The girls of Troop 3131 are just like those at any of the hundreds of thousands such groups around the world: They wear uniforms, earn merit badges, and at last Sunday’s troop meeting over an art project devoted to a recent holiday, told each other about powerful women in their families.
But since the beginning of the current school year, these preteens have been forging history. Sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch of the West Side in New York City, theirs is believed to be a rarity in the almost 100-year history of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.: A completely Jewish troop that focuses on its members’ Jewish heritage.
Along with the standard fare of outings and discussions about leadership – the troop is planning a camping trip to a regional Girl Scouts facility in upstate New York – the girls get a healthy dose, parents and organizers say, of Jewish values and history.
Shaina Davis, a second-grader at Manhattan Day School, most enjoys making friends, working together and thinking creatively at the twice-monthly troop meetings.
“I’m learning about Jewish good deeds,” says the seven-year-old. “They are important to me as a Jewish girl.”
At the most recent troop meeting, held on the second floor of the Chabad House, young scouts detailed their personal reasons for being proud of their heritage on paper cutouts. Natalie Kahn, also 8, wrote “I love Shabbat,” while Aderet Brenner, 10, wrote about kosher food and the Land of Israel.
As part of an effort toward earning their “Our Heritage” badge from the national organization, they also discussed the minor holiday of Tu B’Shevat – popularly known as the New Year for trees – and made bouquets out of different types of fruit.
In a discussion about their family histories, the girls recounted pivotal stories about their ancestors. Leah Nerenberg, 10, told of how her great aunt broke through a picket line in order to buy a chicken for her hungry family. Davis, meanwhile, told of her grandfather’s narrow escape from the Holocaust and eventual reunion with a long lost brother in America.
Group co-leader Sarah Alevsky, a youth director at the Chabad House, presided over the discussion, telling the charges seated cross-legged in a large circle around her that theirs were “all stories of strength and survival.”
“We are lucky,” she emphasized, “to live in America today where we have the freedom to celebrate our religion easily.”
A troop member displays her sash.
It’s a common theme in conversations with parents. Many have fond memories of their days as girl scouts, but point out that they felt like outsiders as the only or one of the few Jews in troops made up primarily of churchgoing girls.
“When I was a little girl,” says Jayn Levy, “there was a strong [non-Jewish] influence in my troop, even when it was supposedly open to children of all religions.”
Back then, as today, troop meetings in churches were common. So were non-Jewish prayers.
The Girl Scouts’ bylaws provide for practically any organization to sponsor a troop, so long as the leaders attend training sessions. So Keren Blum, co-director of Chabad at Columbia University and a former girl scout herself, last year embarked on a mission to establish a Jewish troop.
“When I was a young girl,” the mother of five recalls, “the powerful influence of my fellow girl scouts, the group activities, and working to earn badges instilled and reinforced in me good character traits, values, social responsibility, and important life skills.”
Blum and Alevsky approached the national organization for an endorsement, which was quickly granted.
“I am so happy that Chabad has embraced the Girl Scouts,” remarks Dina Rabiner, special project specialist of the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York. “These two leaders, who are a pleasure to work with, have embraced the resources that Girl Scouts provides and are making it adaptable to what their group is interested in. Although Jewish girls have participated in other troops since the outset of the movement, this is the first Chabad troop and they have made it their own.”
Alevsky, who has experience running youth programs and summer camps, calls the partnership a perfect fit.
“We are lucky that Girl Scouts is such a flexible system with a broad enough framework that we can infuse with Judaism,” she says. “Girl Scouts fits our objective and what we are trying to achieve at Chabad, because we share some of the same principles,” namely, that the girls grow up to be upright, responsible, caring adults.
“Every activity we do,” she continues, “from taking a night walk in Central Park to looking for signs of life in the winter, is with this goal in mind: to educate and inspire the girls to help change the world for the better.”
Jane Gail Kahn is ecstatic her daughter Natalie is learning to care for others through activities such as baking cupcakes for a fellow member’s family’s celebration.
“There is a perfect mixture of Judaic and general wholesome activities,” says Kahn, “to turn our girls into strong women.”