Boy Scouts of America enhances the spiritual lives of today’s Jewish youth
By Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
“Be as bold as a leopard, fleet as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
Rabbi Judah ben Tema’s second century call for unflagging spiritual devotion in the service of God, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), fired my imagination when I first encountered his words. I was, at the time, a 14-year-old Eagle Scout in Troop 116, sponsored by the First Church of Christ Congregational in Northampton, Massachusetts. “Be fleet as an eagle” was an apt and inspiring introduction to the world of rabbinic literature.
In the 20 years I have served on the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, and now as that 90-year-old body’s national chaplain, I have cited Judah ben Tema at countless Eagle Scout Courts of Honor – the ceremony through which a young man is inducted into Boy Scouting’s highest rank. “Be fleet as an eagle to do the will of your Father in Heaven” invariably resonates with my young fellow Eagle Scouts, as well.
This spring, a number of Eagle Scouts will live out Judah ben Tema’s creed, as they receive rabbinic ordination – the culmination of years of study and religious, intellectual, and emotional growth. These young men embarking on careers of religious leadership and service to the American Jewish community attended very different rabbinic institutions and differ in theological perspective and religious practice. They are united, however, in their grateful devotion to the Boy Scouts of America, and in citing the positive impact of scouting on their spiritual lives and career paths.
They are also unanimous in their conviction that the Jewish community would benefit immeasurably from expansive, principled involvement in the scouting movement, and that Jewish disengagement from scouting is counter-productive and self-defeating. Their personal experiences provide the most compelling evidence for the wisdom of this assertion. For example:
The Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Los Angeles Campus counts three Eagle Scouts among is the Ordination Class of 2017. Among them: Todd Zinn became an Eagle Scout in 2002 with Troop 36, chartered to Temple Emanuel of Worcester, Massachusetts. Todd volunteered for a year in Israel as part of the OTZMA learning fellowship, then taught for three years in a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. He has held a number of positions in congregations, religious schools, and Hillel. Todd spent six summers on the staff of the Philmont Scout Ranch, the Boy Scouts of America’s premier “High Adventure Base,” in Cimarron, New Mexico, as a conservationist, a work crew foreman and, while in rabbinical school, as the Jewish chaplain. Todd will be succeeded as Philmont Chaplain by Rabbi Hayyim Solomon of Mount Dora, Florida, a fellow Eagle Scout ordained by the Institute of Traditional Judaism (also known as the Metivta).
Upon ordination, Rabbi Zinn – who esteems scouting as “the best, most significant leadership experience I ever had” – will join the staff of the historic Chicago Sinai Congregation. His brother, Rabbi Jonah Zinn – also an Eagle Scout – serves as assistant rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri.
David Cavill is soon to be ordained as a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) in Yonkers, New York, a pluralistic seminary. David entered AJR with a B.A. in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a B.A. in Religious Studies from Columbia University, and an M.Div. from Yale. He also holds the rank of Eagle Scout. “My interest in religion all seems to have started when I was a Boy Scout,” he writes. “The Scout Oath states that a scout must do his duty to God and his country. I think I became religious to be a better Boy Scout.”
A chaplain by the BSA’s National Camping School, David states, in a chapter entitled “A Scout Is…,” published in Found Tribe: Jewish Coming Out Stories: “It seems that someone in scouting always knew that I’m gay. No one ever really seemed to care…. Scouting taught me to embrace my individuality, including and especially my sexuality.”
BSA’s formerly restrictive policy strained its relationship with some progressive Jewish communities and movements. David’s view of Scouting then – and with still greater enthusiasm under the current, inclusive policy – was far more appreciative and supportive: “My affection for scouting and the overwhelming compulsion I feel to return something to the organization enters my thoughts on a daily basis and shapes my aspirations for the future. My spirituality has seen more growth and development in the woods of a Boy Scout camp than anywhere else.”
