December 14, 2018

On the wings of Eagles

Boy Scouts get a bum rap. They’re associated with helping old ladies cross the street and wearing silly uniforms.

I have come to learn, however, that Boy Scouts’ values actually are Jewish values, and that Boy Scouts of America is not some hokey organization irrelevant to today’s youth. Rather, it spurs boys to excel as leaders, as teammates and as good Jews.

Consider the example of my Eagle Scout son, Yekutiel, and the Sabbath-observant Boy Scout Troop 613 in North Hollywood.

It all started when one of the troop’s founders, Gary Bregman, attended a wedding and was impressed by the groom’s friends. Bregman asked, “Who are those great guys?” Turns out they were Boy Scout buddies of the groom

Bregman wanted his son to be like those boys, so he teamed up with Eli Mafouda, a native Israeli, and got things rolling in 2001. Their goal was to teach youngsters survival and life skills, as well as the highest moral values.

Neither Bregman nor Mafouda had been Scouts, though, so they recruited my husband, Yakov, an Eagle Scout, to be Scoutmaster. He took Yekutiel on camping trips when he was 4, and our boy quickly became the troop’s mascot. I bought him a special shirt and sewed on the patches he received at events.

As a mother, I saw how camping and learning outdoor skills taught boys to work as a team, be responsible, plan menus, cook and even do dishes. Plus, they made lifelong friendships.

My husband believes in the “boy-run troop” and encouraged his Scouts to take charge. A favorite story was of a spaghetti dinner one Scout planned. He thought: Why boil noodles and sauce separately? That’s two pots. Why not boil noodles in the sauce? No adult intervened, and the boys were treated to pink gook for dinner. 

In first grade, Yekutiel became a Cub Scout. Was he proud! I became a den mother and learned about Cub Scouts’ “fun with a purpose.” We visited places like the fire station, hiked and barbecued. Each month brought a different theme. When learning about people with disabilities, for example, we met darling Seeing Eye dogs in training.

Yekutiel continued going to Boy Scout meetings and outings, and along the way he learned the Boy Scout Promise and Scout Law, which are recited at every meeting and event. They are: 

On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

I thought: These are Jewish values! 

When Yekutiel was 10, we returned to Israel. (He was born there and came to California with us as a 1-year-old.) One of our concerns was finding a Scout troop there for him. Luckily, a troop existed in Jerusalem, about 40 minutes from our home. Yekutiel became an active member. 

About two years later, the troop disbanded when the Scoutmaster married. Yekutiel soldiered on as a “lone scout” — a boy without a troop. Often lone scouts live in rural areas or in places with no local troop. Being a lone scout is … lonely. Instead of having the troop’s camaraderie, Scouting becomes mostly a solitary activity. Yekutiel worked on merit badges at home, doing one bike ride after another for the cycling merit badge, and making meals for the cooking badge. 

The cooking merit badge involves hours of menu planning, shopping, learning about safe food handling, the food pyramid, etc. It’s fun as a group activity, but quite a challenge to do alone.

It helped that Yekutiel attended two Boy Scout Jamborees, 10-day Scouting extravaganzas in West Virginia. More than 40,000 Scouts were there camping out, earning badges and doing outdoor activities like archery and canoeing. For Orthodox Scouts, there was kosher food, a Shabbat eruv and minyanim

And just before the Jamborees, Yekutiel attended Scout summer camp in upstate New York. Once he did a Scout canoe trip in the Adirondacks, one of the highlights of his life. He made close friends, and they’re still in touch.

After earning 21 merit badges, he began his Eagle Project — a service project that helps the community and fosters leadership skills. The Scout recruits volunteers, makes a detailed plan of the project and raises funds.

From 10th through 12th grades, Yekutiel studied agriculture at Be’er Tikva, a local ecological educational center in Beit Shemesh. An ancient well there had fallen into disrepair: Trash was strewn around, paving stones were askew and the water reeked. Yekutiel decided to refurbish the well and make it a pleasant place for visitors. His goal was to clear away the trash — from inside the well and all around — reset the paving stones, and pump out polluted water. After hours of labor, the area is now beautiful, with fresh, clean-smelling water.

When everything was documented and approved, Yekutiel was awarded the rank of Eagle — something attained by only 6 percent of Scouts. Yekutiel had an Eagle Scout Court of Honor, the official ceremony at which the Eagle rank is conferred, at our old shul in North Hollywood, Shaarey Zedek. My husband and I received “Eagle Dad” and “Eagle Mom” pins. We were so proud.

Yekutiel gave a speech and described his long trail to Eagle. Along the way, he solidified his commitment to live according to the Scout tenants — and something more. The last point of the Scout Law states that a Scout is reverent.  Yekutiel felt especially proud to be practicing Torat Yisrael b’Eretz Yisrael, the Torah of Israel in the Land of Israel.

Watching and listening to all of this were Gary Bregman and many of the North Hollywood Scout troop’s early members. We had come full circle.

When I interviewed Bregman in 2001 for an article in the Journal about the troop, he said: “Most boys have the preconception that Scouting is nerdy. But once they come to any event, especially a campout, they never use that word again. And we dispel the preconceived notion that we [Orthodox Jews] just learn Torah. Torah and Scouting go hand in hand.”

He was right. Scout’s honor.