November 21, 2002
Scouting: Not Just A Girls’ Club
"You got any 'swaps'"? The question was asked as a greeting by a couple of middle-aged women dressed in forest-green suits, who encountered some other women in forest-green suits in the parking lot of the Long Beach Convention Center, where the National Girl Scouts Convention was being held.
"Swaps" is Girl Scout talk for pins and patches made by different Girl Scout councils in the United States and elsewhere. For Girl Scouts, who wear the green uniform that symbolizes the universal color of mother nature, the acquisition of swaps is a lifelong pursuit.
"Oh God! I probably have at least 1,000 patches," said Mary Rose Theroux, 67, who traveled to the convention from Massachusetts. Theroux's jacket was covered with the patches, and her patriot hat was covered with pins. "I have been collecting them for over 30 years," she said.
Other women were similarly decked out, wearing jackets covered with so many patches that very little of the actual cloth could be seen. They held bags of multicolored patches that they eagerly displayed and swapped with other Girl Scout patch collectors.
For Jewish swaps collectors, last month's Girl Scouts Convention offered them a chance to obtain the new, redesigned Shabbat patch. The patch was previously a Sabbath patch, but the National Jewish Girl Scouts Committee revamped it to be more inclusive of Judaic values.
The convention focused on showing the diversity of girl scouting, with booths celebrating the different Girl Scout councils around the country. The Jewish Girl Scouts booth highlighted the infusion of Girl Scout values with Jewish values and provided information about the special awards and programs unique to Jewish Girl Scouts.
Jewish Girl Scouts do everything that non-Jewish Girl Scouts do, for example, camping, selling cookies and cleaning up beaches. However, they also are given the opportunity to earn badges and awards that require them to learn about their history and heritage.
The Oct.17-21 convention, which drew 15,000 Girl Scouts from across the country, was remarkably free of girls. Only a few hundred girls attended the convention. The vast majority of participants were women who had had girl scouting as a constant in their lives for several decades, like Adele Wakso, 76, of Bronxville, N.Y., who manned the Jewish Girl Scouts booth, has been a scout for 45 years.
"In three weeks, I am going to be 80 years old," said Lynn McKenzie from Maine, who was wearing a blue hat with a big, red plush lobster on it. "And as of Nov. 13, I will have been a Girl Scout for 70 years."
Juliette Gordon Low started the Girl Scouts in the United States with a meeting of 18 girls in Savannah, Ga., in 1912. Low thought that scouting would give girls a chance to develop physically, mentally and spiritually. Today there are 3.7 million Girl Scouts in the United States -- from 6 (Brownie) to 17 (Senior) -- and 8.5 million worldwide.
Girl Scouts of the United States of America is a multicultural organization, open to girls of all races and creeds. Pluralism is built into its bylaws, with the Girl Scouts' Blue Book of Basic Documents stating, "Every Girl Scout group shall respect the varying religious opinions and practices of its membership in planning and conducting activities." This rubric paved the way for the National Jewish Girl Scouts Committee to be formed in 1972, which aimed to incorporate Jewish values and traditions with those of the Girl Scouts.
There are no figures on how many Jewish Girl Scouts there are in the United States today. However, the committee gives out 500 Jewish-themed Girl Scout awards annually.
The Jewish Girl Scouts booth at the convention, displayed information about how to be a Shabbat-observant camper, as well as leaflets promoting the Lehava and Bat Orah achievement awards.
"Judaism and girl scouting have the same moral and ethical values," Wakso said. "There is no difference between a Jewish Girl Scout and an ordinary Girl Scout. We both believe in service to God, country and mankind,"
While Los Angeles does not have any Jewish-only Girl Scout troops, there are a number of Jewish girls who are members of other councils and chapters.
"About a third of our troop is Jewish," said Rachel Birenbaum, 9, who belongs to a Pacific Palisades troop and has 30 patches in her collection. Rachel has been in scouting since she was 5, and her mother, Barbara, is her troop leader.
"In Girl Scouts I learned to respect people," Rachel said. "I learned teamwork, and [through the awards] I learned about how the Torah is related to our lives. It's really a lot of fun."