This summer, it will be my great privilege to serve as chaplain, to conduct Shabbat services, and to read the weekly Torah portion at the World Scout Jamboree in Kirara-Hama, Yamaguchi, Japan.
I will bring a diminutive Torah scroll with me in my carry-on luggage. Fifty thousand scouts from around the world, representing some 160 countries, are expected to participate in the quadrennial gathering. I expect about 200 Jewish scouts at my service, as well as a number of curious adherents of other faiths. The booklets containing the Shabbat service and Torah reading that I have prepared include, in addition to the traditional Hebrew texts that will unite my diverse “congregation,” translations into English, French, Spanish, and Swedish. That is in anticipation of worshippers from those countries that have the strongest scouting programs for Jewish youth.
It is fortuitous (or perhaps Providential) that the international gathering will fall during Shabbat Parshat Vaetchanan. That dramatic Torah portion not only includes the Shema, but repeats the Ten Commandments. The revelation at Sinai recalled by Vaetchanan is first described in the Book of Exodus. There, Moses is repeatedly instructed by God to “be prepared” (see Exodus 19:11, 15; 34:2).
“Be prepared,” the famous motto of the international scouting movement, is tellingly represented on a scroll on scout emblems and badges, in subtle homage to its scriptural origins. Israeli scouts cite (and wear) this motto in the original biblical Hebrew: Heyei Nachon.
While I am looking forward to my rabbinic role in Japan (I am already brushing up on my college French), I was deeply disappointed to learn that the World Scout Jamboree will not include Tzofim. The State of Israel, which boasts a strong and celebrated scouting program, citing security concerns, will not send a contingent to Kirara-hama.
I am saddened by this decision — which I am in no position to dispute or second-guess — for a number of reasons. It is tragic that Israelis not unreasonably view themselves as targets, both at home and abroad. It is a sad truth that there are those who would do Israeli children harm simply because they are Israelis — and Jews. The perceived threat, it should be emphasized, is not from fellow scouts, but from outside forces that might exploit a peaceful international gathering — conducted with a remarkable spirit of amity — for their own hateful ends. (The specter of the 1972 Munich Olympics hangs ominously over the absence of Israeli scouts this summer.)
It is doubly tragic that this reality will keep young Israelis — worthy and honorable representatives of their besieged nation — from mixing freely and meeting young people from 160 other nations, young people with whom — by virtue of the youth movement to which they are all devoted and by which their values and identities are all shaped — they have so very much in common.
The young Israelis who might have attended the World Jamboree will miss out on a memorable and defining experience. Even more critically, young people from 160 nations will be deprived of the opportunity to meet and to befriend, to learn with and from representatives of the Jewish State — and about the Jewish State. Scouts from Japan and Poland and Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia and France and Germany and Britain and the United States and elsewhere will miss out on an urgently needed encounter with among the finest youth the State of Israel has produced. They are its likely future leaders.
Of course, I also am disappointed at the Israelis’ absence for selfish reasons. I was looking forward to interacting with Israeli scouts and their leaders, and to counting them among my temporary congregation.
In a modest effort to call the depth of our shared loss to the attention of my fellow scouts in Japan — and to foster a small measure of the amity and learning that an Israeli presence would have effected — I will be producing special Jamboree “neckerchiefs,” those distinctive, triangular scarves that accompany the scout’s uniform, generally worn under the collar. While the neckerchief is mostly for ceremonious wear, scouts also are traditionally taught that they can serve practical functions as, for example, an emergency bandage or arm sling. It is my hope that the neckerchief I will distribute in Japan will have its own, analogously healing power.
The neckerchief will feature the Israeli scout logo, complete with “Heyei Nachon” on its scroll. Beneath the logo of the Tzofim will be “23rd World Scout Jamboree: Japan.” Over the emblem — in Hebrew — will be another biblical verse: “You will be missed, for the place you were to occupy will be empty.” This verse will be featured on the body of the neckerchief in as many languages as possible: “On remarquera ton absence, car ta place sera vide” (French), “La tua assenza sarà notata, perché il tuo posto sarà vuoto” (Italian), “Ze zullen je missen als je plaats aan tafel leeg blijft” (Dutch), and so on.
The verse is taken from 1 Samuel 20:18. There, David, who is destined to rule over a united Israel as its king, has absented himself from King Saul’s table. Saul has grown jealous of young David’s charisma and popularity, and intends to do him harm. Saul’s son Jonathan, David’s beloved and loyal friend, warns him of his father’s violent designs. His message, “You will be missed, for the place you were to occupy will be empty,” is both a strategic observation (the king will take note of his absence) and a personal expression of grief at the threat to his dear friend and compatriot (“You will be missed”).
The Israeli scouts, like David himself, will be absent due to very real security threats. Those Israel scouts, like David himself, will be missed by those who genuinely have friendship and love in their hearts for their compatriots, fellow scouts from the Jewish State. It is my intention to do all that I can to assure that — as occurred with David himself — the fine young people representing their 160 nations will take note of the Israeli absence, and will join me — in the spirit of Jonathan — in giving voice to our pain at our shared loss.
At the Shabbat services I will conduct in Kirara-hama, we will offer prayers for the Jewish State, as congregations around the world do each week. I am “prepared” to do so in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, and Swedish — though I hope for native speakers to take on those liturgical roles! Through both word and attire, we will also recall Jonathan’s loving message to David: “You will be missed, for the place you were to occupy will be empty.” We will further recall the pledge Jonathan made to his besieged companion: “Go in peace. In the name of the Lord we have promised to be friends. We have said, ‘The Lord is a witness between you and me. May He be witness to continued friendship between your children and my children forever’” (1 Samuel 20:42).
The 24th World Scout Jamboree will be held in West Virginia in 2019. In a more just and peaceful world, may no one be excluded from the table.