Shaya Wachtel likes to think of himself as your average American teenage boy. The Pikesville High School senior loves cars, baseball, hip-hop and R&B, camping and working with his hands.
But Shaya, 17, recently differentiated himself from the bulk of his peers by becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest achievement or rank attainable in the Boy Scouts of America.
Only four percent of all Scouts earn the rank. Among the best-known Eagle Scouts are the late President Gerald R. Ford, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg and astronaut Neil Armstrong, as well as four Nobel Prize laureates.
A modest, unassuming young man, Shaya — who belongs to Troop #42 based at Congregation Beth Abraham, also known as “Hertzberg’s Shul” — says he never realized the uniqueness of becoming an Eagle Scout until after earning the rank and seeing the news posted on his school’s Twitter account.
“I knew it was kind of rare, but I’ve met a lot of Eagle Scouts over the years,” he says. “But after I got it, people made a big deal about it and congratulated me. I didn’t know it would be perceived like this, all the fuss and attention.”
One of three children and the eldest son of Dr. Yoel Wachtel and Dr. Lee Wachtel, Shaya first became involved in Scouting when he was 12. He joined Troop #1299 based at Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, where he became a bar mitzvah and attends High Holiday services.
“I had a friend there who was a Scout and he recruited me,” says Shaya, who lives in Ranchleigh. “I just wanted to be outdoors and camping, making fires. It was cool and fun and I really liked it. The kids were welcoming and easy to get along with. Scouting’s like a family.”
At some point after earning dozens of merit badges (he now has 26) and joining Troop #42, Shaya decided to set his sights on becoming an Eagle Scout. The arduous, time-consuming process requires a great deal of leadership ability, planning and organizational skills, as well as a lot of paperwork and coordination.
“I figured I’ve been in the Scouts all this time, I might as well complete it all and become an Eagle Scout,” he says.
To achieve this goal, Shaya turned to Pikesville resident Charles Hauss, his original Scoutmaster with Troop #1299, to be his Eagle Scout mentor.
“There’s no way I could have done this without Mr. Hauss,” says Shaya. “Mr. Hauss always reinforced that you can get to Eagle Scout, so it was always in the back of my head as an ultimate goal. He just helped me with a lot of things in my personal life. I’m a procrastinator, so he was always on my case.
“My dad was also always on my case, saying, ‘Get it done!’” Shaya says of his father, an Israel Defense Forces veteran.
For his Eagle Scout project, Shaya planned and supervised a beautification campaign for Beth Abraham. The project included removing by hand several rows of twisting, thick ivy vines from the synagogue’s façade; painstakingly power-washing the exterior’s brick walls (“brick by brick”); trimming the overgrown shrubbery and weed-whacking the building’s base; laying out bags of mulch around the edifice; and sanding down and staining the congregation’s outside benches.
Shaya, who created a detailed 15-page proposal as mandated by Eagle Scout requirements, oversaw a team of approximately 10 volunteers for the project, which was conducted over six hot days last August.
Afterward, he submitted an Eagle Scout application, with letters of recommendation from his parents and others, and appeared before a Scouting district board on Nov. 23 for a review. A few days later, he received a letter of congratulations from the board.
“I was pretty excited about it — and relieved,” says Shaya. “The board of review is kind of nerve-racking. You have to be really prepared.”
Shaya will officially receive the rank designation at a Jan. 26 ceremony at Beth Abraham.
Hauss, who is the founder of Troop #42 and serves as its advancement chair and scribe, says he was always confident Shaya had the right stuff to become an Eagle Scout.
“It’s a major achievement for a young man,” he says. “Shaya had several things going for him. He’s intelligent and well-mannered. He shows very good leadership skills and empathy for younger Scouts. He understands that kids don’t always pick up things right away. He has lot of patience. …
“You also have to be able to balance a lot of what you can do,” says Hauss, who has mentored 28 Eagle Scouts over the years. “Shaya has a lot going on in his life, but he balances his time well and has a lot of self-discipline. He’s done a remarkable job and is quite deserving of this honor. He did it all and organized it all, and put in all of the time.”
Shaya, who is currently applying to colleges and plans to study mechanical engineering, says he hopes to be a role model for younger Scouts and non-Scouts.
“I’d recommend [Scouting] to anyone, even though it’s not for everyone,” he says. “But it’s helped me a lot. I’d advise anyone to try it.”
As far as becoming an Eagle Scout, Shaya says he refuses to let himself get too carried away about it.
“I worked really hard for it and I’m proud, but I don’t feel like I should be showing off to everyone about it,” he says. “I’m just an average kid who became an Eagle Scout. That’s all.”
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