The Boy Scouts, of all organizations, lit a Jewish fire under Alex Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt of Dix Hills, L.I., is a 21-year-old who never went to Hebrew school, didn’t have a bar mitzvah and whose parents don’t believe in organized religion. His only formal Jewish training came from the Boy Scouts.
“I learned a lot,” said Rosenblatt, now a senior at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. “It led to an exploration of my own faith.”
His Jewish education in the scouts came from a scoutmaster, Elliot Klugman, who spent hours in one-on-one discussions with him, and later from an assistant scoutmaster, Phyllis Stein. Rosenblatt said he was prompted to learn about his heritage because “scout law says you have to be reverent at some level,” and there are elective Jewish emblems that are awarded to scouts for their knowledge of Judaism, the State of Israel and Jewish history.
The Jewish emblem Rosenblatt considered working for — the Ner Tamid Emblem — required reading from the Torah, something most Jewish scouts do in preparation for their bar mitzvah. Because he was not having a bar mitzvah, Rosenblatt said he did not have the time to learn Hebrew and therefore did not earn the emblem. But his studies were enough to satisfy the requirements for him to become an Eagle Scout at the age of 13.
As the Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th birthday this year, it is finding that its Jewish educational component is playing a more critical role than ever because of the growing number of scouts who grow up in “secular” homes or with intermarried parents who don’t raise them in any faith.
“Some kids’ only religious connection is scouting,” Klugman said. “I’ve run services at [Boy Scout camp] where kids have said to me it was the first time they had been at a Sabbath service.”
Alan Kanofsky, chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Committee on Jewish Scouting in Nassau County, L.I., recalled a similar incident. “One grandfather brought a scout to one of our meetings and he couldn’t thank us enough because he said the boy is the product of a mixed marriage and his parents weren’t giving him any religious training,” Kanofsky said. “We were giving him a few hours of training on a Sunday. It wasn’t much, but it was as much as that boy was going to get.”
Miriam Puttre of East Northport, L.I., is Jewish and her husband is Catholic. They have two sons, 8 and 12, and a 14-year-old daughter. None are receiving any formal religious training in either faith.
“I see the Boy Scouts as a way to formally expose them to some of the history and practices” of the Jewish people, Puttre said. “It’s not that we don’t do any of it. We get together for the Jewish holidays. My daughter thinks Judaism is all about food, and she is not so far off. … We’re not members of a synagogue, but we’re members of the Suffolk Y JCC and that gives them an affiliation with Jewish culture — they run Purim and Chanukah programs.”
Puttre said her daughter was a Girl Scout and is now a Venture Scout and considers herself both Catholic and Jewish.
“She wants to learn about both,” she said.
All told, there are 38 faiths or denominations that have religious emblems in the Boy Scouts; 35 have them for Cub Scouts. But a scout official said youngsters have to choose which religion they want to learn. He recalled rejecting the request of one scout who said he wanted to earn both the Jewish and Protestant religious emblems because his parents are of different faiths.
The National Jewish Committee on Scouting introduced the first Jewish emblem, the Ner Tamid, in 1945. Today there are three other emblems: the Maccabee and Aleph emblems for Cub Scouts and the Etz Chaim Award for older scouts 14 to 17 years old.
Rabbis designed the emblems and scouts are encouraged to receive them during a religious service at their synagogue.
Younger Jewish scouts learn about holidays and famous Jews throughout history. Older ones must explain selected verses from the Bible, explain important ideas contained in such prayers as the Amidah and Yigdal, and explain five sayings from The Ethics of the Fathers, among other requirements.
Kevin Feinstein, 13, of Massapequa Park, L.I., said that in working to earn the Ner Tamid emblem he has “learned a lot about the role the Jewish people have had in society, and also more about our customs and why certain holidays are celebrated the way they are.”
Although he said he was exposed to the subject matter in the religious school at Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Massapequa, Feinstein said the Boy Scouts required him to learn it “in more detail. We spent a whole session talking about certain holidays,” he said. “It was like a refresher, but in more depth.”
Feinstein, who was bar mitzvah a year ago, said he is considering working for the Etz Chaim emblem after he earns the Ner Tamid.
“I’m enjoying this one … and I think it would be nice to learn more about my religion,” he said.
But for youngsters with no formal Jewish training, the scouts’ Jewish programming has had the most impact.
Puttre said her older son earned both of the Jewish emblems when he was a Cub Scout and that her younger son earned the first and is now working for the second.
“We don’t go to services on any regular basis and if they were going to be bar mitzvah, these are things that would be tied into what they would be learning,” Puttre said.
The national 10-day Boy Scout Jamboree that is usually held every four years has been conducting bar mitzvahs for Jewish scouts who never had one. Rabbi Peter Hyman, national chaplain of the Committee on Jewish Scouting, said he has attended Jamborees at which Jewish scouts have told him “they never met a rabbi or attended a service with more than 100 people. … There are always kids who have to travel hundreds of miles to a shul — and it’s not specifically because they have intermarried parents.”
Rabbi Rachmiel Tobesman, chaplain of the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, said he has presided over two bar mitzvahs there. At one, the scout, 17, had memorized the Shema when he was younger and had been taught some of the Amidah prayer by his grandparents.
“He led the service and delivered a dvar Torah [talk about the Torah] he had prepared that afternoon,” Rabbi Tobesman recalled. “I’ve kept in touch with him and he joined a Jewish student association in college and talks of becoming more observant in his Jewish practices.”
One way to help foster a Jewish identification among the scouts is to have a Jewish institution sponsor a scout pack or troop, he said.
“We find that unaffiliated Jews start to make their way back if their pack or troop is chartered to a synagogue,” Goldsmith observed.
Since 2005, 43 new units were chartered to Jewish organizations in the Northeast region, he pointed out. Some of them are aging synagogues that view their sponsorship of a scout pack or troop as a “way to bring in younger parents who may join the synagogue.” (In 2001, after the Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scouts ban on hiring gay troop leaders, the Reform movement urged parents to withdraw their children from the group, and their synagogues to end their sponsorship of the Scouts.)
One Boy Scout leader, Howard Spielman, said he found that even youngsters who have attended Hebrew school are able to benefit from the Jewish program run by the scouts. He recalled that two 17-year-old Boy Scouts once told a Jewish federation meeting that they had “learned more about Judaism in the Boy Scouts than in all of their years in Hebrew school.”
Rabbi Kerry Olitsky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said he had been unaware the scouts were being used by some as their connection to the Jewish community and he welcomed it.
“There should be multiple entry points to Jewish life and if the Boy Scouts is one of them, it should be maximized,” he said. “We should make sure that there is a path from the Boy Scouts into a more active Jewish life.”
As for Alex Rosenblatt, the Jewish education he received in the Boy Scouts is serving him in good stead in college.He said he has “tried to stay connected” even though he has not found a “serious Jewish population here at Bucknell.”
He said that even though he is “not an authority” on Judaism, he has found himself speaking about it to others who have misconceptions about it.
“I was taking a Chinese philosophy class and the teacher said we shouldn’t discuss God because that is on a higher plateau,” he recalled. “Someone then said that Jews are not allowed to mention God’s name in conversation. I laughed. I said I have never described God as a punishing God but rather as a compassionate God.”
Rosenblatt said also that he found himself defending Israel during a class about nationalism. When a student claimed that Israel had committed “acts of terrorism” during its Gaza offensive last winter,
Rosenblatt asked what evidence she had to support that assertion.
“I challenged her,” he said, adding that he knew the Israelis had refuted such claims.
In keeping with the Boy Scouts’ motto, Rosenblatt was prepared.
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