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Temple and The Scouts - A Commentary

By Spencer Michlin, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – In 1956, a professor named Anthony Jones wanted to convert to Judaism and join Temple Emanu El, the congregation in which I was confirmed. He had studied with Rabbi Levi Olan and had the Rabbi's unqualified support. The only unusual thing was that Professor Jones was African American, a Negro in the parlance of the day.

According to Rabbi Olan's daughter Elizabeth Hirsch, it took the threat of his resignation to convince the Temple leadership to accept this new member. The new congregant was accepted, and the entire Temple stood with Rabbi Olan as he fought for civil rights during the 60's.

This activism carried on the tradition of Rabbi Olan's predecessor, Rabbi David Lefkowitz, who risked death by opposing the Ku Klux Klan in the 20's. In recent years the Temple has been less activist, but a new situation has signaled a return.

The exclusion of homosexuals is, famously, a stated policy of the Boy Scouts of America. This is simple bigotry and the Scouts are dead wrong in this matter, but the Supreme Court has upheld their right to be dead wrong. Led by Rabbis David Stern and Mark Kaiserman, Temple Emanu el has decided to end sponsorship of its Troop 729 unless the troop issues a statement that specifically and unequivocally renounces discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The troop leadership believes that 729 will be thrown out of scouting if they do this and refuses to issue such a statement even though in reality, the troop has no such exclusionary policy. This kind of don't ask/don't tell hypocrisy apparently exists throughout contemporary scouting.

The good part about taking a principled stand is that it's the right thing to do. The hard part is that, if the stand is meaningful at all, there is a price. This one's a tough call because the kids involved want to practice scouting in a Jewish environment. They could join many other troops, but 729 is the only one that meets this qualification and boys come from as far away as Bonham to participate. Some come from single parent homes headed by mothers who want their sons to have positive Jewish male role models. While the troop is searching for new sponsorship, they haven't yet found an organization that would provide both a Jewish environment and suitable facilities.

According to Rabbi Kaiserman, the decision was made because, quote: "Discrimination is wrong, and the greater lesson for the kids is to learn to stand up for their beliefs." While I agree with him in principle, if that's all there were to it, I'd say that the greater good would be served by allowing the troop to stay. But then Rabbi Kaiserman went on to say, "This won't end with the dissolution of the troop. We will continue to fight discrimination with every means at our disposal, including picket lines and boycotts if necessary."

And that hard decision, that willingness to make the moral choice and see it through, that exhortation to the kids and to the congregation to live our beliefs, make me proud that Temple Emanu el is returning to its tradition of social activism.

Somewhere, Rabbi Olan is cheering.

Spencer Michlin is a writer based in Dallas.