OP-ED: Jewish Scouting: If not now, when?

By ALAN SMASON

I just returned from the National Annual Meeting of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and an opportunity for the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS) to meet and consider its impact on the Scouting program. The news is that we are seeing attitudes change toward Jewish Scouting, but the numbers of new Jewish Scouts and new Jewish adult leaders and parents involved with the BSA has been less spectacular than hoped.

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Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, National Jewish Committee on Scouting chairman Bruce Chudacoff and CCJN editor Alan Smason at BSA’s “Duty to God” Breakfast. (Photo courtesy Alan Smason)

For a generation the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) through its Commission on Social Action had urged a disconnect with the BSA over the controversial adult and youth membership restrictions of gays. Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s ¬†United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism had come out against the BSA and had exerted pressure for increased acceptance and tolerance of gay youth and adults within Scouting.

The BSA’s largest constituency is through its religious chartered organizations and the three largest bodies – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church or Mormons), the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church – contributed well over one million Scouts within its ranks. Jewish Scouts have numbered less than 10,000 for decades. When a plebiscite of the membership was held in 2013 over the non-prejudice and retention of gay youth, the rank and file voted 61% in favor of change. For years prior to this vote, the National Jewish Committee on Scouting had advocated for change and was the first and, oftentimes, the lone voice in the wilderness as a religious committee associated with the BSA.

Following the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which gay marriage was legalized, BSA president Robert Gates and his executive board reversed the organization’s previous policy and announced the BSA would no longer discriminate against gay adult leaders. That policy has been enacted and enforced since that time.

BSA Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh announced at the National Annual Meeting on Thursday, May 25 that the organization was beginning to look at the possible inclusion of girls into its Cub Scouting and, possibly, Boy Scouting programs. In particular Surbaugh cited interviews with parents in which they expressed an opportunity to have all of their families participate with siblings of both sexes involved or, in some cases, have all-girl Cub Scout packs established.

If enacted, this change could bring back a large number of families missing from Scouting and should be enticing as a wholesome and worthwhile endeavor for synagogues and temples who have shunned Scouting.

The news that the LDS Church has established a parallel program to Scouting called Trail Life USA and plans to implement that as its official programming for male members soon is troubling. It means an eventual membership loss of nearly 400,000 Scouts formerly associated with the BSA.

Jews on the National Jewish Committee on Scouting and throughout many Reform and Conservative sponsoring organizations took a courageous stand in advocating for change. As a result, gay and lesbian youth and adults can today take part in Scouting and become allied with its many ethical and moral stands. Scouting has been on the frontline of fighting drug abuse and working with parents to prevent child abuse of all kinds. Its Youth Protection program has been hailed as one of the best in the world.

With a vacuum existing in Scouting as the Mormons prepare to leave its fold and future possible inclusion of girls in a program other than Venturing, which was co-ed since its founding, now is the time for Jewish institutions to take up the banner of Scouting and make it their own. While it is unlikely that Jewish boys and, possibly, girls can replace the 400,000 about to exit, the opportunity for Jewish observance and worship to have a bigger voice in this time-honored institution has never been greater. The BSA’s program is given to every institution to make it their own. Whether it is a closed Shabbat observant unit or an open and inclusive unit that would expose Judaism to others is up to each institution that elects to charter partner with the BSA. The individual JCC, synagogue, temple, Jewish War Veterans post, etc. can decide when and where the program meets and how they want to deliver the program to its potential members.

Those previous arguments claiming Scouting’s lack of inclusivity have been dashed. Scouting is open to all now and it is time for those that railed against it to return to its fold. The future of American Jewish leaders could well hinge on exposure today of our children to the BSA’s programs. There should be no more excuses holding back the formation of new Jewish units where others existed previously and the formation of new units where there had been none before. To quote Hillel: “and if not now, when?”

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