A course designed with scheduling flexibility and other special accommodations allows those participants with specific religious requirements to participate in the BSA’s highest level of volunteer training.
The Boy Scouts of America tries to provide training for volunteer leaders in a variety of formats that can accommodate all kinds of personal schedules and situations.
To this end, Boy Scout Leader Wood Badge, the most advanced training a Boy Scout leader can obtain, is usually held either over three weekends or in a seven-day stretch from Sunday to Saturday.
Both schedules, however, pose a serious problem for Jewish Scouters who are strict observers of Judaic law. They are forbidden to do certain things on the Sabbath (Friday sundown through Saturday sundown) that are required of participants in Wood Badge courses. In addition, their food must be kosher, requiring two sets of cooking utensils for its preparation – one for meats and one for dairy foods.
An ecumenical gathering
To accommodate these needs, an eight-day Wood Badge course was developed, and the BSA’s Northeast Region has held the special session every three years since 1992.
The training, which runs Wednesday to Wednesday, has attracted not only observant Jews, but other leaders with specific religious needs, including Islamic Scouters and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).
The most recent course was held at the Westchester-Putnam Council’s Camp Siwanoy in Wingdale, N.Y.
The Rev. Leon G. (Lee) Bird, minister of the Wesley Methodist Church in Strasburg, Pa., was one of three clergy members among the participants. He said he enjoyed meeting Scouters of other faiths, because “I think the experience helps make me a little more sensitive to the needs of people who have beliefs different from mine.”
Another clergy participant, the Rev. John T. Bacon, rector of St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church in Chelsea, Mass., also liked the idea of interaction with people of other faiths and traditions. The opportunity would be, in addition to all the Scoutcraft and leadership skills learned in Boy Scout Leader Wood Badge training, like “frosting on the cake,” he said.
The third clergy participant was Rabbi Lisa Vernon, an observant Jew who teaches at the Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, N.J. She has been assistant Cubmaster of the school’s Pack 118 and is moving up to Troop 118 with her son. Like the other observant Jews in the course, she appreciated the course concept, because, “this was really the only opportunity for me to take Wood Badge.”
Thirteen of the 26 participants were Jewish, including six who described themselves as Orthodox. Other participants included nine Roman Catholics, three Protestants, and one Eastern Orthodox (Father Bacon). The Wood Badge staff was similarly ecumenical, with six Jewish Scouters, three Roman Catholics, and five Protestants.
Meeting religious needs
Early each morning, Jewish Scouters held prayer services, while mass was conducted for the Roman Catholics by the Rev. Anthony J. (Father Tony) Pleho, who was on staff as a quartermaster. Father Tony is pastor of the Most Holy Trinity Church in Yonkers, N.Y.
Jewish services were held again each afternoon and night. Two Orthodox Jews, Daniel Chazin and Mayer Resnick, were on the quartermaster staff to ensure that food supplied to the patrols was kosher.
Each patrol had two sets of utensils – one for meat and one for dairy foods. Non-Jews shared cooking duties, too, which meant learning to follow the dietary regulations of Judaism.
The course is designed with a flexibility to accommodate participants’ religious concerns, said course director Gerald M. (Jerry) Geiger, who, like Jim Healy, has been on staff for all three Wood Badge courses.
“For example, some Orthodox Jews want to be reassured that it’s acceptable if they don’t wear short pants, because some will not wear them,” he noted. “And many of the men prefer to wear a yarmulke rather than a Scout hat, which is fine with us.”
A full Wood Badge course
The curriculum and training sessions are the same as for any other Wood Badge course. “The services we have for Jews and Catholics don’t take away anything from Wood Badge – they add to it,” Geiger said.
Participants are placed in patrols and simulate the experiences Boy Scouts have in camp in any well-run troop. Each patrol is assigned a staff member called a coach-counselor, the equivalent of an assistant Scoutmaster.
Course director Jerry Geiger served as Scoutmaster of the Wood Badge troop. A former regional chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting, Geiger is currently an assistant district commissioner in the Philadelphia-based Cradle of Liberty Council.
