CHAPTER ONE: The Early Years (1910 – 1957)

On February 8, 1910, William Boyce helped found the Boy Scouts of America.  The BSA was later chartered by the United States Congress in 1916.  During the early years of the movement, Boyce looked for financing to sustain the organization.  Shortly after the BSA’s founding, Boyce met with Mortimer Schiff, a prominent Jewish financier, and William Mitchell, the national president of the YMWHA (Young Mens and Womens Hebrew Association).  Both men thought that Jews and Jewish institutions should be involved in the movement based on the similar program run by Lord Baden-Powell in England.

In 1911, Schiff donated $4,800, joining Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller as the first major contributors to the BSA.  Schiff was a Vice President of the BSA from 1910 until 1931 when he was elected President.  He died later that year and his family recognized his passion for the Scouting movement by donating the Schiff Scout Reservation and National Training Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

In 1913, the first Jewish troop was formed at the 92nd Street YMWHA in New York City.  With the support of William Mitchell, the National Council of YMHAs created a “Scouting Committee”.  Jewish Scouting continued to find support nationwide.

In 1926, the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS) was formed and later chartered by the BSA National Council.  That same year the first Silver Buffalo Awards (the highest recognition the National Council can bestow on its volunteers) were presented to Schiff, Baden-Powell, and several other early stalwarts of the movement.

Membership in the Scouting movement continued to grow and by 1957, 1,367 troops were chartered to Jewish religious and fraternal institutions throughout the United States.  There were an estimated 100,000 Jewish Scouts registered in both Jewish and non-Jewish sponsored Scout troops.

Later, the NJCOS recognized the substantial contributions of Frank L. Weil, one of its co-founders who served as its Chairman from 1935 to 1957, by naming two awards in his honor.  The first is the “Quality Jewish Committee Award” and the second is the “Unit Recognition Award“.  A scholarship in his name is also administered by the Committee.

Source: “A Critical History of Organized Jewish Involvement in the Boy Scouts of America 1926-1987” By Rabbi Arnold M. Sleutelberg

CHAPTER TWO: Decline and Rebirth (1958 – 1988)

Soon after the death of NJCOS Chairman Frank Weil in 1958, the number of Jewish Scouts and units began an inexorable decline. The decline was dramatic, from a total of 1,367 Jewish troops chartered to Jewish organizations and synagogues in 1957 to a nadir of 267 units in 1987. Correlatively, the number of Ner Tamid Awards declined from 560 in 1957 to none being reported as awarded in 1981. The rapid decline in Jewish Scouting was attributed to several factors: first, the assimilation of Jews within their neighborhoods along with secularization and a distancing of the Jewish home from the “Jewish community;” second, sociologic issues in American society developed from the late 1960’s into the 1980s; and finally, the loss of a visionary leader – Frank Weil.

Frank Weil’s successor as the NJCOS chairman was Jeffrey L. Lazarus. Mr. Lazarus promoted some key initiatives, including the “Philmont Project”, a Jewish Chapel and on-site Jewish Chaplain at Philmont. During Mr. Lazarus’ tenure, additional NJCOS Awards were developed, including the “Aleph Award” for younger Scouts and an adult award, the “Ram’s Horn Award,” later known as the Shofar Award.

By 1960, NJCOS leadership instituted “Project Bull’s Eye” to address the rapidly developing decline of Jewish involvement in Scouting. Despite the hard work and efforts of many individuals, the decline continued. During this period, the decline was attributed to the sociologic conflicts between the Jewish observance of the Jewish Sabbath and holidays with council activities; later on it was discovered that there was a masking of the actual severity of the decline which led to a failure to address the issues in a timely fashion.

Coincident with the national decline in Jewish youth and units in Scouting, there was also a precipitous decline in the activities of the NJCOS. Several factors were opined by Harry Lasker, the Director of Jewish Relationships for the BSA. These included: lack of a national travel budget to visit and train local council and district executives; the decline of the cultural and social fabric of the Jewish community; mergers of synagogues and the dispersal of the Jewish population from the inner cities to the suburbs. This led to secularized neighborhoods and council activities contributing to a diaspora of Judaism. What was needed to reverse the spiraling decline of Jewish scouting were innovative educational and program methods.

In 1982, under the new NJCOS Chairman, Marshall Sloane, reorganization of the NJCOS occurred, including realignment into sub-committees and a Philmont Scout Ranch Conference to train Scouters in techniques to expand Jewish Scouting along with pamphlets, video and bimonthly guides to Jewish leaders.

During the 1980s, morale increased, the relationship between the BSA and Jewish organizations improved and stability –  if not growth in Jewish Scouting – occurred. The overall success was attributed to greater organizational skills and redirection of manpower and resources and development of detailed but easy to use materials and guides. The implementation of  the turnaround was driven by the Rabbinic Task Force, chaired by Rabbi Peter Hyman, which addressed the issues of how to present and sell the Scouting Program to Jewish institutions. This was followed by integrating Scouting programs into a Jewish format and addressing the needs of Jewish community centers and synagogues. As the 1980’s came to a close, Jewish Scouting was once again on the rise in the Scouting movement.

Coming soon!   CHAPTER THREE: The Evolution of Jewish Scouting into the Second Century (1959 – Present)