time at heart of Pinewood Derby race

Jewish cub scout group holds annual competition, but the real goal is shared experience.

Jacob Greathouse holds a car he and his mother created for Cub Scout Pack 1818’s Pinewood Derby. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Jacob Greathouse holds a car he and his mother created for Cub Scout Pack 1818’s Pinewood Derby. Photo by Adam Reinherz

In the annals of Pinewood Derbies past, winners have attested to polished axles, appropriate weight distribution and the employment of graphite powder as means for certain victory. At Cub Scout Pack 1818, success is marked not only by the speediest or sleekest car, but by the collective outcome.

Bruce Gelman has been the pack’s cub master since 2000. During that time he’s overseen various programs and outings, but nothing is quite as exciting for the scouts and their families as the Pinewood Derby, he explained. The competition is something that Cub Scout packs throughout the nation share every year.

The scene at Shaare Torah Congregation last Sunday attested to Gelman’s assessment, as 30 minutes before the race began, uniformed children eagerly placed their painted and stickered creations on a nearby scale (among various rules is one dictating a car cannot exceed five ounces). On race day no cars came in overweight. Instead, when one child realized his creation could afford more heft and stay within regulation, he and his mother taped a quarter to the rear.

In prior runnings, quarter usage has been a common tactic, noted Mischa Gelman, a parent.

The Pinewood Derby may be “the highlight of the year,” but victory is an afterthought, said Bruce Gelman. “It fosters good relationship between parent and child. They design it together, paint it together and go through the thrill of winning or agony of defeat together.”

The objective matches the event’s original intention. More than 50 years ago in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Don Murphy conceived of the race’s idea when his 10-year-old son wished to participate in the soap box derby, but was too young to enter. In 1953, the father, who was Cub master for Pack 280C, decided to host a similar program, but for children under the age of 12 — a miniature soap box derby. The idea was “to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition,” said Murphy, according to Scouting Magazine.

Scouts made all sorts of cars, even one that looked like a Chevy El Camino. Photo by Adam Reinherz

In Pittsburgh, the pairing of generations is evident, noted Pack 1818’s Cub master.

Standing beside her two sons, den leader Miriam Gelman said she has been involved in scouting for the past six years. Over that time, she has planned meetings and organized pack adventures. On Sunday, Gelman was responsible for operating the scale during weigh-in.

“I decided to step up and get involved,” she said.

Across the room Jacob Greathouse, 7, and his mother awaited the race’s start. Pointing to the various adhesives on his Minecraft themed car, Greathouse said his mother “helped open the stickers.”

Jacob’s mother, Danielle Greathouse, said that in making the car, they spoke about various outcomes. The conversation was, “If we win, great, and if someone else wins, that’s also great,” said the mother.

Applying labels to wood, carving a block or fiddling with metal takes time, but that is the point of the exercise, said Bruce Gelman, so whether it’s the Pinewood Derby or sharing a tent with your child during a camp out, families appreciate that “scouting isn’t a drop off thing.”

Other benefits exist as well, echoed parents.

Being a part of Pack 1818 gives my son “a sense of teamwork and responsibility, and keeps him with Jewish friends and the Jewish community,” said Danielle Greathouse.

“I very much believe in scouting and the scouting program to teach responsibility. It teaches character,” echoed Miriam Gelman. “There are other ways to learn those skills, but the scouting program has invested a lot in figuring out how to do that.”

Bruce Gelman has been the pack’s cub master since 2000. Photo by Adam Reinherz

When Pack 1818 began decades ago, its members, which included Bruce Gelman’s three sons, initially came from the area’s three Jewish day schools. These days, Pack 1818 includes students from Colfax Elementary School as well, added the Cub master.

The pack is open to anyone interested and is pretty similar to what you might find in other groups, said parents.

“The only thing is we don’t do things on Shabbos and we keep the highest level of kosher. Otherwise, it’s just scouting,” said Bruce Gelman.

Moments before the derby began the tiny scouts assembled in a semicircle. There was a salute to the American flag and a recitation of the Scout Oath. In a message praising the scouts and their families, Bruce Gelman said, “It’s all about doing it. We have winners, certificates and trophies, which we’ll get to later, but the real thing is doing it.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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