When Boy Scout troop 711 from Alaska lost four of its leaders in a freak electrical accident on the first day of the recent National Scout Jamboree here, the one Jewish Scout in the Alaska contingent was left in a quandary.
On the Sunday morning of the gathering, when jamboree activities were suspended for a few hours, all of Noah Magen’s troop mates were headed to religious services for their respective faiths. But what does a Jewish Scout do on Sunday?
For Noah, the answer was the Shul Tent, where daily services and special programming were provided for Jewish Scouts.
The Boy Scout Jamboree, which is held every four years at Fort A.P. Hill, near Fredericksburg, brought together more than 35,000 Boy Scouts and another 8,000 volunteer staff for the July 25 to Aug. 3 gathering — the largest jamboree since 1964.
For the fourth time, Tzivos Hashem, a Jewish children’s organization within the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, provided special programming for the estimated 1,000 Jewish Scouts who attended this year’s jamboree. In addition to hundreds of Scouts who are members of nonsectarian troops, there were also Scouts from all-Jewish troops at the 10-day event.
Some 100 observant Scouts and leaders of the Shomer Shabbat, or Sabbath observant, contingent — made up of Jewish Scouts from across North America — prayed together daily.
Although all the Scouts may not belong to Shomer Shabbat troops in their hometowns, the Shomer Shabbat contingent allows Jewish Scouts at the jamboree to be as observant as they choose, providing kosher food and scheduling daily prayers and Sabbath services. On the jamboree’s Friday night, the Shul Tent and the adjacent Chapel Tent were overflowing with 500 Scouts for Shabbat services.
Scout Patrick Matson, the sole Jew in Troop 271 from Ocean Springs, Miss., wanted to attend the Friday night services. In order to abide by the buddy system required at the camp, he brought a Catholic friend with him.
Matson found the service, filled with Hebrew songs and English prayers, spirited and fun. “My friend said the service was amazing,” he said.
After the services, a non-Jewish Scout in his late teens went to Rabbi Pinny Gniwisch, the chaplain for the Northwest Region of the Boy Scouts of America, and told him in a strong Southern accent, “I don’t think I ever met a Jew before, but if it is always like this, sign me up!”
Each jamboree participant was required to visit the Religious Relationships Booth representing his particular religion. The Jewish booth was a constant buzz of activity. Ben Shreibman of Troop 41 from Cleveland put on tefillin for the first time in his life.
“It felt weird,” he admitted. Andrew Foster of Troop 1704 from Dallas was with a Jewish friend, who put on tefillin. “I never saw anything like it before,” Foster said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Six Jewish Boy Scouts were called to the pulpit in the Shul Tent to recite blessings over the Torah for the first time in their lives, stimulating interest by the local Fredericksburg, Va., newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, which featured a full page of pictures from the mini bar mitzvah ceremonies in its July 29th edition.
The Tzivos Hashem program in the Shul Tent drew close to 1,000 Boy Scouts. The event, which opened with brief greetings from Boy Scout dignitaries, included a play staged by the Shomer Shabbat contingent, a juggling display, and a lively audience-participation singing session led by Rabbi Shmuly Gutnick from the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. The jamboree Web site dubbed him “The Reggae Rabbi.”
The Scouts then went to various booths in the Shul Tent, where they crafted their own shofars, braided their own Havdalah candles, had their pictures taken in front of a panorama display of the Western Wall in Jerusalem while wearing tefillin, and wrote private letters to God that would be mailed to Israel to be placed in the Wall.
Participating in these activities allowed many of the Scouts to complete the requirements for the Jewish Boy Scout award, the Ner Tamid Award.
When he ran out of the patches given for this award, Bruce Baker, the vice chairman of the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Jewish Committee on Scouting, saw it as a good sign.
“That says so much that Jewish scouting is alive and well,” he said.
Jay Lenrow, the chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, attended his first jamboree in 1964 with his father, who was also his scoutmaster. When he returned in 2001, Lenrow was a scoutmaster and his son was a Scout.
“What we want to do is create a strong Jewish connection to link the generations by combining the love of the outdoors and camping achievements, coupled with growth and development of Jewish knowledge and observance,” Lenrow said. “Scouting can do that.”
Howard Spielman of Sharon, Mass., is the modest, soft-spoken, powerhouse who initiated the current surge in programming that allows Orthodox youth to benefit from the Boy Scouts.
Spielman brought a small Shomer Shabbat contingent to the jamboree in 1993. At that time, he brought his own 20-by-20 tent and an extension cord so he could have two light bulbs shining for evening services.
In 1997, he brought a 20-by-40 tent to house his growing contingent. By 2001, Boy Scouts officials provided an even larger tent. And this year, the Shomer Shabbat contingent was supplied with one 44-by-66 tent; one 20-by-40 side tent; five 20-amp circuits, and 32 outlets.
“What is most satisfying,” Spielman said, “is seeing the impact on the Shomer Shabbat boys and the other Jewish Scouts who come to jamboree. They benefit from the opportunity to grow in their Jewishness through scouting programs.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Shul Tent hosted a meeting of Chabad rabbis from Virginia and Maryland and officials from the Boy Scouts of America.
“We stand ready to support any organization that shares Scout values” said David Richardson, the national director of Religious Relationships of the Boy Scouts.