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Jewish Boyscouting (RH1 5766)

What I Learned from my Boy Scout Experience

Rabbi Randall Mark

Shomrei Torah, Wayne, NJ

As many of you know this past summer I became a Boy Scout or more precisely a Scouter, since I’m over 18 and no longer eligible to be a Boy Scout. My brother-in-law, Rabbi Joe Prouser, is an Eagle Scout and he has remained active in the Scouting movement. Every four years, he disappears for part of the summer to attend a Boy Scout Jamboree. You might ask, "What is a Jamboree?" I know that I did. It seems that Scouts like to gather, just last month the Scouts of Wayne gathered for a Camporee – all the Wayne Scouts spent the weekend camping together in North Cove Park. Well, a Jamboree is simply a very large Camporee or think of it as Jamming lots of Scouts into one locale. In this case the location was Ft. A. P. Hill in Caroline County, Virginia where the BSA has been holding their Jamborees since 1981. And when I say a large gathering, I mean LARGE, you may have read that there were 43,000 of us at this Jamboree.

You might ask, "What is a nice Jewish boy doing at Boy Scout Jamboree?" I know that I did. And you might wonder, "What does all this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?" Today, I want to share with you lessons that I learned from my Boy Scout experience. I do have to admit that this was not my first exposure to the BSA. When Avi and Raffi were younger, they were Cub Scouts with the Pack at the Y. But as they got older, their interests went in other directions. However, we had a number of families that were very involved in Scouting, Jewish Scouting, right here in Wayne – the Weils, the Feldmans, the Terrys, the Coopers, the Kreigers all had boys that were Boy Scouts and some of them even became Eagle. Often I would be involved in their Eagle projects, in fact, the Aron HaKodesh, that we use in Jr. Congregation was made by Matt Weil as his Eagle project. I was honored to participate in their Courts of Honor when they were granted their rank. And many of them attended previous Jamborees under the leadership of their Scoutmaster, Mark Shore; but it was not something on my radar screen at that time.

Then there was that fateful day when my phone rang and I heard Joe’s voice ask me, "Are you willing to come to the Boy Scout Jamboree and be a Chaplain?" I asked a few logistical questions like when, where and how long; and I ended up agreeing to help out. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time, but it turned out to be a much bigger job than I anticipated. I’m an avid reader, I figured I was going to camp; it would be a vacation of sorts – so I took seven books with me to read during the two weeks I’d be there – they all came home unread, I had time for not a one. Being at the Jamboree was hard work, but very fulfilling. I have no regrets.

In June my phone rang again, this time it was Rabbi Art Vernon, the Chair of the National Committee on Jewish Scouting. He had spoken with Joe and wanted to confirm that I’d be a rabbi at the Jamboree. Yes, I told him that it was true. He was very excited, as I said in my L’Chaim article ministers outnumbered rabbis 10:1 there; they were in desperate need of rabbis. Rabbi Vernon informed me that the BSA is big on forms and that I’d begin to get faxes that I’d have to fill out ASAP and send back. He was correct; they sent me a blizzard of paper most of which had deadlines dating back to the early part of 2005. They take this "Be Prepared" stuff very seriously, and they had no idea what to do with this last minute, non-Scout, rabbi who was willing to help them out. I even received a phone call from a national BSA staff member out of Texas who wanted to confirm everything.

I learned that I’d have to go get uniforms to wear while serving. It seems that everyone wears uniforms – all the time! Once again, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But, undaunted, I presented myself to our local BSA office in Oakland, where the nice lady in her uniform asked, "Can I help you?" To which I replied, "I sure hope so." And before you could say, "It costs how much?" I was a fully outfitted Scouter and I at least looked the part.

The Jamboree was to begin on Monday, July 25th and I had been told to arrive by noon on Sunday, the 24th. As I finished my conversation with the nice BSA Executive in Texas, he said he’d see me at the Clergy orientation on the 23rd. "Wait a minute," I said. I filled out and faxed in my ‘I’m arriving at noon on the 24th form’ to your office only days ago. So, he asked, "well, can you make it noon on the 23rd?’ "That’s a problem," I inform him, the 23rd is Shabbat." There is a pregnant pause from the other side of the line that screamed, "HUH?" I start over and explain that I don’t travel on the ‘Jewish Sabbath’ I have to come on Friday or Sunday. He encouraged me to come on Friday to be there for the orientation. I figure that this was a good idea, since I hadn’t a clue as to what I was supposes to be doing there.

