June 14, 2024
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Troop 613: The Largest Shomer Shabbat Troop in America

Often when it comes to sports and recreational activities, Jewish children and families find themselves in an uncomfortable position of having to choose between activities and goals and religious affiliation. Many recreational activities have meetings and practices on Shabbat, without accommodations for those who are shomer Shabbat.

But if you live in Westchester County and you and your children are interested in scouting, Troop 613, located in White Plains, is shomer Shabbat. No planning or activities take place that conflict with Shabbat observance, and all food is strictly kosher. All Jewish customs, laws and traditions are followed.

Jewish scouting has been around for 40 years, and there is a collaboration between Jewish scouting groups to do joint programming. Many Jewish communities have Jewish troops, including Teaneck and Highland Park in New Jersey; Brookline, Massachusetts; and Silver Spring, Maryland. There is also a National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS). Their mission is to “prepare young Jews to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of Judaism as expressed in the Scout Oaths and Scout Law.”

Troop 613’s shomer Shabbat scouting units began in earnest in 2010, with five boys including Troop Committee Chair Evan Gilder’s son, Daniel. Daniel became Troop 613’s first Eagle Scout back in 2015.

In 2019, girls were permitted to enter into the Scouts BSA (formerly Boy Scouts of America) program. So, in July 2019, Troop 613 launched a new all-girls’ troop. Gilder’s daughter Rebecca became Westchester County’s very first female Eagle Scout by earning her minimum 21 merit badges and completing her Eagle community service project. Rebecca attended Maayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck and is their only Eagle Scout.

By the end of 2021, another young woman from Troop 613 will complete the requirements to become an Eagle Scout as well. Currently, there are also four boys who should reach Eagle Scout, the highest and most difficult rank to obtain. Only between 2-4% of all scouts nationwide reach this level. Troop 613’s average is closer to 40%.

All Troop 613 units are chartered under the Hebrew Institute of White Plains and meet in various synagogues in New Rochelle and White Plains (pre-COVID). Since Troop 613 was established, they have had amazing success, including eight Eagle Scouts and units that are thriving. Starting initially with a Boy Scout troop, Troop 613 now boasts a Cub Scouts Pack, a Girls’ Troop and a Venture Crew, all under the Scouts BSA umbrella. In total, the volunteer organization runs a program that has over 65 scouts and is now the largest shomer Shabbat troop in America.

Troop 613 scouts come from very diverse backgrounds. Some go to public school, while others go to private school. Some are Orthodox, while others are Conservative or not affiliated at all. It is a microcosm of the Jewish world, and the troop integrates everyone together. “This is part of the reason why I’ve volunteered my time doing this for the past 11 years,” said Evan Gilder, who in his role as troop committee chair has full administrative oversight over all of Troop 613’s units. “I find the results and friendships are just incredible. I’ve watched many kids grow up and mature, and become confident adults, destined for success.”

Troop activities have been somewhat of an anomaly during COVID. The children are taught life skills, including teamwork, leadership, volunteering, knot tying and so much more. They also need to master topics such as first aid, personal fitness, personal management, citizenship, communication, family life and cooking. The knowledge that the troop members master also must be demonstrated and then taught. Knowledge is not just kept for oneself, but in true Jewish tradition, passed on. As Gilder pointed out: “We facilitate much of this during campouts, where kids need to not only demonstrate these skills, but once they master them, teach them to younger scouts. The scouting program is designed so that older kids teach younger kids, and that’s how they grow.”

There has been a core group of adult volunteers who have helped manage the troop’s growth over the past 10 years. The support of these adults in a shomer mitzvot environment is important in helping the children develop positive character traits such as self-esteem, self-reliance, discipline, confidence and self-respect.

Troop 613 has just returned from a high-adventure trek at the Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico. Fifteen children and seven adults went on the backpacking trek over 12 days, each carrying about 50-pound backpacks, walking anywhere from 75 to 100 miles, up and down mountains, the highest at just over 13,000 feet. “The kids ran the trek. We adults were there on vacation (and making sure no one got hurt). It was a truly amazing and remarkable experience and I can’t wait to go back there again,” said Gilder.

For more information, contact Troop Committee Chair Evan Gilder at [email protected].


 

Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. Susan has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.

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