Jewish Scouts in France Remain Dedicated to History and Tradition
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Jewish Scouts in France Remain Dedicated to History and Tradition

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An immense pot of goulash simmers over an open fire as French teenagers in scout uniforms and kipot sit around log tables covered in white tablecloths.

It’s Friday night, and the scouts are sitting down to a traditional Shabbat dinner in the rough of the Dordogne, a rural region in southwest France.

Tents are pitched across the rolling fields and the scouts have constructed stoves, sinks, tables and a makeshift, open-air synagogue from logs and planks. The youths, who come from Lille, Metz and Paris, are part of the 80-year- old French Jewish scouting movement, known by its French acronym, EEIF.

The camp in Dordogne is one of more than a dozen Jewish scouting camps across France, each representing three urban regions.

“It’s fun being with so many other Jewish kids in the outdoors,” Michael, 16, says as he stirs the goulash. This is Michael’s eighth summer with EEIF.

“Some of my 10-year-old campers arrive with their cell phones and the latest ‘Game Boy’ consoles,” says Raphael, 18, a counselor for some of the younger scouts. “Others are from modest and even disadvantaged families. But we confiscate the cell phones, and with their scout shirts and scarves on, everyone is equal.”

Anna, a gregarious 19-year-old counselor, says, “Some of the first-time, 14- and 15-year-old campers aren’t really the scouting type. They’re preppy, upper-middle-class kids. But after a week they love it.”

Nearly 3,000 French youngsters ages 8 to 16 join EEIF camps every summer for three weeks of communal living in a Jewish atmosphere. Counselors like Raphael, a first-year engineering student, take a month out of their summer vacations to volunteer for the camp.

“We want to transmit to the young campers what we were given when we were young,” Anna says. “It’s the natural order of things — in scouting the young learn from the young.”

Scouts attend year-round activities at 55 local branches across France, but the three-week summer camp is the high point of the year. Counselors meet weeks in advance to plan educational themes and activities.

They arrive on site a week in advance to take delivery of logs and lumber, rent equipment like mechanical shovels for digging latrines and freezers for storing kosher meat transported from Lyon, arrange for running water to be hooked up and make pots and pans kosher.

The camps are set up every July on fields rented from local farmers all over France.

Founded in 1923 by Robert Gamzon, the 17-year-old grandson of a former chief rabbi of France, the EEIF was designed to appeal to all types of Jews.

The movement strives to impart to children a sense of duty, obedience and initiative and to cultivate committed, resourceful and upright citizens. EEIF’s key values include nature, civic duty, Israel, Judaism and the “duty of remembering” the Holocaust.

The youngsters participate in traditional scouting activities like building fires and tying knots, but they also take part in Jewish cultural and religious activities.

The camps maintain Sabbath observance and adhere to kosher regulations, and there are morning and Sabbath prayer services. Counselors are trained to give lessons on Jewish history and religion, and some go on trips to Israel or places like Auschwitz.

EEIF also conducts activities with non-Jewish scouting movements. Every summer, counselors-in-training participate in social welfare projects, like helping build a center for vocational training in Senegal, constructing an infirmary and a banana grove in Ivory Coast or working with orphans in Peru.

Other projects have taken scouts to Madagascar, Cameroon and Brazil. Next summer, a group will visit the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China.

The EEIF held a celebration this month marking the movement’s 80th anniversary.

About 3,000 scouts and staff camping out in the Dordogne area traveled to the celebration in the town of Perigueux, where many old-timers had gathered.

EEIF’s executive director, Fred Cherbite, said about 800 scout veterans came to the celebration from places like Strasbourg, Marseille and even Tel Aviv.

“They come to rediscover the feeling of community,” he said.

During the festivities, old-timers sat together in a circle singing scouting tunes from their youth.

Some of those songs, like the Evening Song, which today’s scouts still sing every night before bedtime, date back to the time of the French resistance against the Nazi occupation of France.

Many EEIF members took part in the resistance. The “duty of remembering” the resistance and the Holocaust is a key part of the scouts’ moral code.

After an evening of spectacular fireworks, spirited songs and speeches at the celebration’s closing ceremony, 4,000 people stood around a gigantic bonfire listening in silence to the reading of a list of 150 scouts from the resistance who perished during the Holocaust.

The 80th anniversary event was timed to coincide with the annual ceremony required by French law marking the “Vel d’Hiv” round-up.

On July 15 and 16, 1942, French police arrested nearly 13,000 Jews in Paris, including 4,000 children. They were held at the Velodrome d’Hiver, a Paris sports stadium, and deported six days later by the Nazis.

Jean-Paul Bader, 80, who is still active in the scouts movement, was a high-school student in Perigueux in 1940 when he started working with other EEIF members to help spirit Jewish children to safety in Switzerland.

He recalls posing as a social worker accompanying “summer camps” on train trips towards the border several times a week. The convoys of Jewish children leaving France continued through 1943.

Bader also helped set up a bona fide EEIF summer camp under cover of a Protestant scouting movement. During school vacations, this was the best way to hide Jewish children sheltered in Catholic boarding schools during the school year.

He also forged identity cards and food ration cards for French Jews under Nazi occupation.

Bader also recruited young adults for the underground armed resistance, called the maquis.

“The maquis was made up almost entirely of scouts, Jewish and non-Jewish,” Bader says. “There were 120 Jewish scouts in the maquis, the equivalent of a whole squadron.”

EEIF members were active during the war in other ways as well. One young scout who understood German and worked in a bar frequented by the Gestapo would send urgent warnings when he overheard Germans discussing plans to round up local Jews.

“Unfortunately,” Bader says, “many of the Jews didn’t listen.”

“But I don’t dwell on this all the time with the children,” Bader says. He says he prefers to look toward the future and focus on scouting values.

Nowadays, EEIF works with many scouting movements. Representatives of the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim scout movements in France attended the 80th anniversary celebration, including a group of six French Muslim scouts who recently visited Auschwitz.

Israel’s scouts movement, Tzofim, also sent representatives.

The Jewish division of the Boy Scouts of America soon will be affiliated with EEIF and the Tzofim as founding members of the new International Forum of Jewish Scouts.

“It will be the basis of partnership and exchanges, both human and of ideas, and we hope to create new Jewish scouts movements in other countries, in particular in South America and Eastern Europe,” Cherbite says.

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