Building race cars, and connections: Jewish, Muslim Cub Scouts get revved up for Interfaith Pinewood

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The secret behind Jared Johnson’s race car? He has a tiny Lego glued to the rear of its 5-ounce chassis.

“It’s very stealthy,” the 9-year-old Fairfax, Va., resident said of the vehicle that took him almost four days to build from a small block of wood. “I think it’ll be the fastest of everybody here today.”

While Johnson finds miniature car racing fun for its own sake, “I’d also like to get my first trophy,” he confided shortly before the start of the race, which took place in late March.

Even though Johnson did not come in first, the race itself — the Interfaith Pinewood Derby — was a precedent-setting event in the Washington, D.C., area, bringing together Jewish and Muslim Cub Scouts to compete and build friendships in an updated version of this traditional scouting exercise.

It was hosted by Cub Scout Pack 1818 of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, which teamed up with its counterpart packs from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Cub Scouts. Olam Tikvah provided the space and refreshments. ADAMS brought its 42-foot metal racing track and timing software.

As race time neared, 19 boys, ages 7 to 10, from five local Cub Scout packs lined up and anxiously submitted their brightly painted race cars for a rigorous inspection of weights and measurements.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the Boy Scout oath, the announcer cried “start your engines,” and the race cars were off, powered only by gravity. Each car competed in three heats to determine the eventual first-place winner: Sameer Khan from Cub Scout Pack 1576, an ADAMS affiliate.

The imam from ADAMS, Mohamed Magid, and the rabbi from Olam Tikvah, David Kalender, are longtime friends who have promoted the interfaith derby as an opportunity for the boys “to get to know each other, race together and exhibit good sportsmanship,” said Rizwan Jaka, the Cub/Boy Scout chair for ADAMS.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Julian Tishkoff, chair of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. “The goodwill was really outstanding. If this is a precedent for things to come, I have reason to be optimistic.”

There have already been several successful interfaith scouting events for the region’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Jaka said, and more activities for the younger Cub Scouts will be planned soon. “We were glad to have this opportunity,” he said. “Interfaith work is so important. We must get to know each other.

“And the kids,” he added, “they just had a good time.”

For Ephraim Hanley, 8, it was his first, but hopefully not his last Pinewood Derby. He built his race car the night before with his older brother’s help. The Israeli flags he used to decorate it, said the Chabad second-grader, were left over from Chanukah.

Jibreel Jaka from ADAMS Boy Scout Troop 786 helps out at the Interfaith Pinewood Derby in Fairfax, Va. photo/suzanne kurtz

“This teaches him about gravity and the [car] mechanics,” said his mother, Naomi Shaool, a Fairfax physician. “But it’s really important and good for him to see [boys from] different religions.”

When the formal racing was finished, the first- to fourth-place winners were announced and trophies were handed out. After each Cub Scout received a badge of participation and a certificate, an informal round of bumper cars commenced on the synagogue’s polished floor.

“The boys have no preconceived notions [at this age], they have no arguments with each other,” said Abdul Rashid Abdullah, scoutmaster for ADAMS Boy Scout pack 786. “That’s the idea — that they grow up that way. That’s the key thing.”