Faith and the outdoors at Philmont Scout Ranch

Nuclear physicist turned rabbi helps Scouts understand Jewish religion


On June 4, a new staff member entered Philmont Scout Ranch with his 7-year-old son, a vague idea of his job description and big shoes to fill. Arriving from his home in Mount Dora, Florida, Rabbi Geoffrey Solomon had no previous Philmont experience. However, the skills that he did bring with him, including more than 20 years studying and teaching the Jewish faith as a profession, a lifetime of love for the outdoors and a Scouting experience that culminated in his Eagle Scout badge, would serve him well as he embarked on a journey as Philmont's new Jewish chaplain.

Solomon replaced Rabbi Todd Zinn, who left Philmont to join the staff at Chicago's Sinai Congregation. Serving as a rabbi in Mount Dora, with summers off, Solomon jumped at the opportunity to introduce his son, Benjamin, to Scouting -- and to give back to an organization that had helped define his youth.

"I came to Philmont never having had the opportunity myself as a Scout," Solomon said. "And I wanted to start [Benjamin] on the Philmont experience as early as possible. He's loving it."

While Solomon never made it to Philmont as a Scout, Scouting played a large role in his childhood. Growing up in Northern California, he practically had the Cascade Mountains in his backyard. It was there that Solomon began experiencing the outdoors, backpacking with an external frame pack he still owns. Even after receiving his Eagle Scout badge, he still continued hiking and exploring into adulthood. When Benjamin was born, Solomon wanted to give him the same opportunities that he had experienced in his childhood. Together, they embarked on a series of cross-country camping trips, which helped instill the same outdoor passion in his son.

"[Benjamin] has been to over 25 national parks and monuments," Solomon said. "He did the Junior Ranger program for two summers. So that was the plan for him growing up, and he loved it, so I knew that we had a winner here."

With Benjamin now enjoying the Philmont Training Center during the day, Solomon turned his attention to learning about his new responsibilities and developing a program to support Jewish staff and participants. One piece of parting advice he received from Zinn was that his services would be frequented by Scouts of other religions looking to learn about Judaism. Not wanting to shortchange Jewish participants, Solomon still conducts a full Jewish service, but he decided to add a question-and-answer portion in the middle for those not as familiar with the religion. One aspect that has been surprising to questioners is Solomon's background. He received a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and worked in the defense industry before becoming a rabbi in his 40s. This has made him more than happy to engage those with questions about the connection between science and religion, as he has experience in both fields.

"I've always had a very strong faith," Solomon said. "Everything I ever learned in science merely reinforced my sense of wonderment in God's creation."

Besides his daily 7 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. services, Solomon has branched out to reach Jewish Scouts and staff in other ways. The Jewish annex, previously used for storage, has been cleaned out and turned into a hangout spot for staff and Scouts. There, Solomon holds Saturday night havdalah services with ice cream at 9 p.m. In addition, every Friday night, he has a Shabbat dinner in his home following chapel services. Solomon still is learning about the intricacies of his job through his fellow chaplains, who have supported him throughout the transition. He also continues to work on his core mission, connecting to and supporting Scouts and staff. Solomon is happy to talk at any time and can be reached at his house by the Jewish chapel. In the meantime, he is enjoying experiencing an apex of Scouting with his son.

"Philmont is an incredible place," Solomon said. "And seeing it work as one massively beautiful machine, all designed to provide an amazing and safe experience for thousands and thousands of Scouts, it's mind boggling how wonderful it is."

Kliewer is a staff writer for PhilNews.