Why am I here?
This is all I kept asking myself when I arrived at the Boy Scouts National Jamboree twenty-five years ago. Surrounded by 35,000 boys and staff members who were quite enthusiastic about camping, fishing and knot-tying, I felt a little out of place.
As a kid I had only a brief stint as a Scout. At the same time as Judaism was becoming increasingly important to me, I began to notice that our local troop, which met in a church, consistently held significant events on major Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur. Even when my family mentioned these coincidences, the pattern continued. Thankfully I discovered other opportunities to learn leadership skills, make friends and experience the great outdoors while growing Jewishly at the same time.
During the summer of 1993 I served as a rabbi at the Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia. In the scouting world I was called a “chaplain,” a title that comes with great responsibility, respect and even our own nifty Scout patches.
The only downside with this honorific for me was its connection to Charlie Chaplain. Due to the Great Tramp, many people that week referred to me gleefully as Chaplain Charlie. Moreover, I spent countless hours explaining to non-Jewish scouts and staff that although I preferred not to be called “Father,” I could become a father and a husband.
The professional highlight of the week was working closely with chaplains of other faiths. In my tent there was a Catholic priest, Protestant minister, Mormon bishop, and myself, a rabbinical student at that time. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it really happened. Our bunking together provided a rare opportunity to compare notes, if you will, about God, faith and family.
Despite these new relationships and the best fireworks show one can ever see, I asked myself more than a few times why did I ever agree to attend this merit-badge-palooza?
The only reason I went to the Jamboree was because of my dad. Scouting was incredibly important to Yossi Savenor in ways that I didn’t fully understand until I attended this event with him.
My dad’s father died when he was five. This loss disrupted every aspect of their lives, like a knot unraveling out of control. Distraught by this loss and challenged financially during the Great Depression, my grandmother needed to focus nearly all of her energy on the family business to make ends meet.
These were years Yossi yearned to forget and rarely mentioned. My father once related how as a child he would wait at the end of their street hoping that his father would simply come home again, that his death was just a bad dream.
With his family’s focus elsewhere, my father spent much of his childhood alone and largely unsupervised. As a parent now myself, I know that a lack of supervision can inevitably lead to mischief and trouble worse than anything in Home Alone.
While my grandmother may not have been able to be around as she worked day and night to keep the market afloat, she had the good sense to seek assistance for her young son. She sought out the local elementary school principal, Joseph E. Henry of the Shurtleff School in Chelsea, MA, who was known for taking children under his wing. Thankfully, Mr. Henry became my father’s “mentor”.
Regarded as Chelsea’s “Mr. Chips”, Mr. Henry introduced my father to the Boy Scouts and was instrumental in his getting a Rotary Club scholarship to the National Jamboree in 1950 in Valley Forge, PA.
This scholarship did more than just provide Yossi with his first trip out of Boston; it was also the first time anyone ever “invested” in him. On some level, the Scouts helped him forget that no one was waiting at home for him.
Even more important, Yossi found in scouting an oasis of support where adults’ sole purpose was to help youth grow, dream and reach new heights through merit and hard work. Participation was not a right, but a privilege; one that he yearned to earn again and again. In a tumultuous and uncharted world, hard work and clear guidelines became a compass for him to a community knotted together with purpose, passion and compassion.
The Jamboree’s spirit, sound, and excitement imprinted itself on my father’s soul. Inspired beyond words, he participated again in 1953, this time as an Eagle Scout at the Jamboree in Irvine, CA, and many other times as a volunteer like his mentor, Mr. Joseph E. Henry.
As a father, Yossi felt it was his duty to share this experience with his sons. Both of my brothers had gone with him as both scouts and adult volunteers, so I went with him because it seemed to matter to him. And as the Jamboree progressed, it became clear why.
That week at the Jamboree was not just about being together. Truth is I spent limited time with my father and brother, Arnie. While he never said it, my father wanted us to see the environment that helped shape who he was and that brought out the best in him.
Yossi learned all this and more from Joseph E. Henry. Mr. Henry, one could argue, was the father my father never had. So much so, that Yossi promised Mr. Henry that one day he would name one of his children after him. My father, a loyal Scout to the end, honored his word with my middle initial: E.
Every time I look at that “E” in my name, I am grateful for people like Mr. Henry, who teach children to do more than tie knots. Joseph E. Henry helped a little boy believe that tomorrow can be better than today by being loyal, honest, courteous and kind. Scout’s honor!