On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.
As a Boy Scout I lived the Scout Oath. Every Tuesday night from around age 11 until around age 18, scout meetings opened with its recitation. Every time I was up for a rank advancement, I was asked to explain what it meant. When I became an Eagle Scout, I was taught that I would forever be a “marked man;” that everywhere I went, I would be judged by whether I upheld the Scout Oath and lived my life according to its words. Notwithstanding the slight hyperbole of my Eagle Scout ceremony, when I tell people I’m an Eagle Scout, they do look at me differently. The meanings of those looks though have changed over the years.
I honestly don’t know if any of the boys I was in scouting with or the men who led us were gay. I’m not even sure that it ever crossed my mind to ask. As far as I was concerned, the Boy Scouts was about learning valuable outdoor and camping skills while becoming a leader of my peers. As I rose through the ranks from Tenderfoot to Eagle and in leadership from patrol member to Senior Patrol Leader, my confidence grew and my leadership skills sharpened. So too did my understanding of helping other people and being morally straight.
Scouting sharpened my Jewish values. As a Jew in a troop sponsored by a Methodist Church, I was always conscience of being religiously “other.” Not that I ever experienced anti-Semitism – far from it! My fellow scouts and leaders were always curious about Judaism. I was the go-to person for everything Jewish. Great practice, by the way, for being a rabbi!
We all know why those looks I mentioned before have changed. Scouting has come to be defined not about growing as a man, but about excluding gay boys and men. As a rabbi, as a religious leader, and as an Eagle Scout, that stand is totally and completely antagonistic to my beliefs – beliefs reinforced davka by the Boy Scouts. To be clear, being morally straight has nothing to do with being sexually straight!
We are taught in the Bible that all humans, men and women, are created “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:27]. Boy Scouts, through the Scout Law, are taught to be reverent towards God and to honor our religious traditions. We are taught to help other people. We are taught to fight injustice by being brave and loyal, even in times of difficulty. Thus, my experiences as a Boy Scout, my position as a rabbi and my life as a Jew compel me to stand with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and urge, no demand, that the Boy Scouts change their policy. Thankfully I’m not alone in my feelings. Over 500 rabbis and cantors, across denominational lines, have already signed-on to a “Jewish Clergy Letter to the Boy Scouts.” Many of these clergy are former Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts. We look forward to a day when an openly gay scoutmaster presents an Eagle badge to an openly gay scout and no one notices.
A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent
Rabbi Eric B. Stark, an Eagle Scout and the former director of the URJ Greater New York Council, lives in Chevy Chase, MD. He was an Assistant Scoutmaster in college. Rabbis and cantors are invited to add their signatures to the RAC’s Clergy Letter to the Boy Scouts of America.