Opposition continues despite new Boy Scout policy


In 2001, Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) overwhelmingly decided to end its sponsorship of Cub Scout Pack 1300 to protest the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) policy banning openly gay scouts and leaders. It ended a nearly 50-year tradition of scouting at the Reform congregation.

Now, in the wake of BSA’s decision last month to end that policy for children — but not openly gay scoutmasters — the question remained: Will TIOH and other synagogues that acted similarly re-establish ties?

“Until they change their policy, all around, we would never even consider it,” TIOH Rabbi John Rosove said. 

Rosove was one of 500 rabbis and cantors — 24 of whom were from the Los Angeles area — who signed a letter that was delivered by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America on May 21 urging leaders to change its membership policy for children and adults. BSA made its partial change two days later.

For A.J. Kreimer, former chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS), that change was a victory — one that he, like Rosove, hopes soon extends to adults as well. 

The NJCOS has, since 1926, been an officially chartered BSA committee. Among other things, it helps grow Jewish membership in the Scouts, develops programming for Jewish troops and packs around the country, and works with the national BSA to schedule major events so that they don’t conflict with Shabbat and holidays.

[Related: Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’]

Kreimer, speaking by telephone from his home in New Jersey, recounted how he has opposed the Scouts’ membership policy since the Supreme Court, in 2000, ruled 5-4 in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the Scouts, as a private organization, has a First Amendment right to set its own membership standards, including its exclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders.

Until BSA’s leadership completely amends the policy, Kreimer said, he will use his influence and position as president of BSA’s Northeast Region board to “continue to advocate for full inclusion.” But he and the NJCOS insist that efforts to reform the Scouts are more effective from within rather than from the outside. 

The Reform movement has taken a different position. As Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School and a TIOH member who was the congregation’s president when it voted to end its sponsorship of Pack 1300, told the Journal, “We were convinced by everything we knew that there was no way we could fight from within.”

Since the Reform movement called for its synagogues to break with BSA in 2001, scouting in Reform congregations has dropped to the point where “now the number is infinitesimally small,” according to Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.

“There were plenty of congregations that had those relationships,” Weinstein said. “Now there are very, very few that do.”

One of the few Reform synagogues to sponsor the Scouts is Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) in Valley Village. It never ended its sponsorship of Troop 36 and Pack 311, but it also effectively wrote into its charter that the congregation could disregard BSA’s policy restricting membership to openly gay scouts and leaders.

Although BSA has the power to revoke the charter of a sponsoring organization that de facto rejects its membership policy, Rabbi Sarah Hronsky said that it has never taken any action against the synagogue. Like NJCOS, Hronsky thinks pressure from the inside is more likely to change BSA than external pressure. 

“They tried to change it from without. They went through the court system,” she said, referring to the Dale case. “You can’t change something from without.” 

Hronsky said that to the best of her knowledge, the RAC has never pressured TBH to break from BSA and did not ask her to sign on to its recent letter.

The decline in Jewish scouting in general has not quite matched the pace of that in Reform synagogues, but in the last few decades it has declined significantly, according to Kreimer and Rabbi Peter Hyman, the national Jewish chaplain for BSA. Kreimer estimates that there were around 75,000 to 100,000 Jewish scouts in the 1950s. Now, he thinks there are closer to 40,000.

Hyman, who lives in Maryland and is the spiritual leader of a Reform synagogue, said, “There were times when there were troops in almost every synagogue, coast to coast, irrespective of theological leanings.” 

Both Kreimer and Hyman are lifelong Scouts and have reached the highest attainable rank — Eagle Scout. The latter spoke about the intersection of Jewish and scouting values. 

 “Don’t we want our kids, as Jews, to be trustworthy, loyal, to acknowledge God and to embrace tradition?” 

Trust and loyalty are two elements of the “Scout Law,” which is composed of 12 virtues that every scout is expected to uphold.

According to Kreimer, Hyman, and current NJCOS Chairman Bruce Chudacoff, several congregations that had been boycotting the Scouts have expressed interest in re-establishing a connection following the May vote on membership.

[From our archives: Rob Eshman — Scout’s honor]

Chudacoff, who lives in Wisconsin, said that one possible explanation for the decline in Jewish scouting is opposition to BSA’s policy. The recent change, he thinks, “is a good foundation for us to build and increase membership.” 

In Los Angeles, TBH and at least two other synagogues — Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, both Orthodox — sponsor Scout troops and packs. 

Jeff Feuer is the Cubmaster for Pack 360 at Beth Jacob and the chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the West Los Angeles County Council. He has been Cubmaster for 13 years, and one of his main tasks in his role as chairman is to organize events among the Jewish units that also include Jews from the non-Jewish units. In Los Angeles, as nationally, most Jewish scouts are not in Jewish units. For the handful of observant Jews in scouting, though, a Jewish unit is a must.

“It’s very difficult for an observant Jew to participate in scouting unless it’s in a Jewish unit,” Feuer said. “Non-Jewish units meet on Shabbat, they meet on chagim [holidays], they serve non-kosher food.”

