Russ Stein can't say exactly how he and he wife, Heni, came to take charge of the city's only Jewish troops. But he was a former Eagle Scout and parents were looking for a troop that complied with orthodox Jewish law, so troop leaders they became.
"I think it was just a matter of who else is going to do it," Stein says.
Three years later, the Steins spend three nights a week helping to lead Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and a Cub Scout pack. All three are based at Keneseth Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue on Patterson Avenue. The Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack are numbered 613, honoring the number of Jewish commandments.
"We begged for [the number]," says Stein, 51. Richmond troops typically carry numbers beginning with four, he says. When the Steins couldn't persuade the Girl Scouts to assign them 613 — which was taken by a Northern Virginia troop — the couple improvised with 4613.
The troops adhere to Jewish laws regarding kashrut, a set of dietary restrictions, and Shabbat observance, from Friday night to Saturday night.
Leaders generally plan camping trips for Saturday night after Shabbat ends, for example, to avoid any potential violation of religious rules that would prohibit the building of a campfire, the turning on and off of a stove, writing or tying knots.
But in many respects, the boys and girls experience classic Scouting. At a recent Boy Scout meeting, patrol leader Charlie Alexander, 14, leads the group of about 10 boys in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Scout oath and the Boy Scout law. Assistant scoutmasters Ben Melton and Drew Alexander work with young Scouts preparing for their tenderfoot rank requirements while Stein talks with patrol leaders about a coming camping trip.
"Day-to-day, [it's] not much different," Stein says. "But when it comes to camping out and cooking we have to be mindful of Shabbat and kashrut, and we, of course, are careful to follow any other laws that might come up after consulting with the rabbi."
Stein says he's been overwhelmed by support from the Scouting community. He initially turned down the summer camp invitation of the Heart of Virginia Council, Central Virginia's Boy Scout governing board, because of Troop 613's dietary restrictions. In response, council executive Bradford Nesheim offered to make the camp kitchen kosher.
"He said to me verbatim," Stein says: "'If we can't figure out how to help you and your boys in Scouting the way you need to do it, then we're not doing our job.'"
Both Judaism and Scouting call for a "commitment to a cause, good nature to other people and kindness to the environment," young troop leader Charlie Alexander says. "They are all concepts that you learn in Scouting and are very evident throughout the Torah."
Keneseth Beth Israel synagogue is the charter organization of the Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack and the sponsor of the Girl Scout troop. But all Jews in the Richmond area are welcome, Rabbi Dovid Asher says.
"We have a unique responsibility as the host of the only Jewish Scout troop in Central Virginia to ensure that everyone is welcome," Asher says, including Jewish community members who want to volunteer and share their skills.
The Steins give credit to assistant scoutmasters Melton and Alexander, Cubmaster Yisrael Fletcher and his wife, Yael, who is the Tiger den leader, and Girl Scout assistant leader Merrill Gold, whose two daughters are Brownies.
"We don't have any kids, Russ and I, so these kids are like our kids," Heni Stein says. "It's a total blessing. It's amazing. It's really fulfilled our life in ways that we couldn't even imagine."