So, on Friday, I pack the car; say goodbye to the family and head to the Jamboree. Traffic is heavy around DC and it’s taking me a lot longer to get there than I expected. I’m on my cell phone wishing Dassy and kids, good Shabbas, as I look for the army base and pray that I make it before Shabbat. I arrive just in time. I get to my base camp, subcamp 11 of the Central Region, where I am warmly welcomed and they help me unload and get into a tent – yes, a tent. The Jamboree is a giant tent city. All 43,000 of us, campers and staff live in tents. All meals and activities take place in tents. In fact, it was in the 90s and 100s every day with high humidity and not a building nor an air conditioner to be seen! The first night was deadly as I lay on my military cot, listening to the insects buzz while gazing heaven ward towards the stars and thinking I’m never going to be able to sleep here. It actually took very little time to get used to the surroundings and 24 hours after I arrived – I didn’t notice any of this. Night two I slept like a baby!

As I looked around at my surrounding, I learn that all cars have to be moved off site by noon the next day or they’ll be towed by the MPs. So now my choice is to move my car after Shabbat has begun or to move it tomorrow in the middle of Shabbat or to see what happens if I leave where it isn’t supposed to be and I again wonder what have I gotten myself into. At that moment, Rich, an attorney from Ohio, who ran the HQ tent, says to me, "isn’t it a problem for you to drive your car now, rabbi?" As he is meets me for the first time and he offers to take my keys and move my car for me. Just so you realize the magnitude of this offer, the cars were being parked in a lot that was about five miles from our campsite and then you waited for a bus back that stopped at all the 20 campsites on it’s route to bring you back. It’s then that I first began to understand the kind of people that I’d be spending the next two weeks with.

So, on Friday, I pack the car; say goodbye to the family and head to the Jamboree. Traffic is heavy around DC and it’s taking me a lot longer to get there than I expected. I’m on my cell phone wishing Dassy and kids, good Shabbas, as I look for the army base and pray that I make it before Shabbat. I arrive just in time. I get to my base camp, subcamp 11 of the Central Region, where I am warmly welcomed and they help me unload and get into a tent – yes, a tent. The Jamboree is a giant tent city. All 43,000 of us, campers and staff live in tents. All meals and activities take place in tents. In fact, it was in the 90s and 100s every day with high humidity and not a building nor an air conditioner to be seen! The first night was deadly as I lay on my military cot, listening to the insects buzz while gazing heaven ward towards the stars and thinking I’m never going to be able to sleep here. It actually took very little time to get used to the surroundings and 24 hours after I arrived – I didn’t notice any of this. Night two I slept like a baby!

For those who don’t know much about scouting – the BSA has an Oath – it’s simple and easy to remember:

On my honor I will do my best

To do my duty to God and my country

and to obey the Scout Law;

To help other people at all times;

To keep myself physically strong,

mentally awake, and morally straight.

They take it seriously and it guides their every action – it’s not so different from what we hope to achieve as observant and committed Jews; only I’d have us say:

On my honor I will do my best

To do my duty to God, tradition and the Jewish people

And to obey the laws of the Torah;

To help other people, that is to do ma’asim tovim,

To care for myself mentally, physically & spiritually.

They take it seriously and it guides their every action – it’s not so different from what we hope to achieve as observant and committed Jews; only I’d have us say:

On my honor I will do my best

To do my duty to God, tradition and the Jewish people

And to obey the laws of the Torah;

To help other people, that is to do ma’asim tovim,

To care for myself mentally, physically & spiritually.

Now there’s a goal to warm the cockles of any rabbi’s heart.

