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.
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.”