The sanctuary of the Sephardi Congregation Or VeShalom in Atlanta had an extra glow on Parshat Trumah on February 5. A member of this synagogue for 82 years and a noted figure in the community, having served as a scoutmaster for 70 years, Josiah V. Benator celebrated his 100th birthday. Since the service was streamed from as far away as Jerusalem, I was able to see Mr. Benator (as we called him) blessed by the associate rabbi standing in for Rabbi Josh Hearshen – and a congregation leader. Watching him being called to the Torah brought tears to my eyes, as he has been my hero for the last 72 years, an inspiration throughout my lifetime, and to see him celebrating his 100th birthday made me very proud.
Seven decades ago in Atlanta, where I grew up, scouting was very divided between Christians and Jews, since each had their own scout troops. As you can imagine, there could have been 50 or 60 Christian Boy Scout troops. There were only at maximum two or three Jewish troops.
Benator’s picture in full scout dress appeared on P. 1 of the May-June 2009 issue of the American Association of Retired Persons magazine, when he was 87. Now in 2022, he has for 80 years, been an active Scout leader in his hometown of Atlanta, demonstrating to his troop members by example what they are expected to accomplish.
This honor bestowed upon Benator by the AARP as one of the six national “Elders of Wisdom” made me very proud. Since then he has won many honors including the Legion of Honor from the French government.
In 1908, Robert B. Aden-Powell 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, 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, some 400 Jewish troops have come to life in 40 states.
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 Congregation Or VeShalom, founded in 1914.
There were 70 families in the group, and in the early years the husbands struggled to earn their livelihood. In business they were separated from the local Ashkenazi merchants. The magnet that 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, and clubs for youths and teenagers were created.
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 mitzvah under the tutelage of the newly arrived Rabbi Joseph Cohen, whose Jewish knowledge and leadership would be a great asset to the wider 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 my grandfather, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, since 1910. 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 Atlanta streetcars to one of two destinations: Stone Mountain or the Chattahoochee River. Located northeast of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is the largest single piece of granite in the world.”
With real enthusiasm, he adds, “We ran up the mountain, down the mountain, and 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.”
The Chattahoochee River provided another venue for the Boy Scouts. “We hiked for miles on numerous paths on the side of the river,” Benator says. “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.
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. 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% 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 Scripto Company, which sold pens, mechanical pencils and cigarette lighters, where he worked for the next 30 years. “Scouting was in my blood,” Benator said, “put into an even more important framework since my own military experience. 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 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, and in 1947 he married Birdie Beneveniste. During their 75 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 and four great-grandchildren.
When Troop 27 lost its charter, a new troop, 73, was founded in 1950, sponsored jointly by Benator’s Congregation Or VeShalom and the Shearith Israel congregation. This is the troop that he has headed for the last 72 years and where he is still going strong, as a leading spirit.”
Henry Schuster, an alumnus of troop 73 and a producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes, wrote the following about Benator. “Growing up, we think that heroes are people who hit lots of home runs or sing great songs or leap tall buildings with a single bound. It’s not until you have your own children and look around for the right role models that you realize heroes can be the person who lived up the street from you, and that they didn’t need an alter ego or a cape and costume.
“They just get on with life; leading by example and teaching generations of us how to do the right thing and be a better person. Not to mention raising their own children in spectacular fashion. It seems so simple when I say it like that, but it turns out to be really hard.”
We were lucky scouts, those of us who first joined Troop 73 in 1950. The key figure for us was our scoutmaster, Mr. 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.
Two structures stood on this new land. One, a stark white building of good size, had once been the headquarters of the 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 that 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 that 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.
Another noted scout, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, focused on his scoutmaster in this manner: “Mr. B, to state it quite simply, is one of the finest human beings I have ever been blessed to know. As a young Boy Scout, he touched my life deeply with his absolute devotion to the highest ideals of Scouting, and to our Jewish faith. Further, ever since I moved back to Atlanta as a rabbi, some 50 years ago, Mr. B has constantly kept in touch with me, writing beautiful letters on any special life occasion or event in my life. And Mr. B’s very life, his devotion to his wife, Birdie, his children, and to all his family and to his wonderful synagogue, Or VeShalom, are an example of what it truly means to be a child of God. And not only have I have been enriched by Josiah Benator’s life, but I know as well, all of us who have been touched by his life have been blessed by his very presence in our lives.”
Benator is believed to be the oldest Jewish scoutmaster in America. ■