As a subcamp chaplain I was on the frontline promoting this "Duty to God" – "How does one do that you might ask?" Well, first you have to understand that Boy Scout camp is the opposite of Jewish summer camps when it comes to control and supervision. At a Jewish camp the counselors escort the campers and keep an eye on them all the time. At the Jamboree, the scouts have breakfast together, buddy up and set out to explore the camp and participate in the activities and they have to be back by 5 PM to check in and help with dinner. It’s up to each pair of buddies to decide how to spend the next eight hours. It’s all about independence and trust. There are dozens, no hundreds of activities and everything is rewarded with a symbol of some type, so when you get back to camp, you show your scoutmasters what you have done. If they are not impressed, then they work with you to establish a game plan for the next day. By getting these various stamps scouts could earn ‘rockers’ pieces of a circle that surround their Jamboree patch for their uniform. It is a coveted goal to acquire patches and rockers! One rocker was "Duty to God" to earn it a Scout had to do be marked off in five areas.

I tried to insure that all of "my scouts" earned their Duty to God rocker. When I say ‘my scouts’ I was assigned as the Jamboree chaplain for a half-a-dozen troupes, one from Chicago and all the others from Cincinnati; each evening as they were returning to their camps, I’d wander through to ask them about their day, to see if they had any issues and to check on their Duty to God progress. It also gave me an opportunity just to talk with my scouts, almost none of them were Jewish. But they were interested and very respectful. One troupe from a Catholic parish invited me to breakfast so that I could tell them about Judaism and answer their questions. They were great – they also put a full-sized replica of a rhino in my tent, but that is a story for another time!

The five steps for the Duty to God were 1) meet your subcamp chaplain; 2) go to the national exhibits and visit the your religion’s table there; 3) attend a worship service of your faith; 4) lead grace; & 5) participate in three daily devotionals. Now before you panic and think, "boy is this goyish" like I did; I have to tell you that the head chaplain of the whole Jamboree was a Rabbi and he wrote the introduction to the devotional section – there was nothing in there that I would be uncomfortable saying. It was all generic, but faithful.

Just to give you an example, one of the devotionals read, "Thank you, God, for loving us. Give us a special sense of your presence today as we observe your creative power all around us. Amen."

Think about what you would put on your Duty to God list? I find doing things on a daily basis connects me to God best. So I’d have 1) daven with talit & tefilin; 2) study Torah; 3) eat kosher; 4) say 100 brachot; & 5) give tzedakah. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to make a Duty to God list that only has five items on it and try to them this year. Your list might have daily items on it like mine or perhaps, weekly items are more suited to your lifestyle. What might you put on your weekly list? Attend a Shabbat service? Study Torah could be there too! Do a mitzvah? One a week doesn’t sound so hard. What would you put on your list?

Now in addition to having an oath, there is the Scout Law – 12 simple points to be lived.

A Scout is:

Trustworthy     Obedient
Loyal Cheerful
Helpful Thrifty
Friendly Brave
Courteous Clean
Kind & Reverent

All of them are worthy, but the one that was my focus was "Reverent". Scouts take their reverence very seriously. In our subcamp there was a daily mass at 6:30 AM and a generic protestant service after breakfast each day. I decided that I’d run a daily minyan for the central region at the regional HQ, it was a bit of a schlep for me and everyone else, but it seemed to me the only way to bring enough folks together to try for a minyan.

Just to give you a sense of what I was up against. Historically, at the Jamboree there has been a Shomer Shabbat troop that is Orthodox. They have a Synagogue Tent with shaharit, minha and mariv daily. They have their own kosher kitchen area. They have an Orthodox rabbi with them too. And they were the only Jewish game in town. When my brother-in-law was a subcamp chaplain he began a non-Orthodox egalitarian minyan that still functions to this day in the Western Region.

Joe had asked me to bring a Torah with me to the Jamboree; his was being used at the Chaplain’s HQ tent where we had the egalitarian Shabbat services. Rabbi Lisa Vernon brought one to be used by egalitarian daily minyan and mine was for the Synagogue Tent. Ironically, they brought their own, which they found to be pasul, not kosher for Torah reading, and they used ours! Since I didn’t have a Torah in my region, I decided that I’d run morning minyan on non-Torah reading days and join forces with the Western Region on Torah days. I started out strong, 17 people came the first morning, many to qualify for their Duty to God rocker, but having attended a service, they were not so eager to pray before breakfast, my numbers dwindled quickly. But when I went to the Western region, I went alone and there was nothing in my area. So I figured it was a good beginning.

