As a Jew, tradition is ingrained in Neil Schmerling. But it’s also something that has kept him tied to the Boy Scouts of America for more than 20 years.
Schmerling is the scoutmaster of Troop 185, sponsored by Young Israel of Elkins Park. He started in that troop in his youth, and continues to pass down the honor to his son and grandsons.
Scouting’s founding message pairs well with tikkun olam, he said, showcased through the Scout Oath and Scout Law.
Schmerling described the Boy Scouts as an unofficial Torah-based organization; the fundamental values overlap.
“The scouting program is the No. 1 youth program out there,” he said. “It teaches fundamental values, especially for the people who are more God-fearing, observant. But it’s really for everybody. It teaches you life skills that you really don’t learn anywhere else, and it basically prepares you for life.”
Although laced with controversy in recent years, Boy Scouts helped Schmerling once he reached adulthood and the working world.
“It builds your self-confidence. It introduces you to a lot of areas that you wouldn’t have even known existed before you joined scouting,” he explained. “It’s about helping other people. It’s about helping yourself; duty to God and country.”
The first exclusively Jewish troop was formed in 1913, according to the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. By 1957, 1,367 troops were sponsored by Jewish institutions.
Although BSA religious groups still make up about 70 percent of scouting units, the number of overall scouts has decreased.
Len Brownstein, chairman of the local Jewish Committee of the Cradle of Liberty Council, noted in the early inception of scouting, religious groups within the organization were sanctioned so “every one of the major and minor religions have a voice.”
The council helps organize special retreats or religious awards for boys and adults “to make sure they stay involved in the Jewish religion and Jewish scouting.”
Brownstein, whose scouting experience totals 51 years, remembered there were more synagogues while he was growing up in his native Northeast Philly for troops to affiliate with, but that isn’t the case anymore.
“Scouting and the Jewish religion is kind of difficult because there very few synagogues that we can go into,” or Hebrew schools, he explained, to find boys “to become scouts.”
Associating with synagogues may be down, but that doesn’t mean the amount of Jewish scouts in general has dwindled, Brownstein said. They may be registered with an unaffiliated area troop.
“That’s the way life is today,” he said. “It’s more open, and if you want people to belong to your organization, you gotta be open about it.”
Rabbi Joseph Prouser, national chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, said the scouting program is “inherently interested in the religious life of its youth participants.”
It doesn’t tell scouts how they should express religious components or practice certain traditions, but rather just encourages participation.
Prouser was a scout growing up in Massachusetts in a non-religious troop. “It was a tremendous influence on me,” recalled the almost uninterrupted member since he was 8 years old.
“It’s not necessary that a troop be unified religiously, but for an organization, a school or a congregation to sponsor a troop, it allows it to both shape the culture of that group and its experience, and also to provide for the specific religious needs of the kids,” he said.
The same is true for troops of other religious backgrounds.
“The troop becomes part of the educational outreach of the sponsoring institution,” he added. “It builds community within the congregation. There’s a great benefit to the community and congregation because its educational and lifestyle vision [is] put into practice in the troop.”
The Jewish scouts are put into an environment that promotes their lifestyle, pairing them with other kids with similar connections — strengthening the program for everyone involved.
But there are distinct advantages to mixed troops, too. Scouts who go to Jewish day school, like Prouser’s children, may not meet people of different backgrounds, so going to a more diverse troop can be of great benefit.
Girls can officially join the Boy Scouts later this year, which Prouser said will be beneficial, too, as it boosts membership and allows parents to simplify their carpool schedules.
Expanding diversity, a shomer Shabbat contingent always attends the National Scout Jamboree, equipped with an eruv, kosher food and Orthodox services, under Prouser’s leadership. Non-Jewish scouts are welcome to attend the services, and often do.
Scouting also presents the opportunity to explore the outdoors and “unplug” — like Shabbat.
“Kids are over-involved in technology and that often gets in the way of personal interaction and social skill development,” he said. “[Unplugging] has been a part of the Jewish religious vision forever. … We were unplugging before plugs were invented.”
“There’s not much difference between Jewish scouts or Muslim scouts or Christian scouts or Buddhist scouts or Hindu scouts — we’re scouts. It’s an organization of brotherhood that falls under similar core American values,” explained 16-year-old Jacob Leon, a scout in Troop 185.
Leon earned his Eagle Scout in December. His project refurbished Lower Moreland High School’s interior courtyard, which doubles as a 9/11 memorial.
“When I walked by the area in school, I noticed it was sort of an eyesore,” the high school junior recalled. “I thought, ‘What better way to improve the community than start local?’”
He filled in holes in the soil, added new grass seed and cleaned up the surrounding trash.
Now, the revamped area can be used as an outdoor classroom while still honoring 9/11.
“The biggest thing I’m proud of in scouting is the intangible,” he said. “The Eagle award is an honor, but just because I receive a medal doesn’t mean that I’ve learned anything from it. I could have gone about scouting in one year and earned all 100 merit badges, like some people do, but I would rather have the experience and the knowledge to do what is right in my future than to have a plaque on my wall.”
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