Want to build a fire, tie a knot and learn first aid — all in a Jewish context?
These and other life skills are experienced by boys in sixth through 12th grades at Boy Scout troop number 613, now recruiting, in West Hempstead.
Dr. Steve Mermelstein founded the troop five years ago at the Young Israel of Woodmere, when his son Andrew was involved in scouting. When Andrew, who attained the highest rank of Eagle scout, left for a year of study in Israel, Steve Kahn of West Hempstead became Scoutmaster and the troop moved to Congregation Anshei Shalom, where Kahn is president. Two of Kahn’s sons are in the troop.
Troop 613 follows typical Boy Scout programs, “except that they are kosher and focus on mitzvot, especially if they are camping overnight,” Kahn said.
A Shabbat overnight camping trip would include a Sefer Torah with leining (Torah reading), and learning the laws of and building an eruv before Shabbat. A two-week summer camp is run with Boston-based Jewish troop 54.
Over Sukkot, troop 613 joined with Brooklyn’s Jewish troop 611 at Camp Pouch on Staten Island for a two-night camping trip. They built a sukkah out of bamboo poles and rope, ate in the sukkah everyday, davened, and slept in tents, said Kahn.
Troop 613 currently has 21 members and generally meets twice a month on Sundays from 6:30 to 8 pm, working through the different advancement requirements, accruing ranks and titles, learning skills and completing projects to earn merit badges to advance in rank. The titles run through scout, tenderfoot, second class, first class, star, life and the highest is Eagle Scout.
Kahn noted that some of the skills the scouts learn include first aid, CPR, cooking, fire making, hiking, camping, knowledge of the United States Constitution and, specifically for this Jewish troop, Jewish knowledge. Some of the Jewish knowledge includes Torah, history of Israel, Jewish laws and customs, and the Jewish calendar.
The scouts can earn two Jewish badges: the Ner Tamid Award for 6th to 9th graders, a prerequisite to the second Jewish badge, the Etz Chaim Award for 10th to 12th graders. When the requirements have been completed the scouts have to “demonstrate proficiency in those areas to three members of the scouting committee.”
The Jewish committee on scouting operates under the Boy Scouts of America, said Kahn.
“The goal,” explained Kahn, “is to develop a well-rounded individual who enters the world and is prepared to tackle any situation they may come across.” He pointed out that “be prepared” is the scouting motto.
“The oldest scouts teach the younger scouts,” he continued. “This allows them to learn how to work with a group of kids, and helps them (reinforce what they learned) when they teach. It helps them develop leadership and teaching skills, working with groups, dealing with scouts with different needs and interest levels.”
Kahn explained said there are 140 merit badges under the Boy Scouts of America. An Eagle Scout must earn a minimum of 21, with 13 required and the others to be chosen by the scout. Some of the required ones include communications, first aid, citizenship, cooking, hiking or swimming, personal management, personal fitness, emergency preparedness and family life.
“Every badge and scout is different — most require no set time to complete, some (they) can do in an hour or two.”
Kahn, an accountant, noted that the personal management badge, relating to financial matters, requires the scout to prepare a budget and track it for 90 days. He also pointed out that the personal fitness badge, related to keeping fit and staying healthy, requires the scout to track certain activities over 90 days to “show improvement.”
A typical hike for the troop covers four to six miles. This Sunday, 613 is heading to the Palisades, Kahn said.
In a pre-hike meeting, they will discuss what to do on a hike, what to bring, how to pack a backpack for efficiency, and how to behave. He emphasized that they are taught to “leave no trace” — to clean the campsite when they leave, “that what we leave with we come back with, to stay with the group, to stay with your buddy and be aware of safety and your surroundings. There is an old adage related to hiking, ‘Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.’”
Kahn noted the costs of $50 annual dues and $100 for the uniform and handbook. The assistant scoutmaster is Stu Milworn, a West Hempstead electrician who also has a son in the group, and their committee chairperson, the liaison between the troop and Congregation Anshei Shalom, is Joe Varon, a retired public school teacher with a long involvement in scouting, said Kahn.
“We are always recruiting,” stressed Kahn. “They can join anytime. Boys should join because they can learn skills they will not learn anywhere else. Not everybody’s built to play sports. Not everybody’s interested in sports. It give kids the opportunity to learn skills to help them down the road, with leadership, to deal with other kids, teaches responsibility, to complete a task, life skills, deferred gratification and working towards a goal.”
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