Needless to say the big services were on Shabbat. The Synagogue Tent reported that Friday night they had ~500 people and at our service we had ~400. It was a pretty amazing turnout. Adults and kids, Jews and some interested non-Jews too. I had ~40 people from my region join me and walk together to this service. For some it was a learning experience, for others it was part of their normal routine, but in an unusual location. It was a model for interfaith relations. At our Shabbat morning service, which probably had 100-150 people in attendance, the head Methodist minister participated by reading the Prayer for our Country and one of the Mormon elders read a Prayer for the State of Israel that was composed by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints back in 1841 and first recited in Jerusalem. It was great the way that all the religious leaders worked together and cooperated with each other.

Scouts are motivated by their patches and the Jewish Committee on Scouting had a Jamboree patch created that the scouts could earn. There were twelve items on the list for this Achievement award. Four were mandatory and you chose four others from the remaining eight options. The four required items were: 1. When you visited the Jewish table at the National Exhibits that you decorate a kippah for yourself. 2. That you have a personal conference with a rabbi to plan out your next Jewish emblem award. 3. That you attend Shabbat morning services and 4. That you participate in the special program that the Jewish Committee ran on Sunday morning.

I had two scouts work with me on this award, so we did items 2, 3 & 4 together. Neither of these boys were Shabbat regulars, but they came with me and participated in services and even enjoyed themselves all for the sake of a patch. If it’ll make a difference to you, I suppose that I could offer patches for service attendance! That was my father’s suggestion – offer patches at Shomrei Torah for attendance at services. He was joking, however…. But think about it, what do you have to loose if you commit yourself to doing something once this year – come to one Shabbat minha service, come to one morning minyan and try on a set of tefilin, come to one evening minyan and feel the satisfaction of helping to make a minyan so that someone can say Kaddish. Would it be so bad? Would be so hard? Try it!

One of the optional items for the award was to attend a Havdalah service, so I ran one in my subcamp and folks came from all over the Central Region to see what it was that I was doing. A short ceremony, done at night to the light of a candle with spices and wine – sounded interesting! And by that point in the week, I had acquired a group of interested staff and campers that had little Jewish experience in their normal lives, who watched and asked questions. I wish that we could step back and look upon our Judaism with the same interest and wonder that these newcomers had. It was truly a gift. There were two women in the HQ, Jill and Barby, they asked me questions about Judaism throughout the week. It was great spending time with people who had a genuine interest in learning. We are supposed to be motivated to study, learn and do Judaism; but for many a time comes when we loose interest and just give up. When is the last time you participated in a Havdalah service? We do it here once a month – come back for the end of Yom Kippur and we’ll be doing it here on this bima; make this a year of religious experimentation – try things you have never done before or not for a long while. Rosh Hashanah is all about starting over, starting fresh again.

When I returned from the Jamboree one of the things I shared with our Board of Trustees was that I was so impressed with the commitment level of the volunteers who staffed the Jambo. Every one of the 8,000 volunteers paid for their own transportation whether they came from DC or Alaska; everyone gave up two weeks of vacation time; and each volunteer paid $600 to cover their own costs to live there for the two weeks. What might the equivalent for us? Taking

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time off from work to attend a Jewish camping experience or to spend some time in Israel or to come to weekday holiday services beyond Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What if beyond our membership dues we each had to pay a fee to serve on a committee or on the Board? Perhaps, it is everyone agreeing to purchase a lulov and etrog to use on Sukkot. The possibilities are endless, but the point is if you believe in something and are committed, then you are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. We need more people who willing to give their all for the synagogue! We have a core of very tired hard working volunteers, but we need a lot more to make this place run smoothly. We need your help!

Everything has highs and lows and the Jamboree was no exception. We hit bottom on the opening day, when four Adult Scouters from Alaska were killed in a tragic accident. It was devastating to not only those families, but to the entire Alaska contingent. It was horrible and very sad for everyone at the Jamboree especially those people in subcamp 7 where the accident happened. The Alaska scouts were isolated and cared for by a team of chaplains, psychologists, grief counselors and some very caring Scouters. There were four other adult scouters at the Jamboree from Alaska that knew the kids and jumped in to help them reintegrate. For the rest of us, it was mostly acknowledging the tragedy of what transpired. One night the chaplains ran concurrent memorial services in all 20 subcamps at the same time to help everyone.

