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Jewish Journal

Jewish Scouting leaders vocal on gay inclusion

by Gil Shefler, JTA

May 9, 2013 | 6:06 pm

Jewish Scouting leaders are taking a vocal role in efforts to pass a historic resolution that would partially lift a ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.

In a meeting of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting in February, members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution lifting the BSA's longstanding ban on gay members. Now the Jewish Scouting group is working to shore up support for a resolution to be voted on at the Boy Scouts of America's annual convention in Dallas later this month that would prevent the Scouts from denying membership to anyone younger than 18 on the basis of sexual orientation. The resolution would not change the BSA's ban on gay adult leaders.

“I am advocating for complete change and inclusiveness,” NJCOS Chairman A.J. Kreimer told JTA this week. “I'm speaking with other people and as an area president, one of 26 in the country, I have advocated for fellow Scouters to do the same.”

The struggle over the BSA's position on gays has divided the national youth organization at a time when public opinion has grown markedly more accepting of homosexuality. Most recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting the right of gays to marry -- a right the U.S. Supreme Court could grant as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the number of states recognizing such unions has grown to 11 -- Delaware became the most recent on Tuesday -- along with the District of Columbia.

As in the wider debate, BSA religious groups, which make up about 70 percent of Scouting units, are bitterly divided. Southern Baptist and evangelical churches are adamantly opposed to changing the organization's policy, while Presbyterian, Lutheran and Jewish Scouting leaders have come out in support of gay inclusion.

The Mormon and Catholic churches both officially denounce homosexuality, yet their Scouting branches -- the largest and third largest within the BSA, respectively -- have signaled a willingness to endorse the current proposal lifting the ban on gay youths only.

Kreimer said the proposed compromise is a deeply flawed one. The notion that a gay Scout would be expelled upon turning 18, or that a gay rabbi might be barred from hosting a Scouting unit at his synagogue, is “untenable,” he said. Still, Kreimer said most Jewish delegates will back the resolution as a temporary compromise.

“We are going to hold our nose and vote for it because it's the best we can do today,” said John Lenrow, BSA's Northeast Region executive vice president and a former chairman of the NJCOS. “But it doesn't mean the fighting is over.”

Jews have a long history in American Scouting. One of the group's first vice presidents was Mortimer Schiff, a German-Jewish financier who joined with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller to help found the BSA in 1910.

With 7,000 teen Scouts meeting at synagogues, Jewish community centers and B'nai B'rith lodges across the country, NJCOS is tiny compared to other religious Scouting groups. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, the BSA's largest chartered organization, counts 420,000 Scouts under its aegis. NJCOS does not even represent a majority of Jewish Scouts.

“Most are not registered with Jewish organizations and belong to units that are public, nonreligious or are organized by churches,” Kreimer said.

Still, as one of the oldest BSA charters and the sole representative of a major religion, the NJCOS, which was founded in 1926, has been forced to rebuff opponents of gay inclusion who try to sway the Jewish Scouts by quoting biblical passages.

“I respond by saying until you tell me you keep kosher, don't try to tell me you read the Bible in its entirety and do everything it says,” Lenrow said.

Kreimer said the vote on gay inclusion was too tight to call. But whichever way it goes, he said it will certainly have a long-term impact on the Boy Scouts of America.

“It's a defining moment for Scouting,” Kreimer said, “and a test for the character and future of the movement.”

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