As in all other Wood Badge courses, the participants in the Religious Observant session formed close bonds with their patrolmates and members of the staff.
After the course ended, Michelle Weiss, a den leader and a district camping committee member in the Greater New York Council, wrote the staff: “I was filled with sadness at the prospect of leaving you all and at the same time eager to return home and start to put into practice the skills you taught me … Scouting is an unbelievably important part of my life. It was before I came to you. That devotion has quadrupled in the past week. …
“The past week has changed me in ways I cannot describe,” she continued. “You have become a part of my family.”
Scouting magazine contributing editor Robert Peterson lives in Ramsey, N.J.
Discovering a ‘Contagious Spirit’
By Leon G. Bird
A member of the council office staff told me about a special Wood Badge course in New York State that I might be interested in since it was designed for “religious observants.”
Yes, I am “religiously observant” in terms of my own faith: I pray regularly and say grace before meals at home as well as in a restaurant; I study the Scriptures faithfully. In fact, I lead my church in worship most Sundays: I am an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.
But the phrase “religiously observant” would take on significantly new meaning for me before the course was over.
The eight-day session started on a Wednesday, which meant participants would be away from home for only one weekend. This, I thought, was the major scheduling accommodation for participants who were “religiously observant.”
But upon arriving at Camp Siwanoy in Wingdale, N.Y., I realized that the participants included many Jewish Scouters. Our food would be from a kosher kitchen and would be separated in the field for meat and milk menus. And we would pause in the program week to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath (which began on Friday evening and continued through Saturday).
My patrol had six people. Harve, Jerry, Neil, and Marshall were Jewish; Brenda was Catholic; I (as noted above) was Methodist.
The early days found us struggling to remember names and learning little tidbits about each other, particularly Scouting backgrounds. Add to that the struggle to understand the cultural differences generated by our religious heritages, and we’d done “hard labor” by the time Friday evening and the Sabbath arrived.
It was about at this point in the program when our patrol began to act like a team instead of six individuals.
Entering the Sabbath opened the door to serious discussions about our faith, and I was richly blessed by the ease with which my new Jewish and Catholic friends opened up, answering my questions and asking their own.
I was surprised to discover that the religious observant Jewish Scouters could not carry a notebook, a flashlight, or even a pencil during the Sabbath. While they could follow in our light, they could not ask Brenda or me for our help. I discovered that kosher food is marvelous and the spirit of the Sabbath celebration is contagious. I couldn’t sing the lyrics, but I rejoiced as the younger Scouters led us in Hebrew music; it lifted the heart even though I didn’t understand the words.
The only rain we had all week hit on the evening we had to backpack to another site for the night. Most of us got wet, some thoroughly soaked. But everyone shared the morning duties, and we walked back into camp right on time. We had become a patrol.
And in joining in the faith journey of some very fine Scouters, I came to appreciate just how our differences can actually strengthen the bonds of teamwork among leaders.
Leon G. Bird serves as vice president for membership in the Pennsylvania Dutch Council, Lancaster, Pa.
Idea Began With a ‘Ticket’
Wood Badge candidates don’t receive the wooden beads that signify having completed training until they carry out a written commitment to service called a “ticket.”
The Wood Badge course for religious observant Scouters began as part of the ticket of Rabbi Israel D. Benedek of Brooklyn, N.Y., the chaplain of Jewish Scouting in the Greater New York Council.
In the mid-1970s, Rabbi Benedek, an Orthodox Jew, was a Scoutmaster on Long Island. He signed up for Wood Badge even though it was rare for an observant Jew to take the training because it occurred over the Sabbath. And the food was not kosher.
But Rabbi Benedek brought his own kosher food and prepared it according to Jewish law. And the staff made adjustments to activities to meet his needs.
As part of his Wood Badge ticket, Rabbi Benedek says he suggested to course organizers that “a very special course be developed that would accommodate the needs of Sabbath observers.”
Ten years later, in 1992, it became reality.