When a band of Boy Scouts gets ready for a weekend camping trip, planning is an essential step in making sure that the event runs smoothly. When the Scout troop also happens to be Shomer Shabbat and keeps kosher, organization becomes even more vital, especially as Friday afternoon rolls around.
"We make sure we get there with enough time to set up our tents before Shabbat starts," said 18-year-old Saul Zebovitz, a Conservative Jew who wears a yarmulke on top of his short, dark hair.
"We don't cook on Shabbat," he reported. "We don't build fires."
With Zebovitz in charge of Troop 185 during the last year, his group has been more than prepared for such a challenge. Meeting at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, where his family are members, 18-year-old Zebovitz helped teach Cub Scouts as young as first-graders how to read a compass and tie essential knots. With Boy Scouts as young as fifth-graders and as old as high-school seniors, he's taught them how to build a fire and effectively use a pocket knife.
"Aside from being a Jewish troop, we're a pretty good Boy Scout troop," he said.
While many Scouts across the country learn how to teach these same skills to others, Zebovitz has worked so hard at the task that he seems to be a shoe-in for Eagle Scout status, the highest advancement rank given by the national organization, the Boy Scouts of America.
To gain such accreditation, boys must earn 21 merit badges in categories like first aid, camping and physical fitness. They must also complete a large-scale community-service project — all before their 18th birthday.
Only about 5 percent of Boy Scouts become Eagle Scouts, according to Web site of the Boy Scouts of America.
For his service project, Zebovitz chose to build an outdoor davening area for the Saligman Middle School of the Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park — an easy pick for a school alum who lives across the street and continues to study Judaism on the campus.
The area consists of 15 wooden benches, each 8 feet long. Arranged in rows of five, the benches are cemented in place, and have been waterproofed and then sanded to reduce wear-and-tear through weathering.
According to halachic standards, a person can daven anywhere he or she so chooses, but there's just something special about praying outside, noted Zebovitz.
"It feels more concrete when you have something to sit on. It gives it the feeling of a sanctuary," he relayed. "You don't have Torahs there or anything, but you get that sanctified feeling that this is a spot set aside for a sacred purpose."
He estimated that the project took him — with help from family and friends — 150 hours of labor over four days. Zebovitz completed the project on Aug. 13, and has already received word that people are taking advantage of it.
Along with an exemplary Scouting résumé, Zebovitz is a straight-A student at Cheltenham High School, and hopes to attend Dartmouth College in the fall. He's considering a major in psychology.
"The question of why people do the things they do — which has been plaguing humanity for centuries — interests me," he said.
In his spare time, he's enrolled in a Talmud class at Gratz College, something that has peaked his interest in studying rabbinics. "I would not like to become a congregational pulpit rabbi, but I would like to have a rabbinical education. Classical Jewish study has always interested me."
As for Scouting, Zebovitz has already handed over leadership of Troop 185, and when he goes off to college, he'll have limited contact with Scouts for the first time since he was in first grade, although he plans to remain as active as possible.
"I'd like to teach other young people what I learned. What I think Scouts has given me is self-confidence and maturity."