(photo credit: Courtesy)
On page one of the May-June 2009 issue of the American Association of Retired Persons magazine is the picture of a Boy Scout leader in full dress and in full color. His name is Josiah Benator, and he is 87 years old. For 70 years, he has been an active Scout leader in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, demonstrating to his troop members by example what they are expected to accomplish.
How does he keep himself in shape? "I try to walk with my wife, Birdie, several times a week, watch what I eat, lead a clean life, attend my Sephardic synagogue regularly and take good physical care of myself."
This honor bestowed upon Benator by the AARP as one of the six national "Elders of Wisdom" makes me very proud. For over 59 years he has been my scoutmaster.
This year marks the centennial of the Boy Scouts of America. Only a year earlier, 1908, Robert Baden-Powell had launched scouting as a means of developing boys into men through rugged endurance and character-building programs. The two initial donors to the Boy Scouts in the US were Andrew Carnegie, the founder of the Carnegie Library system, and Mortimer Schiff, a noted Jewish philanthropist from New York.
In 1913 the first Jewish Boy Scout troop was established at the YMHA in New York City. Since then close to 400 Jewish troops have come to life in 40 states. One in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had 78 Eagle Scouts, under the tutelage of Robert Roth and Al Nathan. The scouts' names and the dates they received their award are proudly displayed on the walls at Temple Israel, the sponsoring institution.
BORN IN Atlanta on February 4, 1922, Josiah is the son of Victor Benator and Estrea de Leon, both of whom came from Rhodes. His father migrated to Atlanta in 1909, joining a cousin in business. Several years later, he brought Estrea from Rhodes and they were married in 1917. The Benators made themselves a part of the Sephardi community and joined the Or VeShalom Synagogue, founded in 1914.
There were 70 families in the group, and in the early years the husbands and fathers struggled to earn their livelihood. In business they were separated from the local Ashkenazi merchants. The magnet which drew them all together was the Jewish Educational Alliance on Capitol Avenue facing the state capitol. There, athletic competitions were held for Sephardi and Ashkenazi youngsters, clubs for youths and teenagers were created and dances held where each dated their own.
Benator grew up on the south side of Atlanta, which exuded a wonderful Jewish ambience in the two decades between the world wars. In February 1935, he had his bar mitzva under the tutelage of the newly arrived Rabbi Joseph Cohen, whose Jewish knowledge and leadership would be a great asset to the total community for the next 40 years. A year earlier, young Benator had joined the Boy Scout troop at Shearith Israel on Washington Street led by Rabbi Tobias Geffen since 1910. "There were other Jewish troops, but Melvin Kahanow, its scoutmaster, was a leader I would choose to emulate." His scouting career was under way.
"In the early years of my scouting experience," Benator recalls, "the years at the conclusion of the Great Depression, the members of our troop put our packs on our backs, and took the great Atlanta streetcars to one of two destinations: Stone Mountain or the Chattahoochee River. [Located] 'notheast' of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is the largest single piece of granite in the world."
"We ran up the mountain, down the mountain, we lit campfires which cooked our lunches, afternoon snacks and sometimes dinners. We marveled at the powerful unfinished carving, in which the leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War could be seen. We came to know every nook and cranny in that granite masterpiece," Benator remembers with real enthusiasm.
The Chattahoochee River provided another venue for the Boy Scouts. "We hiked for miles on numerous paths on the side of the river. The river had great meaning for us, since in high school we had to memorize the poem by Sidney Lanier in which he captured the power of its waters as it made its way to the sea. Our hike along the Chattahoochee always ended at the Bert Adams Boy Scout Camp, an important site for Atlanta scouts to earn merit badges. Now that area is covered by houses."
Throughout his high school years, Benator continued to be very active in scouting. When he entered Georgia Tech in 1939, he was in demand in the Atlanta scouting world even though he was only 17. He took his first leadership step, as assistant scoutmaster of Troop 27 at the Jewish Educational Alliance, that same year. His key scout goal had not yet been reached, and would not occur until 1943.
ONLY A few months before he graduated Georgia Tech as an engineer and enlisted in the army, Benator went before a Scout Court of Honor where he received his Eagle rank, having earned the required 21 merit badges. His mother proudly pinned his badge on his shirt.
Atlanta Sephardi boys of military age served their country faithfully: More than 85 percent of those eligible wore the uniform with pride. When he entered the US Army in 1943, Benator was assigned to the 10th Armored Division in the European theater. He fought in the Battle of Bastogne and was wounded there, receiving a Purple Heart. Even though the war was over, he served until 1946 commanding a labor supervision company.
Back in Atlanta, he became employed by the Scripto pencil company, where he worked for the next 30 years. "Scouting was in my blood," Benator reminds his listeners, "put into an even more important framework since my own military service. I recognized that young boys growing up in the '40s and then in the '50s needed to be exposed to camping and pioneering life, to feel that they should help others, to become aware of the the blessings of America and the joy of Judaism."
With these goals in mind, he returned to head Troop 27 at the Alliance. Family to Benator was most important so in 1947 he married Birdie Beneveniste. During their 61 years together, seven children were born to them. One died in an automobile accident, but his widow, her husband and children have remained a part of the family. They have 13 grandchildren.
When Troop 27 lost its charter, a new troop, 73, was founded in 1950, sponsored jointly by Benator's Or VeShalom Synagogue and the Shearith Israel congregation. This is the troop which he has headed for the last 59 years and where he is still going strong "hiking, canoeing, but most of all leading."
WE WERE lucky scouts, those of us who first joined Troop 73 in 1950. The key figure for us was our scoutmaster, Benator, but also we were fortunate to have our own scout hut on a weekly basis. Shearith Israel had purchased a property for a new synagogue building in the Northeast side of Atlanta only two blocks from Or VeShalom. I and the other scouts benefited from the fact that my father, Louis Geffen, a World War II veteran, handled all the legal work on the property pro bono. We were to use that turf well.
Two structures stood on this new land. One, a stark white building of good size, had once been the headquarters of Ku Klux Klan. The other was a small house. The president of Shearith Israel turned that house over to Benator and Troop 73. It became a treasure house in which a multitude of scouting activities occurred. "The orderly formations of attention, right turn, left turn, at ease, created a discipline in the scouts which reflected itself in all their activities."
What we did in that scout hut was to learn how to tie knots. In one corner some of us began our chopping experience on logs with a small hatchet. We learned how to read maps and to plan a hiking course with a compass. There were pictures of birds which we could study, and some scouts had already memorized certain bird calls. Then to give vent to our exuberant energy, Benator took us outside since the property was filled with giant trees, rocks and fallen branches.
Capture the Flag was a game we played often - using our flashlights to make holes in the darkness and capture our opponents. Not every week but sometimes one side would get the other team's flag. Close to two and a half hours had passed; we knew that we had to get home. For some there were their bicycles for transportation; for most of us we walked; never do I remember a car coming to take someone home.