It is a safe bet that when Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, the first Baron Baden-Powell, first came up with the idea of Boy Scouts, it didn’t occur to him that just a little over a century later, his movement, transplanted to the United States, would include a National Jewish Committee on Scouting.
Baron Baden-Powell was a consummate Victorian military man; if he hadn’t been born, Rudyard Kipling would have invented him. He of course was Christian, but as it soon became clear, his emphasis was more on religion in general than his in particular. Religion is very important in scouting.
Hence the many official Boy Scout national chaplains in this country, representing, among other faiths, Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The Jewish chaplaincy has existed since 1927, a surprising 90 years ago.
This is relevant here and now because the committee’s new head is Joseph Prouser, Conservative rabbi and Eagle Scout.
Rabbi Prouser, who leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, has been a Scout “ever since I was a little kid, for almost as long as I can remember,” he said. He grew up in Northampton, Mass.; his troop was sponsored by the First Church of Christ. That “was never an issue,” he said. The troop drew boys from all over the area, although none from that church. Very few of them were Jewish — it was not an overwhelmingly Jewish area, although because it’s home to many academics, there always are some. “It was never a problem being Jewish,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Religious devotion — what Scouts call reverence — is very much a part of it. Everyone was urged to grapple with their own religious identity, and that work was rewarded, no matter what religious identity you claimed as your own.”
Rabbi Prouser began his Scouting career as a Cub Scout, and then moved steadily through the ranks until he reached the highest, most difficult to attain level, Eagle Scout. To become an Eagle Scout, a boy has to plan and execute a major project, and direct other Scouts as they help him. Rabbi Prouser’s was with the Northampton Historical Society. “The town was founded in the 17th century, and the historical society had a barn where they had been keeping all sort of artifacts for decades, or maybe even for centuries.
“I took a group of boys into the barn and we did almost an archeological dig. We sorted through the stuff there, and catalogued it, and provided suggestions for its use or display. We found paintings, we found 19th century farm equipment. We found some tombstones from the founding fathers of Northampton.”
Those tombstones provided one possible answer to the age-old question — what do you do when you have a typo etched in stone? Obviously you can’t erase it. So, at least in Northampton, you redo it on another stone, and you keep the old one around, to use to pave a road or hold down a weight or whatever else it could be handy for. And until then, you store it, so an Eagle Scout can uncover it hundreds of years later.
It happened that Rabbi Prouser’s Eagle Scout project was in 1976 — the bicentennial year — so it was even more relevant.
A candidate becomes an Eagle Scout at what is called a Court of Honor, an individual ceremony with great emotional weight for the boy and his family and friends. Joe Prouser’s was at his shul, Congregation B’nai Israel. He remembers its Hebrew school as being extraordinarily good — so good, in fact, that when his rabbi, Asher Bar-Zev, spoke at the ceremony, “he addressed me in Hebrew, and I remember feeling a bit surprised, both because he chose to do that and because I could understand him.”
During college, Rabbi Prouser was in the College Scouting Reserves, a program created largely to keep young men connected; he lost most of that connection in rabbinical school and then picked it up at the local level when he and his young family moved to Connecticut when he took a pulpit there. But then, in 1997, “I got a call, out of the blue, from a member of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, saying that there was a need for a chaplain at a National Jamboree.”
The Boy Scouts of America holds a national jamboree every four years. The international scouting organization holds one every four years as well. The dates are staggered, so there is a Boy Scout Jamboree to which an American Boy Scout can go held every other summer. Rabbi Prouser had never been to one before, though; as soon as he was old enough for a summer job, he’d worked at a Boy Scout camp. “One of my first paid jobs was as a cooking merit badge instructor,” he said; in that capacity “I taught kids how to cook over an open fire.” It is a skill he retains, he added.
Rabbi Prouser went to the jamboree, and despite being geographically illogical, he became the scouting movement’s Jewish chaplain for the western region, where he did not live. But he spent some time in Utah, and developed what have become strong, long-lasting relationships with Mormon Scout leaders.
Now, Rabbi Prouser is one of four Boy Scout Jewish chaplains; he replaces his mentor, Rabbi Peter Hyman, who remains as senior Jewish chaplain but is giving up his chairmanship after 30 years. Another of the rabbis is a former Eagle Scout.
There are many Jewish Boy Scouts, Rabbi Prouser said. At the Jamboree, “there is a sizeable contingent of shomer Shabbes Scouts, who have their own synagogue tent. And there are many other Jews who are not part of that organized effort.”
This is a National Jamboree summer; it’s set for ten mid-July days, in West Virginia. They are major undertakings; the last one drew about 35,000 boys and about 10,00 staff members, Rabbi Prouser said. Among them are many Jews — and many Muslims.
“We’re planning a joint meal for the Jewish and Muslim Scouts,” Rabbi Prouser said. Some Muslim Scouts will be from overseas, he added. Foreign delegations can come to U.S. jamborees; one will come from Egypt this year, and maybe from other majority Muslim countries as well. “We are going to be doing some joint programming, and I think it’s for the first time,” he added. “There have been smaller-scale efforts to get us together, but this is the first time en masse.”
Although the plans are not yet firm, he hopes to break the ice between the Jewish and Muslim scouts spectacularly, with what are called “social circus coaches.” (That’s circus coaches who use the circus arts they teach to bring disparate students together, not people who think of social relationships as a metaphoric circus.) “The program is specially designed to bring together groups separated by culture of circumstance,” he said. “It should be fun.”
Rabbi Prouser believes that scouting has widened his world, increased his understanding of the many people with whom he shares it, and given him the freedom and flexibility to remain fully who he is. “From the time I was really young, my deepest and most valued friendships were with other people involved in scouting,” he said. “That is certainly true today. I think that those friendships were so deep and lasting because we share values and commitments.
“I am regularly in touch with people of very different perspectives, religious affiliations, and beliefs, and they’re very different from mine,” he continued. “I have close friends who are members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in Utah, and Rabbi Hyman is one of my closest and dearest colleagues.” Rabbi Hyman is Reform, and “theologically and in religious practice we are really very different. It is our common experience with and commitment to this organization that brings us together, and bridges all these other differences.”
In a way, he’s a Jewish ambassador to the scouting world. “Part of my job as national chaplain is to bridge what sometimes can be a gulf,” he said.
What about bridging the worlds of Scouting and the rabbinate?
“The rabbinate can be all-consuming,” Rabbi Prouser said. “This level of scouting can be therapeutic. It is very healthy to have some other area of activity and creativity. But they aren’t completely separate worlds. Part of the attraction for me is that they are complementary areas of my rabbinic endeavor.
“A rabbi would ill serve the Jewish community by devoting himself exclusively to Jewish particularist interests and activities. So I honestly believe that it is a service to my congregation, my community, and the Jewish community more broadly that I involve myself in the Boy Scouts of America.
“And I think that it is to the credit of the Boy Scouts that it so strongly urges its participants to engage in their own religious identities and communities. The scouting organization understands that this kind of religious expression strengthens the Boy Scouts — and that it also strengthens the individual.”