Campfires and Character Building: Jewish Scouting Provides Fun, Leadership Opportunities for Youth
By Tonyia Cone
For more than 100 years, Girl Scouts of the United States of America and Boy Scouts of America have provided youth with opportunities to develop self-confidence, leadership skills and civic awareness, serve as volunteers in their communities, learn skills and earn badges, and, of course, eat s’mores on campouts.
Religion is another element in both organizations, which are not affiliated with one another, and Jews have been part of their histories since they began. Three of the four founding Girl Scout troop leaders were Jewish, and a prominent Jewish financier was one of the first major contributors to the Boy Scouts of America.
While it is a secular organization, Girl Scouts encourages girls “to take spiritual journeys via their faiths’ religious recognitions,” according to its website. These religious emblem programs are developed and administered by each religious group.
The Boy Scout Oath states, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law,” and the Scout Law includes reverence as a Scout quality. BSA encourages members to grow stronger in their faith through religious emblems programs.
Both organizations have National Jewish Committees on Scouting, and include Jewish units.
Jackie Ayala, a Girl Scout herself since first grade and coordinator of Girl Scouts at the Jewish Community Center of Austin, started a Girl Scout Daisy troop for kindergarteners and first-graders at the JCC in 2011. Now in middle school, 12 girls are still part of the troop. Brownie and Junior troops, for second and third-graders and fourth and fifth-graders, are also at the J, and a new Daisy troop will be formed this year. Ayala said combined, the units include close to 30 Girl Scouts.
Previously, Girl Scout and Boy Scout units existed at the J, but those involved aged out of the programs or the groups died out due to lack of volunteers.
There are many types of activities for available to Girl Scouts. Girls in troops at the J earn badges for skills, go camping and attend overnight events.
Girl Scouts at the J can also participate in religious programming, including a Scout Shabbat, where each year a troop receives a religious award they have earned.
“A lot of them work on, not just exploring their Jewish roots and their Jewish ancestry, but kind of taking a look at the community and seeing how through their scouting, what they can do to make an impact in the Jewish community,” Ayala said.
Ayala’s first troop made tzedakah boxes and one of the girls suggested using them to collect money for ambulances in Israel. Last year, some of the older girls repurposed aluminum cans, then worked with a local welder to melt the cans and molded them into mezuzahs they donated to Jewish Family Services. The Daisy group last year helped at the JCC gardens, painting bricks, plot signs and a bird bath.
This year, older Girl Scouts are working to develop a community donation and PJ Library checkout system.
“I think they have really strong ties within our Jewish faith, and focusing on tzedakah and tikkun olam and just making world a better place and knowing that impacting others is what gives us strength,” she said, noting that tzedakah is built into Girl Scout cookie sales.
Iris Koeller, whose daughter is in the troop at the J, explained that her family deliberately chose a Jewish troop.
“Girl Scouts is about serving the community, in this case the Jewish community and the community at large,” Koeller said, adding that at the last Scout Shabbat, her daughter received a Lahava award that took several months to complete.
“It is really important to us that there is a Jewish and extremely fun activity that our could participate in. It is one element of us raising our Jewishly – providing them fun and meaningful Jewish experiences throughout their lives,” Koeller said.
Ayala explained that the troop has given girls from all over the Austin area the opportunity to come together and do things they usually would not do. When Austin hosted the Maccabi Games in 2013, the troop served as flag bearers at the opening ceremony. Through this opportunity, they met Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who Ayala said inspired the girls.
The top award a Girl Scout can earn is the Gold Award. Ayala earned the award, and said the program prepares girls for college and helps on college and employment applications.
“There are people in the community, especially employers, who know what the Gold Award is. They look at that and say this is somebody that is determined. They’re not going to just drop the ball or give up if the going gets tough. It’s character building,” she explained.
While there is not currently a Boy Scout program at the J, efforts are underway to form a unit.
Barry Streusand, a Life Scout at Troop 247 at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston in the 1960s, and son and father of Eagle Scouts, said people in the community have expressed interest in a Jewish Boy Scout program at the J, and the National Jewish Committee on Scouting chairman recently visited Austin to discuss starting a unit.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting said scouting benefits include forming lifelong friendships with people of good character, immersion in an organization that values public service, an introduction to a variety of career paths, an emphasis on environmentalism, and valuing love of country.
“For Jewish boys, a remarkable element of the Boy Scouts of America is a value on religious principal and involvement and commitment without prescribing what form that religious commitment should take,” he said. “Religious expression is not just validated but valued and applauded.”
Scouting strongly reinforced his own interest in personal religious development, growth and expression, said Prouser, an Eagle Scout who was the only Jewish kid in his troop.
Organizations that charter Boy Scout units stand to benefit too.
“The retention rate for all religious communities of boys who have been in scouting far surpasses that of youth who were not exposed to scouting programs,” said Prouser, adding that long term, scouting provides leadership and resources for the Jewish community.
Charter organizations have some control over the adults who influence scouts and shape the unit’s programs.
Streusand – who served as troop committee chair for Troop 36, the troop once chartered to the JCC and later Congregation Agudas Achim, and is now on the Capitol Area Council Executive Board – said when Jewish chartered units existed in Austin, leaders did not program on holidays and campouts before Shabbat.
The Capitol Area Council does not program councilwide activities on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and have consulted with Streusand for the past 15 years when the calendar is prepared. Thanks to Streusand, the organization arranges for an alternative when pork products are served at the camps, and storage space is made available for families that wish to provide meals at camp.
Daniel Brill, a 17 year old, recently certified Eagle Scout, has enjoyed “spreading [his] wings in order to make the world a better place.”
Brill explained that scouting reinforced his Judaism through the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) Award and the Maccabee Award, which he achieved during his bar mitzvah.
“I think Boy Scouts gives Jewish kids the opportunity to be in an environment where they can feel free from discrimination,” said Brill, whose mother, Lisa Brill said Boy Scouts teaches boys to be confident, independent, tenacious leaders.
“He’s said to me so many times, ‘I can do this, I’m a Boy Scout,’” she said. “It empowers them, they can shine in so many different ways.” ■