Dan Margulies will be ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox institution based in Riverdale, New York. Dan became an Eagle Scout in 2008. Troop 1800 was sponsored by his family’s synagogue, Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. As an ordained rabbi, Dan will carry on the tradition of Chovevei Torah’s Eagle Scout alumni pioneered by Rabbi Josh Feigelson who, along with his two older brothers, is a third-generation Eagle Scout. Rabbi Feigelson attained the Eagle rank in 1989 and held the prestigious BSA youth leadership position of national chief of the Order of the Arrow, scouting’s honor society and “Brotherhood of Cheerful Service.” Rabbi Feigelson says: “What Scouting gave me was a moral and ethical vocabulary, and a laboratory for testing it, developing it, and honing it into a leadership practice. I learned a tremendous amount about myself and my commitment to my own people and heritage through my encounters with so many non-Jewish scouts and scouters.”
My own rabbinate continues to be shaped by my scouting ties.
Scouting enables me to serve a Jewish constituency remarkably diverse in its approaches, beliefs, and patterns of religious expression. The love for American history, civics and citizenship I learned as a Scout animates much of the special programming in my own congregation, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, as well – such as our popular Presidents Day service, featuring the chanting of the Gettysburg Address in Hebrew. More fundamentally, I continue today to establish my most cherished, fulfilling, and lasting friendships with fellow Scouts, just as I did in my youth.
I also serve on the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement, an international, nine-member rabbinic court, supervising matters of marriage and its dissolution, especially cases that are particularly contentious or complicated. It is telling that on such a select rabbinic body, I am not the only Eagle Scout. I share that distinction with Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, spiritual leader of Philadelphia’s Har Zion Temple, one of the flagship congregations of the Conservative movement. The dual training scouting gave us in fidelity to a sacred code of conduct, together with compassionate service to those in need, serves us well in the adjudication of Jewish family law.
Scouting’s contributions to the Jewish community are limited neither to rabbis nor to Eagle Scouts. When I sought a Torah Scroll for use at a National Scout Jamboree, I gingerly broached the subject with my congregational president and ritual chairman. I quickly discovered that he too had attended the 1960 Jamboree in Colorado Springs (the largest such gathering in BSA history), and that our ritual chairman fondly remembered his activities at the 1957 Jamboree at Valley Forge. I was delighted that the BSA had shaped the religious experience and commitments of my community’s lay leadership. Needless to say, the Torah Scroll accompanied me to camp.
Clearly, the Boy Scouts of America continues to provide effective and sensitive leaders for the American Jewish community, across its broad religious spectrum. It has done so ever since its founding over 100 years ago. As the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jewish chaplain, I will continue to invoke Rabbi Judah ben Tema’s motivational wisdom when I proudly welcome fledgling Eagle Scouts to their new rank and status. “Be fleet as an eagle to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
In the spirit of that same rabbinic sage, I pray that the American Jewish community, through its organizations, schools, and congregations, etc., will be “as bold as a leopard” in reciprocating the benefits we have long reaped from scouting, with long overdue, robust support for the Boy Scouts of America by sponsoring Boy Scout units, with the resultant opportunity to shape their culture and program accordingly. Anything less would be unworthy of a religious tradition that derives its very name from the value of “gratitude” (Judaism, from Judah/Todah, meaning “to give thanks,” Genesis 29:35).
I pray that the American Jewish community will be “as swift as a deer” to acknowledge its debt to the Boy Scouts of America as the youth movement which has taught young Jews an appreciative reverence for American citizenship, while teaching young American citizens of all faiths an informed and reverent appreciation for Judaism.
Finally, I pray that the American Jewish community – and, in particular, Jewish parents – will be “as strong as lions” in urging their children to join the Boy Scouts of America, where they, too, will make lifelong friends of strong character, develop a commitment to public service, hone leadership skills, encounter prospective career paths, learn environmental ethics and the value of sustainability, embrace an informed love of country, and practice religious and cultural pluralism — all while grappling seriously with their own religious tradition and personal spirituality.
As Baden-Powell would say, “God help us do it!”
Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is national chaplain for the National Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America. He is a past spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Sholom in Newington, and as National Eagle Scout Association chairman for Connecticut Rivers Council BSA.