COVER STORY:Girl power

Fifteen girls, dressed in neatly pressed uniforms of brown and green, stand in a semicircle, raise their right hands and solemnly recite the Girl Scout Promise:

“On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.”

Ennobling words.

However, these scouts also are familiar with another code of law: Jewish Law.

There are some 2,000 Girl Scout troops in the Bay Area (multiply that by however many boxes of cookies they sell and that’s a whole lotta Thin Mints). Troop 1310 in San Francisco is one of them, and one of a handful of all-Jewish troops, part of a growing national trend. Many of the troop members attend Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.

On this particular Shabbat afternoon, the girls and their parents meet to organize an upcoming camping trip. First item on the agenda: menu planning. Above all, no Spam! For these girls, the very mention of the canned mystery meat elicits bad memories of camping meals past.

Hebrew National hot dogs make the girls’ “approved foods” list, while tofu dogs elicit a unanimous “gross!” Says Ondina “LB” Lipney-Burger, 10, of San Francisco: “Hot dogs are really simple, but we should have something healthy, too, like fruit.”

Dessert planning is a piece of cake. When someone suggests s’mores, the yummy confection of roasted marshmallows and a chunk of chocolate sandwiched between graham crackers, San Francisco resident Nicole Shapiro, 11, makes it official: “No question, gotta do it.”

Their enthusiasm fits perfectly with the spirit of scouting.

Though menu-planning is fun, a big part of scouting has always been earning merit badges. Troop 1310 shows off a few of its own: one for “Girl Scouts Against Smoking”; another for “Birthday in a Box,” for which they collected toys for children living in shelters. And then there’s “Ms. Fixit” for which they learn to operate tools, including a power drill.

But Jewish Girl Scouts have a few unique patches, badges and pins adorning their vests.

Jewish Brownies, ages 6 to 8, can earn the Lehavah (“flame” in Hebrew) award. To obtain it, they must demonstrate knowledge of the Jewish holidays by filling out a worksheet.

Juniors (ages 8 to 11) may earn the Bat Or pin. The Bat Or (“Daughter of Light”) takes more time and includes units on Torah and Israel.

“We have to read a lot of stuff about being Jewish,” says Sophie Safire, 11, “and we have to talk to a Holocaust survivor about their lives back then.”

They are also required to complete a short essay on how the Girl Scout Promise parallels the Ten Commandments, and why Jews and Girl Scouts believe in helping others.

Older girls (Cadettes and Seniors) are eligible for the Menorah and Or Emunah awards. Both are earned by showing an increased understanding of Jewish ethics and values.

Brownies and Juniors also wear a light blue “Shabbat” patch on their vest, which means they’ve celebrated Shabbat together.

In addition, some of the troops go at least once a year to San Francisco’s Jewish Home, where they lead services for the residents.

Normally, Girl Scouts of America does not organize around ethnicity, race or religion. In the case of the Jewish troops, adult leaders say that it’s perfectly acceptable if a group of friends wish to get together and form a troop of their own. And if they all happen to go to Brandeis Hillel, well …

Besides, troop leaders say, Jewish values complement those taught in the Girl Scouts, and there’s no reason why the two shouldn’t go together.

“I believe Judaism and Girl Scouting are very compatible,” says Esther Heller, a longtime activist in Jewish scouting. “For one thing, we both believe in developing strong women, and we also have a strong sense of tikkun olam, although Girl Scouting doesn’t call it that. They call it community service.”

Heller, who lives in Menlo Park, has been involved with Girl Scouts for more than 30 years and also serves on the National Jewish Girl Scout Committee. The latter organization helps strengthen existing Jewish troops and fosters connections with scouting programs in Israel.

Judaism and scouting go hand in hand because, Heller explains, “scouting is spirituality based, but how it is observed and designed is left up to the girl, her family and whatever faith she’s involved with.”

In addition to the two Jewish troops in San Francisco, there are two in San Mateo and two in Saratoga.

The San Mateo-based troops are led by Liz Charleson and Rose Calander.

“I had been [a Girl Scout],” notes Charleson, “and my mother had been one. I wanted my daughter to be one, too.” Charleson purposely kept her troops on the small side, as she wants no more girls than can fit around a Shabbat table. Each troop has Shabbat dinner together once a month.

On a Friday evening, six girls in the Cadette troop sat together over a chicken dinner at Charleson’s house in San Mateo, sipping sparkling apple cider out of wine goblets. The topic of discussion: what qualities make for an effective leader.

Not exactly like attending an Ashlee Simpson concert.

With so many lighthearted distractions out there for teens, why would these girls choose an organization that started before World War I? Those gathered for Shabbat at the Charleson home know why.

“It’s the only time when we can hang out with our gal friends,” says Sydney Calander, 12. “It can be crazy fun but we can also do things that make a difference.”

Notes Doria Charleson, 12, “It’s a support group as well as friends.”

And then there’s 12-year-old Foster City resident Allison Lesovoy’s observation: “It looks good on college applications.”

Unlike the San Francisco troops, camping isn’t so popular with this one. On their last overnight, “We spent the night in a hotel and ordered room service,” recalls Doria Charleson.

The two troops based out of Saratoga’s Conservative Congregation Beth David are Sabbath-observant. Riki Gafter co-leads two different troops, mostly made up of Beth David members. Camping can become a bit more challenging, when observing Shabbat.

“We leave Friday afternoon and get there way before sundown,” says Gafter. “We have a warm dinner Friday and keep the coffee pots boiling through Shabbat. Then we have cold breakfast and hot chocolate the next morning.”

Gafter says that while she enjoys “being a child again” by leading a troop, she also sees independence and pride instilled in her daughters. “My older daughter went to camp, and a few kids were supposed to cook dinner for everyone, but no one had a clue what to do. [My daughter] cooked for half the camp.”

Gafter’s 10-year-old, Hannah, now a Junior, says she likes the idea of helping others. In one act of community service, her troop collected “gently used” toys for sick children in hospitals. “I feel good that I’m collecting for others,” she says. “I found markers and stuff for drawing, and a never-been-used pencil set that I had. I thought, ‘Hey, what the heck.'”

And then there’s the cookies.

Girl Scout cookies are a decades-old institution (they’re kosher, by the way), and the sight of a troop parked in front of the local supermarket hawking their wares every spring is as familiar as the swallows returning to Capistrano.

The cookies do far more than add unsightly pounds to overindulging parents: They are a prime source of income for the troops.

While a box costs $3.50, 50 cents from each box goes directly to the troop. The money funds activities so scouts don’t have to ask their parents for extra handouts.

That’s true for all Girl Scout troops. But Jewish troops also give a percentage of money raised to a Jewish charity. The San Mateo troops have made donations to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and to the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

Troop leader Charleson said that by giving to various communal organizations, the girls learn about the Jewish community.

For Nicole Shapiro, selling cookies is one of her favorite parts of being a Girl Scout. “A lot of people tell me I’m a great seller,” she adds.

Shapiro described the different varieties like a pro. “These are everyone’s favorite,” she says, holding up a box of Thin Mints. “You can freeze them, too.”

Adds Margot Pierluissi, 10, of San Francisco, “Selling cookies is the most important thing we do, but not the most fun.”

Introduced for the 2004 cookie sale are Lemon Coolers, which are low-fat.

But Shapiro, the slim and freckled cookie-selling pro, offers a tip from one cookie-monger to another: “Never yell out ‘reduced fat’ because then people will think they’re fat.”