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  • Reverence and Integration:Boy Scouts, Jewish Camping and American Orthodoxy
  • Adam S. Ferziger (bio) and Hillel D. Spielman (bio)

During my marathons I bonded with runners of all backgrounds… symbolic of my people’s position in America was the presence at a designated place for a prerace minyan at the marathon staging area—readily available, if I chose to attend. This Jewish place rested comfortably next to the Catholic Mass tent and the Protestant prayer area.1

“Young Israelites” at a Camporee

In 1947, Harold Jacobs (1912–1995) was president of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Among the activities sponsored by this then thriving Modern Orthodox synagogue was the “Shomer Shabbat” (Sabbath observant) Boy Scout Troop 404, whose ranks included two of Jacobs’ sons. Jacobs, who in subsequent years was to become a national lay leader of American Orthodoxy, accompanied the group on a weekend “camporee.”2 In his portrayal of the event, he first describes an “Orthodox” application of the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared”3—making sure [End Page 271] that all was in order on Friday afternoon such that the troop members could properly observe the Sabbath laws throughout the evening and following day. He then writes of the public prayer and Sabbath meals that took place and were experienced by the Orthodox participants. But what stands out in the description is that the Young Israel group was not alone. Regarding the “inspiring [morning] service—uniformed Boy Scouts, in their taleisim (prayer shawls), and reading from their siddurim (prayer books),” he notes “even non-Jewish troops and their leaders were awed by the sight.” Furthermore, on Sunday, when the Christian groups had their scheduled prayers, “the Camp Master approached me to conduct a Sunday morning service (l’havdil).”4 Jacobs reports that over seventy additional Scouts who were at the camporee joined Troop 404 for the “makeshift” Jewish service that he orchestrated.5

Jacobs’ depiction of this “mini-camp” captures some of the basic characteristics of Orthodox Boy Scout camping since the 1920s. Boy Scout Camps were not designed as exclusively or officially “Jewish environments” and certainly not “Orthodox” ones. On the contrary, they were by definition nonsectarian frameworks that integrated Jewish and non-Jewish troops and were generally directed by non-Jews or non-Orthodox Jews.6 With advanced planning and cooperation from the camp authorities, the Orthodox troop leaders were able to construct a setting that would enable their Scouts to conduct public prayer, maintain their religious dietary restrictions, observe the Sabbath, and even work towards earning special Jewish emblems.7 The visibility of the Orthodox contingents also attracted Jewish Scouts from other troops to their rituals. Yet as far as the Scouting activities and programming that took place during camp were concerned, the Orthodox Scouts were under the authority of the camp leadership and were fully incorporated into the program with the rest of their fellow Scouts. [End Page 272]

The Orthodox Boy Scout experience, as such, differed profoundly from the predominant model of the Jewish and especially the Orthodox summer camp that was emerging during just the same period that Jacobs attended a weekend camporee. The current article, then, aims to outline and contextualize a strand in Jewish organized camping that to date has eluded academic scholarship. In parallel, the evolution of Jewish Boy Scout camping offers a lens through which to perceive a number of key themes in the history of American Orthodoxy.

The following examines these questions: How does the Orthodox Boy Scout Camp experience compare with other forms of Jewish Camping, especially denominationally-affiliated ones? How has Orthodox Boy Scout Camp changed over time? What novel perspectives does this example offer in regard to broader changes in American Orthodoxy? The discussion is based on archival records, journalistic articles, secondary studies, and written exchanges and personal interviews with Jewish Scouts, leaders, rabbis–some who were active as far back as the 1940s–and others who are still intensively involved. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but seeks to offer insight into the main contours of the distinctive Orthodox Jewish camping model that evolved in Boy Scout Camp.


Founded in 1910, the main constituency of the Boy...


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pp. 271-295
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