A New Beginning

Stewart House/Gett Jennifer Tyrrell (left) hugs Pascal Tessier at a news conference in Grapevine, Texas, following the BSA's decision to end its policy of prohibiting openly gay youths from participating in Scout activities.
Stewart House/Gett
Jennifer Tyrrell (left) hugs Pascal Tessier at a news conference in Grapevine, Texas, following the BSA’s decision to end its policy of prohibiting openly gay youths from participating in Scout activities.

The Jewish community played a significant role in working to lift the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.At their annual meeting in Grape-vine, Texas, 61 percent of 1,400 members voted May 23 in favor of lifting the ban, which had been in place since 1991. The new policy will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

“While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting,” according to a statement released by the BSA. “Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens. America’s youth needs Scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve.”

The vote, which does not lift the ban on openly gay Scout leaders, came as welcome news to Jay L. Lenrow, BSA’s executive vice president for the Northeast region. Baltimore’s Lenrow has spent 12 years trying to lift the ban and believes it represents a huge step in the right directing for the

“It’s not a complete victory, but it is much more than we had before,” said Lenrow, who previously served as the Boy Scouts’ chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. “My goal now is to show on Jan. 1 that this will be a seamless transition and that the Boy Scouts will continue to be about proper behavior, conduct and respect.”

Lenrow continued: “Once that transition happens, I’m confident I will be able to go back to the Scout leadership and show them there is nothing to be afraid of and that we should open our doors and do the right thing for all of those who want to be a part of the Boy Scouts.”

Last week’s vote represented the latest chapter in the often contentious issue. The BSA based its ban 22 years ago on a line from the BSA oath: “On my honor, I will do my best … to keep myself physically strong, mentally alert and morally straight.” The notion was that being gay wasn’t being “morally straight.”

Then in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the BSA could legally bar gays from serving as troop leaders. Despite all of the emotional legal battles, Lenrow, who was present for last week’s vote, said the process was very civil, respectful and orderly.

“There was a great level of respect throughout the room during the debate and the vote,” Lenrow, 62, said. “The discussion included the debate of deeply held beliefs on both sides of the issue. Yet when the results were announced there was no hooting and hollering or boos. Everyone acted like Boy Scouts.”

Prior to the BSA meeting, a group of more than 500 rabbis and cantors added their names to a letter sent to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America urging the end of the ban on gay Scouts and Scout leaders. The letter effort was coordinated by the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The organization wrote that the ban caused real harm to gay youths, adults and their families around the country as LGBT youth, and often the children of LGBT parents, face bullying, harassment, discrimination and higher rates of suicide. The belief is that these issues could be minimized by allowing these youth access to the structure and the positive environment that Scouting provides.

“Many of us are former Scouts, the parents of Scouts or children who aspire to Scouting, and [we are] admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the letter stated. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay Scouts and leaders.”

Har Sinai Congregation Rabbi Benjamin Sharff was one of the 29 Maryland rabbis to sign the letter.

A former Scout while growing up in Houston, Rabbi Sharff said the vote was a first positive step, but he wants to see the leadership ban lifted as well.

“Kudos to the Boy Scouts for their vote this week,” Rabbi Sharff said. “This is such an important institution that need to recognize the role it plays in laying the foundation for valuable leadership skills for future generations. I hope they come to realize that lifting the ban will in no way negatively impact their core values and goals.”

Barry F. Williams, chairman of the Baltimore Area Council, said in a statement that good people can disagree and still work together to accomplish great things for youth.

“We believe that this update to our policy will allow all kids who sincerely want to be a part of Scouting to experience this life-changing program while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting,” he said.

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