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Boy Scouts keep Shabbat at Jamboree

FORT A.P. HILL, Va. Aug. 7 (JTA) — As in past years, scouts at this year’s National Boy Scout Jamboree could fish, scuba dive, bike or shoot air rifles. They could earn merit badges, visit military exhibits, go to an arts and science exposition or explore a disabilities awareness trail.

They also could attend Shabbat services and learn to decorate their leather yarmulkas.

The 12th point in the scout law states: A scout is reverent. And the scouts take reverence very seriously: There were 145 chaplains at the Jamboree, representing 19 religious denominations.

In 1999, Howard Speilman, a scoutmaster from Sharon, Mass., presented a 30-page document to the Jamboree committee specifying the needs of the 120 registered Torah-observant scouts and scout leaders in his group.

Two years and many hours of planning later, members of the Shomer Shabbat scouting contingent fully participated in this year’s Jamboree without having to compromise their religious observance.

Aside from the Shomer Shabbat group, there were roughly 1,000 Jews among the 40,000 scouts and leaders attending the Jamboree, held July 23 through Aug. 1 in Fort A.P. Hill, Va.. The 10-day Jamboree takes place every four years.

The Shomer Shabbat group was provided with supervised kosher food, and other details outlined on the document — such as the eruv boundary wire around the Shomer Shabbat campsite — were attended to meticulously. To erect the eruv, the Boy Scouts bought a power auger, drilled holes into the hardened ground, inserted 80 posts and strung cord around the campsite.

“It’s all part of the commitment of the Boy Scouts to support everyone equally,” Jamboree camp chief Bob Sirhal said.

At the exhibit of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, Rabbi Shmuly Gutnick was overwhelmed by the interest from Jewish scouts from across the country.

“One day I helped more than 50 boys put on tefillin, before I lost count,” Gutnick said.

If Gutnick learned that a scout had never had an aliyah to the Torah, he would teach the boy the blessings and invite him to the next Torah reading in the shul tent. As a result, at least half a dozen Bar Mitzvahs were conducted at the Jamboree.

The most moving Bar Mitzvah celebration was that of a 54-year-old man who had been brought up as a Methodist. During his aliyah to the Torah, he began to cry.

Jewish scouts were invited to join the Shomer Shabbat contingent in the shul tent for Shabbat services and meals. More than 350 showed up.

“At the Friday night meal, there were Jewish scouts and scoutmasters from all over the United States, representing the entire spectrum of Jewish identification and observance, eating together, laughing together and singing their hearts out together,” Chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goldfarb said. “We had prepared song sheets and before long everyone joined in by singing, then by banging on the tables and then by actually getting up and dancing together.”

On Sunday morning, Jamboree activities were suspended to give scouts time for religious services.

“In the past,” Schnapp said, “the Jewish boys would be left idle or would accompany their friends to non-Jewish services. This problem was addressed three Jamborees ago by providing a Sunday morning traditions program for Jewish scouts.”

Representatives of Tzivos Hashem: Jewish Children International came from Brooklyn to run the traditions program. This year, the Sunday of the Jamboree coincided with Tisha B’Av.

Despite the fact that the young men of Tzivos Hashem were fasting — and despite a torrential downpour — hundreds of Jewish scouts joined the program.

A play about Ahavat Yisrael, caring for your fellow Jew, was presented in honor of Tisha B’Av. Then the scouts crafted a Havdalah candle and their own shofar for Rosh Hashanah.

They helped “write” a Torah scroll by purchasing a letter. They had their pictures taken at a large replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, while giving charity or wearing tefillin.

And they poured their hearts into letters they wrote to God, which would be taken to the Western Wall.

“I had many encounters where kids expressed excitement about their newfound Jewish spark that was ignited at the Jamboree,” Chaplain Rabbi Pinny Gniwisch said.

One scout told Gniwisch: “When I get back home, I am definitely going to learn more about who I really am.”

Members of the Shomer Shabbat group came from 18 states. They follow different levels of Jewish observance, but for the duration of the Jamboree each committed himself to keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat and setting aside time for praying and learning.

Philip Prousnitzer of Little Rock, Ark., is not from an Orthodox family but always has been proud of his Jewishness.

Philip’s scoutmaster, Jeff Lichterman, realized that Philip would do well with the Shomer Shabbat contingent, and encouraged him to join them for the Jamboree. There Philip, now 17, served as a patrol leader.

He also provided a daily Torah commentary for the group. Each morning after prayers, the scouts would linger for a few minutes as Philip spoke about points of Jewish law relevant to the Jamboree experience.

“The combination of scouting and Judaism has been great for Philip,” said his father, Chuck Prousnitzer. “He went nuts. He became an Eagle Scout and earned his Ner Tamid” — or Eternal Light — “Award. The reinforcement of Judaism and the scouting have worked hand in hand for our son.”

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