A 40-something man sporting a tan Boy Scouts of America shirt and a black kippah raises his right hand and extends his index, middle and ring fingers high into the air.
"OK, everybody remember how this goes?" he asks as a group of Scouts raise three fingers skyward. "Now form a straight line," he commands, and like the Rockettes, the boys zip into perfect formation.
"We want to leave the park cleaner than we found it," he tells the boys, as they walk the length of their picnic area, bending to pick up every scrap of trash, down to the cigarette butts others have discarded in the grass.
The scene may not be unusual for a Sunday afternoon at Studio City Park, save for the fact that this troop's boys all sport kippot and tzitzit. They are the boys from Troop 613, North Hollywood's newly formed Sabbath observant Boy Scout troop.
The 22-member troop is one of approximately 20 Jewishly observant troops throughout the United States, and the third in Southern California (the Long Beach troop has 27 boys and the La Brea/Fairfax troop has 10).
Troop 613 -- named for the 613 Torah commandments -- was the brainchild of Eli Mafouda and Gary Bregman, two fathers from Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, who wanted their boys to get a taste of outdoor life and learn survival skills not taught in school.
Mafouda, the troop scoutmaster, grew up in Israel. He remembered his days in the Gadna, the youth defense training program.
"We need to train this generation how to use equipment, know first aid and how to help in time of injury," Mafouda explains. "We want them to know how to use an ax, a knife and to use imagination. We want to give them tools for self-defense and survival, while teaching them the highest moral values."
"I see Scouting as a way to promote life skills our children need in the 21st century," says Bregman, troop committee chairman. "Scouting will teach you how to read a compass and cut out a trail, know what supplies to take, show you the difference between a rattlesnake and a garden snake, how to find which stars to follow, and what water [is] safe to drink."
"And," he laughs, "it's a way to get the boys out from behind their computers."
Bregman and Mafouda approached local rabbis for approval and support and met with local Boy Scout council members. The rabbis gave their blessings, Shaarey Zedek Congregation agreed to sponsor the troop, and the local Scout council offered training sessions and encouragement. After eight boys joined, Troop 613 became official.
Neither Mafouda nor Bregman were Scouts in their youth. Luckily, four fathers who were former Scouts (including two who were Eagle Scouts) signed on as assistant scoutmasters.
Former Scout Alan Stomel and his son Zev do the unthinkable for many "city" dwellers -- they commute from the Westside to the Valley for Scout meetings and activities.
"Having grown up in the Valley as a Boy Scout myself, I felt that that aspect of experience was lacking in my own kid, and especially with all kids from Orthodox day schools," Stomel says. "They have such a full schedule they don't have time for other activities."
The boys need an exclusively Orthodox troop because they wouldn't fit in a regular troop due to kashrut, scheduling and Shabbat observance, Stomel says. In an Orthodox troop, the boys can plan activities and programs taking their religious needs into account, and they can join other Scout troops for joint activities as well.
Bob Oberstein, chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the Western Los Angeles County Council, recalls an annual
retreat a few years ago that included an
Orthodox troop. "It was great for the boys to see how other Jews live and work and go about their activities in a Scouting environment," Oberstein says. "They're doing the things Scouts do and keeping the Jewish tradition. That's something rather special."
Karen Codman, Scoutmaster for the Long Beach Sabbath-observant troop, believes that Scouting and Jewish values go hand in hand. "Especially in today's values-neutral society, Scouting is so important because it teaches values."
Most boys didn't come to Troop 613 to build their character, but that comes with the territory. David Hemley, l4, is a student at Toras Emes and patrol leader of the Timberwolf Patrol. "I joined to get experience outside," he says. "There's tons of stuff we learn about outdoor life and camping, and Scouting gives me a chance to do shooting and archery. We really learn stuff everyone should know."
Bregman believes that Troop 613 teaches the lesson that stereotypes are not to be accepted. "Most boys have the preconception that Scouting is nerdy. But once they come to any event, especially a camp-out, they never use that word again. And we [in the Troop] dispel the preconceived notion that we [Orthodox Jews] just learn Torah. Torah and Scouting go hand in hand."