Ezra Sanders, a 17-year-old resident of the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is now attending the 17th National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America, an event that began Monday and ends next Wednesday at a military base in Virginia.
But he and about 80 other teens, many of them students at yeshivas and Jewish day schools, received a taste of what the event might be like as they toured the National Mall Sunday in Washington.
The teens, members of the jamboree’s Shomer Shabbat Contingent, encountered dozens of other Boy Scouts from across the country who, like them, were bound for the massive event, Sanders said. Among them were scouts from small towns in Texas who saw the contingent’s patches, including their Hebrew lettering, and asked about them.
A lone scout from the Netherlands also approached the contingent’s members, inquiring about why the teens, the most observant of whom are Modern Orthodox, weren’t wearing payes, the long side curls worn by fervently Orthodox Jews.
The two episodes, both brief, reminded Sanders and other members of the contingent of the obligation many of them feel to act as ambassadors at the jamboree for traditionally observant Jews.
“Being at the jamboree is a great opportunity to represent Orthodox Judaism to many people who’ve never been exposed to it,” both Jewish and non-Jewish, said Alexander Kahan, a 15-year-old from Brookline, Mass., and another member of the contingent.
But the episodes also illustrated how the jamboree offers a chance for boys to be boys, their adult leaders say — allowing them to make scores of friends, learn new skills and take part in dozens of activities. One way to break the ice at a jamboree and to meet someone new is to inquire about a patch on another boy’s uniform, as the scouts from Texas did in Washington.
More than 45,000 scouts, leaders and staff are attending this year’s jamboree, which marks the 100th anniversary of scouting in the United States, a BSA spokeswoman said. The jamborees normally take place every four years, but this year’s event is the first since 2005, an adjustment made so that it would coincide with the anniversary.
The activities, many of which lead to merit badges and advancement, include archery, black-powder rifle shooting, rappelling, pioneering, canoeing and scuba diving. Merit badges are also available in such skills as aviation, photography, electronics, crafts and science.
All those facts occupied the minds of 80 Jewish scouts as the Shomer Shabbat Contingent met in the Catskills on July 18, more than a week before the jamboree, and stopped in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., on its way to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia.
The additional time included team-building exercises and touring, both designed to prepare the boys for the big event and allow them to get acquainted, said James Sanders, a scoutmaster on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the father of four scouts, including Ezra.
But by the time the boys reached New York last week, they appeared eager for the jamboree to start. Many of them said as much while visiting the Museum of Jewish History-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and while riding the Staten Island Ferry.
“I’m very excited,” said Noah Robiner, 13, a Minneapolis resident whose troop is sponsored by that city’s Jewish community center. “It seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while.”
The jamboree “basically highlights everything society has to offer,” said Warren Brodsky, 17, a member of a West Orange, N.J., troop chartered by a Solomon Schechter Day School. “It’s not just merit badges and not just advancement. It’s getting together with people like you from all across the country.”
Richard Shmikler, 15 and a member of the Minneapolis troop, went even further than his friends. “It’s a chance to be part of history,” he said.
The three boys and others also waxed enthusiastic about their participation in the Shomer Shabbat Contingent, the jamboree’s only unit organized along religious rather than geographic lines.
The contingent, established formally in 1993, is open to boys from all branches of Judaism, but it follows Orthodox standards of observance, said Howard Spielman, its founder and the scoutmaster of a Boston-area troop associated with the Maimonides School.
Part of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, one of BSA’s standing committees, the contingent is largely responsible for the jamboree’s synagogue tent, a huge structure shaped like “two ice-cream cones stuck together,” Spielman said. The tent houses Orthodox services three times daily on weekdays, on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings, drawing as many as 500 people for its Shabbat services. It also hosts a Sunday-morning program called Traditions, offering a variety of activities and workshops, while other scouts are attending worship services sponsored by their own faith group.
The National Jewish Committee, a broader group representing all streams of Judaism, also conducts Shabbat services at another site on the base, said Rabbi Peter Hyman, its national chaplain. Those services are liberal or progressive, he added, designed for scouts who aren’t necessarily Orthodox.
Shomer Shabbat Contingent includes more than 20 scouts from New York, as well as boys from 15 other states, Canada and Israel. During their 10 days at the jamboree, they eat and sleep at nine campsites, all located within yards of the synagogue tent. The contingent’s members are required to follow Jewish dietary laws, observe Shabbat and take part in prayer services during the jamboree.
Jewish activities at the jamboree, including those of the Shomer Shabbat Contingent, are in keeping with one of the 12 qualities emphasized by the Boy Scouts of America — that of being reverent.
That point explains the existence of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, one of about 25 BSA committees representing various faith groups. The committee, chartered in 1926, has organized Shabbat services and the distribution of kosher food at the jamboree for decades, said A.J. Kreimer, the group’s chairman and its jamboree coordinator. (This year, in fact, Kreimer is distributing not only kosher food for Jewish scouts, but halal food for Muslim scouts — one way in which his organization is aiding the relatively new National Islamic Committee on Scouting.)
But Modern Orthodox Scouts often felt left out on Shabbat and during Sunday-morning activities, Spielman said, leading to his proposal in the early ‘90s for a Shomer Shabbat Contingent.
“I came to the jamboree in 1989, anticipating it would be like how I remembered it as a boy,” said Spielman, who grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, and attended the 1960 jamboree at the age of 14. Instead, he added, “I was flabbergasted to see that the only five boys who came to daily morning services were the five boys I brought” to the jamboree.
Described by one of his friends as “the chief rabbi of Jewish scouting,” Spielman said his proposal for a Shomer Shabbat Contingent wasn’t intended to create differences, as some of his colleagues in Jewish scouting feared at the time, but to eliminate them.
“I want my scouts to have the same experiences as every other boy,” he said. “I see myself as someone who’s trying to break down barriers.”
Since that proposal, a Shomer Shabbat Contingent has attended five national jamborees, including the current one, and the synagogue tent has often served as a magnet for Jewish scouts at the event.
Meanwhile, members of the contingent not only see themselves as ambassadors of Orthodox Judaism, answering whatever questions other scouts might ask of them, but as part and parcel of the scouting movement.
“If you look at the ‘Boy Scout Law and Oath’ and if you look at the Ten Commandments, they’re very similar,” Noah Robiner said. “The values instilled by scouting” — such as being respectful, loyal and trustworthy — “are similar to the values instilled by Judaism.”
Alexander Kahan agrees.
Scouting, he said, “is all about making yourself a better person — and that goes hand in hand with what’s written in Torah.”