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Religion / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

Doubting the Scouts

Reform synagogues wrestle with a plea from national leaders not to sponsor troops. Many rabbis oppose the Boy Scouts' ban on gays, but some call for working from within.

January 20, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plea to Reform synagogues to sever ties with the Boy Scouts over the organization's ban on homosexual troop leaders is forcing the movement's rabbis to make tough choices about the future of their own temples' beloved troops.

Reform leaders across Southern California are split on whether to follow their national leaders' advice and stop sponsoring Scout troops or to try something less drastic.

"I'm really torn over the issue," said Stephen Sherman, a Reform Jew who has promoted Scouting in Orange County for 25 years. "It's causing me real heartburn."

But Jewish leaders do agree on the fundamental premise of the memorandum issued two weeks ago by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations: The Scouts' anti-gay policy is "incompatible with our consistent belief that every individual--regardless of his or her sexual orientation--is created in the image of God and deserving of equal treatment."

"This is a strong position by our denomination, and it is really important because I believe the Boy Scouts have really been taken over by right-wing fundamentalists," said Rabbi Denise L. Eger of West Hollywood's Congregation Kol Ami, which serves both gay and straight congregants and does not have a troop.

"I hope pressure is brought to bear on local and national Scouting to change this atrocious policy they put in place."

The decision by the Reform movement's national organization is only advisory.

"Very good people will disagree with us on this one," said Rabbi Alan Henkin, regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The quandary is a significant one for the Boy Scouts, synagogues and other liberal religious denominations. Faith groups sponsor more than half of the Boy Scout troops in America. Jewish organizations sponsor 277 of 124,000 troops, Boy Scout officials said.

A June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said the Scouts have the right to exclude openly gay men, set off a national controversy, in which longtime backers of the Boy Scouts--including Chase Manhattan Bank, United Way chapters and government agencies--pulled their funding and support.

The ruling also put liberal faith groups in an awkward position: supporting the Boy Scouts' right as a private group to pick members according to its values, but finding it distasteful that the Scouts were banning gays.

So far, Temple Ahazat Shalom in Northridge has been the only synagogue in Southern California with a troop to dissociate itself from the Boy Scouts, Henkin said. The synagogue cut its ties immediately after the high court held the organization's anti-gay policy to be constitutional.

Temple Israel of Hollywood might be next. The trustees are expected to make a decision next month.

"I suspect the decision will be to cut our ties," said Rabbi John Rosove, whose temple has sponsored a Cub Scout pack averaging 15 boys for five years. "The Boy Scouts is a great organization and most of its values are the best of America. But [the anti-gay policy] is a huge mistake and represents right-wing fundamentalism."

The temple has already held one meeting of Scout leaders, a representative from the gay community (who used to be a Scout) and trustees.

"It was a passionate debate, but civil," Rosove said.

A major concern for the congregation is how to phase out the Scouting program without hurting the children, Rosove said.

Many rabbis contend that Scout troops formed by their synagogues follow the precepts of the Reform movement, which do not discriminate against gays. They say a better way to change the Scouts' organization is from within.

Rabbi Jim Kaufman has been fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians for 25 years. His synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, also has more than 75 boys in Scouting.

"As individuals I encourage people to speak out and protest in any way they can. They can even turn in their merit badges," Kaufman said. "I think synagogues that have Scout troops already need to stay in the fight. We have a Scout troop here, but our Scout troop has as a part of its charter the fact that we are an inclusive congregation."

When West Hills' Temple Solael (and its Boy Scouts) merged with a nearby synagogue last summer, the trustees from Temple Judea in Tarzana wouldn't complete the deal without changes in the Boy Scouts' charter, which is renewed each year.

Rabbi Donald Goor said they put a clause in the bylaws that said the group would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. A similar tactic is being used by other temples. It's unclear whether the Boy Scouts' national organization will eventually end that strategy.

"I'd like to change the Boy Scouts from within," said Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, who has been discussing whether it would be right to start a troop at his synagogue.

"I don't think we've gone far enough to see if there are other options. The problem is, there is so much good the Boy Scouts do, and there's not a lot of alternative."

Even if a local troop's rules can be adjusted to fit Reform Judaism theology, many Jewish leaders have a problem associating in any way with a group that discriminates against homosexuals.

"I don't see any rationale in getting involved or supporting the Boy Scouts," said Rabbi Michael Mayersohn of Temple Beth David in Westminster, which does not have a troop.

"We have to look at the symbolic meaning of our actions. To house a troop, it symbolically says we say we support the Boy Scouts' position. The Reform movement has taken a completely affirming and supporting position regarding homosexuals."

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Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this story.

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