By Rabbi Levi Welton
Long before I had the honor of serving in the United States Air Force, I was just a boy in Troop 613, the local Jewish Boy Scouts of America chapter in Berkeley, California. It was founded by George Brummer, Lenny Berman, and my childhood Rabbi Ferris. We met regularly on the second floor of the Berkeley Chabad House. This was how I came to know Berman, or Scoutmaster Lenny. Although he hadn’t been a scout as a boy, Scoutmaster Lenny taught our troop to cherish outdoorsmanship and do a good turn daily. He also made all of us get the Ner Tamid Jewish merit badge, telling us we had to be proud Jewish Boy Scouts.
Berman was a disciplined, bristly-bearded software developer who walked over four miles every Shabbos to attend services at the Chabad House (Orthodox Jews don’t use cars on Shabbos because driving is considered a violation of the 39 categories of prohibited melachos or work). Nor did he do it alone. He was accompanied by his wife, daughter, and three sons.
At the crack of dawn on school days, Berman would wake up his children and teach them Torah and Talmud. Then they’d head off to public school. In 2012, when President Obama’s ambassador to Israel toured the largest Yeshiva in the world, the prestigious Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he was photographed studying Torah with Eitan Berman, my former scout-mate.
I never made it to the rank of Eagle Scout. I spent way too much time having fun at the Scout Camp rifle range. I got a couple of merit badges, like the woodworking one and the leatherwork one, but I did it because I thought it was fun, not because I was competitive about achieving Eagle status. Nevertheless, Berman gave me a solid Boy Scout education. He taught me how to use a compass, which comes in handy as Jews must face Jerusalem when praying three times a day. He also instructed our Troop in the art of pitching a tent, packing a sleeping bag, and safely kindling a fire from scratch. Most of all, he constantly lectured us on what it means to have Scout Honor and do my best to do “my duty to G-d and my country.”
Unfortunately, my best wasn’t always good enough. For example, I failed to get the swimming merit badge. I badly wanted it because that badge allowed a scout to use the kayaks at the camp lake. I might have succeeded had it not been for my lanky chicken legs, pencil-thin arms, and the sharks. Well, not real sharks as I was swimming hundreds of miles inland. But my overactive imagination kept interpreting every oblong shadow underwater as a Great White gleefully zooming towards me to the ominous soundtrack of “Jaws.”
So, after a lot of frenzied splashing, I was told to get out and dry myself off with a towel. Apparently, in my zeal to escape the sharks, I swam in the completely wrong direction and had a second chance to jump back in and try again. I shook my head with a definitive no and made a silent pact with the sharks that I would never again step into their turf as long as they wouldn’t step on mine. To this day, both parties have honored this arrangement.
But I’m getting lost in the brush of my understory and must return to the trailhead of the narrative, Scoutmaster Lenny. I want to tell you how he imprinted upon me the meaning of honor. It happened when our troop was deep in the forest, camping with hundreds of other troops.
One morning, it was our troop’s turn to raise the flag in front of the entire assembly. We had practiced with Berman for an hour the night before. But I was still nervous. A sea of eyes stared at us with laser focus. Eitan and I marched in tandem next to each other, gripping the sides of the flag, and trying to remember all the instructions our scoutmaster had drilled into our brains. My hands trembled as we hoisted the flag.
Suddenly, the bugler, who was also our assigned guide, sputtered. He rushed over to us.
“The flag is upside down,” he whispered in horror. He snatched the halyard from me. I frantically looked up. The great grizzly bear of the California flag lying flat on her back with four paws fluttering awkwardly upside down in the wind for all to see.
Snickers echoed around the grassy meadow. Shame burned on my cheeks and for the next three days, we were the laughingstock of the Boy Scouts. I remember spending most of the time studying the tips of my sneakers and avoiding eye contact with anyone outside my troop.
Then, on the dawn of the third day, Yossi Ferris, the rabbi’s son, was called up in front of the entire assembly for an honor. He had achieved the highest score at the rifle range and was given the marksmanship award. He marched up – proudly wearing his yarmulke for all to see— and received his accolades and his trophy, a box of chocolate M&M’s. But Yossi wasn’t the only one who held his head high. Our entire troop did. From then on, no one laughed at us. Our dignity was restored.
But what I remember now was how, during those three days after our epic flag-failure, Scoutmaster Lenny made us march to reveille as if we were his children marching to Shul on Shabbos. He didn’t utter a word about our failure and walked among the other Scout Leaders with confidence, as if nothing had occurred. I’m sure he noticed the sneers and smirks of the other kids. But he made us march and made us endure it, one step at a time. In this way, he taught me that honor means you keep marching forward, even when your flag is upside down.
In comic books, heroes are clean-shaven and wear red capes. In real life, heroes need neither a costume nor a cape. They can have a bristly beard and simply show a child it’s ok to make a mistake. On that fateful flag day, Berman showed me that I didn’t need to be an Eagle to fly.
Levi Welton holds degrees in science, education, and film. Currently, he works as a rabbi, physician assistant, and a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force, attached to the 436th Airlift Wing of Dover Air Force base.
Volume 76. Number 1. 2022