Sheldon Freidenreich, who has been the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 55 for 42 years, still enjoys his role.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Freidenreich, whose troop is sponsored by Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. “I will continue to volunteer because I enjoy how scouting and Jewish culture can come together.”
Currently, Troop 55, in its eighth decade, has eight boys. They often mix in projects with Jewish themes, like preparing a kosher meal to earn a cooking merit badge that is required for Eagle rank and teaching scouts leadership skills that fit both the Jewish and general communities. Adhering to Jewish tradition hasn’t hindered their abilities to succeed as scouts: Since 2000, Troop 55 has produced 20 Eagle scouts, the highest attainable rank.
Freidenreich, who also oversees Cub Pack 55 at his synagogue, is carrying on a proud tradition that includes several Jewish troops in New Jersey and the Northeast at a time when Scouts BSA — which, until February, was known as Boy Scouts of America — has undergone many changes.
In December the non-profit organization sought bankruptcy assistance because of a reported 140 lawsuits alleging misconduct by scoutmasters, and tens of millions of dollars have been paid to alleged victims, according to various reports.
In recent years the group struggled with issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. In 2013 the Boy Scouts overturned its ban on gay members and now allows gay and transgender individuals to join, and admits girls in separate all-girl troops.
Through it all, generations of Jewish boys have sworn allegiance to the scouts. Though Troop 55 caters to observant Jews, scouts who do not keep Shabbat or kashruth are still welcome.
“We ask that, within the troop, kashruth is kept,” said Freidenreich. “What someone observes outside of that in their own lives is their business.”
Aaron Spool, the scoutmaster of Troop 365, sponsored by Conservative congregation B’nai Shalom in West Orange, also allows any scout to join.
“We have six boy scouts and a good bunch of Cub Scouts coming up,” said Spool, who has been a scout leader for seven years. “We are shomer Shabbos with all our activities, but outside, that is up to the individual.”
Scouts BSA is divided into Cub Scouts (5-11 years of age); Scouts BSA (11-18); Venturing, an expanded program which replaced Explorers (14-21); and Sea Scouts (14-21).
The National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS), which was once independent but now operates as part of Scouts BSA, is the voice of Jewish scouting in the United States.
“You look back in the 1920s, and Jewish participation in the Boy Scouts was pretty solid because, at that time, it was one of the few organizations that was open to Jewish boys,” said NJCOS chairman Bruce Chudacoff of Appleton, Wis.
Across the country, numbers for the Boy Scouts are not what they were at their peak. Today there are 2.3 million scouts, compared to 4.8 million in the 1970s. The number of Jewish scouts has likewise dropped precipitously, from about 100,000 in the 1970s to several thousand today.
“We know there are about 2,500-3,000 scouts in Jewish troops,” said Chudacoff. “We figure there are a few thousand more who are Jewish in other troops.”
The scouts aren’t the society centerpiece they were a few decades back, and the organization was tarnished by a sexual-abuse scandal that first came to light in 1994.
Chudacoff acknowledged the challenges facing the scouts.
“The issues of molestation are taken very seriously, even the ones that happened 50 or 60 years ago,” he said. “Scouts BSA is taking responsibility for issues that occurred and making sure it can’t happen again.”
The scouts developed a youth protection program in the 1980s that every leader has to comply with, according to Chudacoff. All leaders must pass a background check and adults can’t be alone with a scout unless it’s his or her own child. “We’re certainly doing what we can do,” said Chudacoff. “Nothing’s foolproof, and there are always potential issues, but we have preventive programs in place.”
As far as Jewish scouting is concerned, Chudacoff sees the possibility that Reform congregations might boost their numbers.
“The Reform movement pulled out in 2001 when the Boy Scouts of America would not admit a gay scout,” he said. “That changed in 2015, and, in 2017, a transgender scout was included. With these inclusions, we hope to bring some more Reform-sponsored troops into the fold.”
Spool is pleased to see his roster of Cubs expanding.
“We have about 20 coming up,” he said. “Sometimes these things run in cycles. I enjoy working with scouting in the Jewish tradition.”
Freidenreich and Spool are looking forward to the summer camp season, helping their scouts earn, in addition to ranks and merit badges, awards unique to Jewish scouting, including the traditional Ner Tamid, which Jewish boy scouts qualify for by enhancing respect for tradition and working with their respective communities.
Freidenreich feels the most important matter he can accomplish for his scouts is establishing self-worth and producing leaders.
“The scouts I have had over the years have helped each other grow,” he said. “I have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of that, seeing it both Jewishly and personally.”