From describing a 200-scout Memorial Day weekend campout in the Santa Monica Mountains to a pinewood derby (a race involving handmade wooden model cars), to any number of activities designed to build character, leadership and survival skills, Feuer’s position is that synagogues that are holding out until BSA further reconsiders its sexual orientation policies should reconsider.

“I understand the objection,” he said. “But the loss to the community is a great one.” 

Scouting, Feuer thinks, does for boys what few other institutions can do in terms of building character, and though he understands some synagogues’ objection to scouting’s historical position on gays, he hopes they “weigh in their own minds what they think the trade-off is” and become more accepting of the Scouts. 

In 2000, the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — the Orthodox equivalent of the RAC, representing nearly 1,000 Orthodox synagogues in America — issued a press release supporting the Dale decision that protected BSA’s membership policy as a First Amendment right. Unlike the RAC, the OU Advocacy Center has not been particularly vocal about BSA’s policy. It did not release a comment following BSA’s recent vote and has not publicly issued any memoranda to its member synagogues advising any position vis-à-vis the Scouts.

In the fall, Feuer and the local branch of the NJCOS will, as they do every year, try to bring local synagogues into the scouting fold. He is hopeful that some that have recently given BSA the cold shoulder may warm up. 

For now, he acknowledges that what could be a strong relationship between the Scouts and many congregations is “tarnished by this big political problem,” one that, if it disappears, could reopen the doors to a renaissance of Jewish scouting.

“It’s so much in keeping with Jewish values generally, you’d think every synagogue would want one.”

Jewish groups push for action on gun control


In the wake of the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., Jewish groups are looking to build alliances and back legislation to strengthen gun control laws.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), said his group is assembling a coalition that would be ready to act once the right legislation comes along.

“The point now is to create the atmosphere in which there is a demand for action, using our voices, organizing the parents in our pews,” Saperstein said in an interview. “When the parents across America start crying out for effective action, if there’s religious leadership, it will galvanize the community to create the moral demand that moves toward sensible legislation.”

Staff at the RAC, the locus in the Jewish community for gun control initiatives in past decades, spent Dec. 17 reaching out to other Jewish leaders, as well as to leaders of other faith communities.

“The best way is to rally the faith community and come together around shared policy,” said RAC spokeswoman Rachel Laser.

A number of Jewish groups have indicated that they will back a gun control bill proposed Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the first since the Newtown shooting. It would ban more than 100 assault weapons and ammunition clips that contain more than 10 rounds.

The Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle registered in the name of his mother, whom he killed before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where he murdered 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police have said he used multiple clips, although their capacity has not been publicly reported.

Jared Loughner, the gunman in the January 2011 attack in Tucson, Ariz., that grievously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others, had a 33-round magazine.

The legislation, Feinstein said in a statement Monday, “will be carefully focused on the most dangerous guns that have killed so many people over the years while protecting the rights of gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons that fall outside the bill’s scope.”

Feinstein helped draft the last iteration of an assault weapons ban, in 1994. It lapsed in 2004, after the National Rifle Association fought against its renewal.

B’nai B’rith International on Monday demanded the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

“Assault weapons enable a shooter to fire multiple rounds without stopping to reload as they automatically expel and load ammunition with each trigger-pull,” B’nai B’rith said in a statement. “There is no sane, acceptable, reasonable need in a civilian setting to fire off large rounds of ammunition.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a petition through its constituent Jewish community relations councils that calls for “meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.”

Officials of Jewish groups planning on action said the likeliest vehicle would be Feinstein’s legislation, which she plans to introduce as soon as Congress reconvenes, in January.

“We have been in touch with Sen. Feinstein,” said Susan Turnbull, who chairs Jewish Women International, a group that has as a principal focus combating domestic violence. “We support her bill.”

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which has also taken a leading role in the Jewish community on gun control initiatives in the past, announced its support on Dec. 18 for the Feinstein legislation and for legislation proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would tighten background checks. The NCJW has in the past mobilized a grass-roots network of activists to push for gun control legislation. Hadassah also called on Congress to introduce reforms.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly on Monday called not only for a ban on assault weapons, but for longer purchase times, deeper background checks, coding ammunition for identification and banning online sales of ammunition.

President Barack Obama, attending a prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, said that he was ready to back action that would address such violence.

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” he said.  “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” Although he was short on specifics, a number of observers said that Obama’s strong language suggested he was ready to do what he had avoided in his first term: advance assault weapons restrictions.

In addition to Feinstein and Schumer, a number of other Jewish lawmakers also have weighed in. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who in the next Congress will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that “expressions of sympathy must be matched by concrete actions.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring, expressed support for an assault weapons ban and proposed a national commission on mass shootings.

In addition to banning assault weapons, Jewish groups also are seeking broader initiatives to address violence.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, said he would bring to the attention of lawmakers a study that links mandatory moments of silence to drops in juvenile violence.

Turnbull of Jewish Women International said that any legislation also should deal with identifying and treating individuals whose mental health should preclude access to weapons.

“We will back any legislation that bans assault weapons and the ammunition as well as giving families what they need to treat individuals with a proclivity toward violence,” said Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “I think this will be the ‘big idea,’ that the president is not going to limit the conversation to just guns.”