Turning in scout badge a tough call for local troops

Boy Scout Troop 42 has called San Mateo's Peninsula Temple Beth El "home" for decades. And despite the Reform movement's urging of congregations to sever ties with the Boy Scouts of America, Senior Rabbi Alan Berg says he sees no reason why Scouts shouldn't be housed at his temple for decades to come.

The Scout's exclusionary policies toward gays and atheists have drawn fire from a number of Jewish organizations, eliciting a January statement from the Reform movement's Joint Commission of Social Action recommending congregations stop sponsoring or housing Scout troops and packs.

Like many congregations nationwide, Peninsula Temple Beth El — the Bay Area's sole Reform Jewish organization with direct ties to the Boy Scouts — is caught in a bind. Berg, who supports the Reform movement's sentiments, says the Scouts' anti-gay policies do not extend to his congregation.

"I specifically asked that question to one of our key Scout people. He said we're all right. I see that everything is adhering to the standards of inclusiveness that define Reform Judaism. That's what [Troop C and Pack 42] seem to be about," he said of the Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack sponsored by the congregation's men's club. "We know our Scout troop is an inclusive group."

In fact, Berg touted his congregation's "superb gay outreach" programs, and saw no contradictions in housing a Scout troop in a gay-friendly atmosphere.

In other parts of the nation, however, congregations have cracked down on the Scouts.

In past years, Reform Rabbi Rosalind Gold said her synagogue has observed the "Scout Sabbath." But this year, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston did not recognize the annual February event that honored the congregation's Boy and Cub Scouts because of the organizations' exclusion of gays.

But Rabbi Bruce Kahn of Reform Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., said he is unsure if severing ties to the Boy Scouts is the proper reaction to the group's policy. Kahn said he generally agrees with the Reform movement's social action statements and is not happy with the Scouts' exclusion of homosexuals. Yet he also acknowledges that there are "an awful lot of good things about the Scouts."

It's a loaded issue he's still weighing.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-area Jewish Scout troops, none of them Reform-affiliated, plan to continue their association with the Boy Scouts of America, although some are expressing their displeasure over the Scouts' exclusionary policy from within the organization.

The Reform movement's January statement came six months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scouts of America's right to exclude members and leaders on the basis of sexual orientation. The court ruled that the Scouts were not a "public accommodation" where discrimination is banned, but a private group that under the First Amendment's freedom of association provision can exclude members who violate the organization's "expressive message."

The Boy Scouts had claimed that the Scout oath and law requires Scouts to be "morally straight" and "clean," which, they argued, excluded homosexuals.

The Reform movement's social justice arm, the Religious Action Center, filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the Boy Scouts is not a private group because it is open to anyone and has a partnership with the public schools.

In the statement, the Reform movement decided that the Boy Scouts' "lack of response to the many expressions of disagreement and disappointment" with its policy "gives us little basis for optimism." It recommended Reform congregations discontinue involvement with the Boy Scouts of America.

The statement, recognizing that some believe change is more likely to come by working from within the organization, recommended possible options for those who do not wish to cut the Scouts loose. These included amending a troop's local charter, withdrawing charitable donations, lodging official and personal protests with the organization and renouncing personal ties with the Scouts, as Central Conference of American Rabbis' executive vice president Paul Menitoff did by returning his Eagle Scout badge.

Julian Rosenberg, cubmaster of a Cub Scout pack that meets at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., said the Scout policy was not affecting his group. "Personally, we run our pack as haimishly as possible…and don't pay a lot of attention to any perceived negatives.

Rabbi Dan Polish, chair of the Reform movement's Joint Commission on Social Action, said his organization has received a lot of positive responses to its statement, quoting one that said, "You have all made me so proud to be Jewish again."

The commission also had received a "small amount of adverse reaction from Jews" in general, he said, and a "minuscule" number of negative reactions from Reform Jews specifically.

Polish said ending a relationship to the Boy Scouts was a "difficult decision," but that there was "no question that [the Boy Scouts'] position is discriminatory and deserved a response."