Whenever tragedy strikes you can focus on the horrible nature of whatever transpired or you can choose to focus on the majestic human response to the event. What happened was awful and nothing that we did or said could change that fact, but we could respond in a way that affirmed life and we did so. The scouts lost much of their gear in the fire; other scouts donated everything they could need. I told you about patches, well, patch trading is a pastime pursued with a passion. Scouts collected thousands of patches from all over the country and gave them to the Alaskan kids. For those who chose to return home, they were taken to DC and put on an Air Alaska flight together with a chaplain and a psychologist who flew to Alaska with them. When they boarded the plane the pilot asked everyone to move forward to give the kids the back of the plane for the flight. Everyone did so without complaint. When they arrived in Alaska the pilot again came on the PA system and asked everyone to remain seated while the scouts deplaned. They were met by their families and escorted to a conference room that had extended family, friends, church and other community members waiting to greet and comfort them. The Alaska State Police closed the highways and provided them with an escort home, so that they would not have to face the gaggle of reporters that were camped out at the airport awaiting their return. None of this undid what happened, but it did make the best of a bad situation and provided hope and inspiration for the rest of us.

As we responded to the tragedy of September 11th,so have we responded to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. There will always be sad things to lament; the challenge for us is in how we respond. You can be a theological optimist or a theological pessimist. You can ask, "How did God let this happen?" or you can focus on the miracle of human compassion as we function in the way that God created us making use of the fee choice granted to each of us. We choose to loot abandoned stores or we can choose to rescue the ill, the elderly and the children who need our help. Rosh Hashanah is all about examining the choices that we have made and determining if they meet our standards when we take a step back and examine them in the cold light of day. who help to bridge the gap and show them that we are not to be feared as different." I fully understood what he was saying the night my subcamp held its Christmas in July celebration. I was asked if I wanted to participate and I declined. One of my tent mates, a lawyer from Detroit, named Steve, who took me under his wing, showed me around and made sure that I didn’t get lost, asked me if I was offended by their program. I told him that I was not offended, but it wasn’t for me. Later that night, I was returning to our camp and everyone was in the dining tent and my first thought was "Oh, no competition for a shower!" But then I remembered what Rabbi Hyman had said to me. So I wandered over to the dining tent, stuck my head in and ask, "Is this the crazy group that was looking for a rabbi to bless their Christmas party?" They were thrilled that I had come. I made it clear that this was not my thing, but that there was no reason they could not enjoy their thing. I was a good sport and allowed a photo-op with Santa.

This same crew was so sensitive to my needs as a kosher diner in the midst of 1200 others who had no clue. All the kitchen staff knew that I had my own food delivered and that all my stuff was kept separate. They let me know which other things would be OK for me to sample if I so choose and which ones I should stay away from based on how they had prepared them. All in all I could not have found a nicer group of people to be cooped up with for a couple of weeks. It was a microcosm of life. It has helped me to reshape how I want to interact with my fellow clergy in town, not to mention township officials. It has given me a new perspective in terms of what we need to do in the way the commit ourselves to the synagogue and to living Jewishly. For the scouts I met, scouting is not an activity it is a way of life. That’s what I want for us that our Judaism won’t just be an activity to be done on the High Holy Days, but for it to be a way of life; one that enriches us and informs our every decision.

Judaism like life is meant to be lived, enjoyed and celebrated. Let us find the way to infuse our lives with the same passion that I saw among the Boy Scouts of America!

Shanah Tovah u’Mitukah/May you be blessed with a Happy and a Sweet New Year!

I have to say that there were times it was strange to be on Ft. A. P. Hill with all those scouts – they celebrated the military and I view the armed forces as a necessary evil; they enthusiastically embraced our President when he came to speak, while I have my misgivings about many of his policies; they are sold on their uniforms and their orderly discipline, my attitude is more laze fare. At one point I said to Rabbi Peter Hyman, the Head Chaplain, "these are nice people, but it is very goyish here!" and he replied, "That is why we need rabbis to come

Thu, December 5 2019 7 Kislev 5780