There has been a lot of handwringing in the Jewish community about the growing number of unaffiliated Jewish families and young people who are not identifying with Judaism or Israel. One great antidote are the progressive Zionist Youth movements: Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror. These organizations nurture a strong sense of community in their members and a connection with Judaism and Israel. They attract families who are looking for a connection to Judaism but are not necessarily interested in organized religion. And, like the majority of American Jews, these movements support a strong Israel but also believe there must be a truly viable Palestinian state.
While the youth movements serve an incredibly important role in the Jewish community, they are typically underfunded and operate on very small budgets. The World Zionist Congress, which will be meeting next October, will be allocating over one billion dollars to various organizations in Israel and in the Diaspora each year for the next five years. That $5 billion in funding is one of the reasons these youth movements have united with other progressive Jewish organizations to run as a unified ticket called Hatikvah: the Progressive Slate. They are hoping that Hatikvah will receive enough votes from the Jewish community in America to send a strong slate of delegates to the World Zionist Congress to ensure that their movements will receive the resources they need to thrive.
Children who join youth movements learn an appreciation of Jewish culture and history and an awareness of the importance of Israel as a homeland for Jews, as well as developing critical leadership skills. The influence of the youth movements has always exceeded their numerical strength, and they have enormous impact in community organization, education, political awareness and Zionist consciousness. Graduates of the youth movements often go on to assume leadership roles in the Jewish community at large, building on the skills they learned in their youth movements.
The two youth movements included in the Hatikvah slate each have their own unique niches and ideologies, but they are united in a belief that Israel must fulfill the founders’ vision of a country based on justice and equality. They want to see an end to the occupation, the establishment of a Palestinian state, religious pluralism in Israel and equal rights for all of Israel’s citizens. Most of all, they want to provide a strong education in leadership and Jewish values so the next generation of young people will be prepared to take their places in the Jewish community.
Hashomer Hatzair, the oldest of the existing Zionist youth movements, is working to broaden its profile in the United States where it operates a summer camp and has activities throughout the year. In discussing the impact of Hashomer on his life, 16-year-old Eilam Ben Tzvi wrote: “There I improve, and there I expand, there I strengthen my Jewish identity and shape my connection to Israel in a critical way….I would like Hashomer Hatzair to have an impact on many other young minds, so that slowly but surely, the world will be filled with smart, independent thinkers, with responsible and understanding people, and with kind and fun souls.” For Hashomer Hatzair to continue to grow and prosper, it needs more resources to update and renovate its camp, and to fund outreach and an array of activities. In the past, when the kibbutz movement was thriving, Hashomer received much of its funding from Israel. Today, while it still benefits from staff sent through world movement, it funds most of its US operations on its own.
Habonim Dror, which has been operating in North America since 1935, currently runs six summer camps and eight year-round activity hubs across the continent, reaching 1,200 campers and 300 counselors every year. Habonim Dror depends on funding from Israel for such programs as Habonim Dror Workshop, the longest-running gap year in Israel, but funding has dwindled in recent years, making such programs less financially accessible to participants. In reflecting on their experiences in Habonim Dror, Erica Kushner, 22, who is on the leadership team at Camp Galil in Pennsylvania, said, “Through my education in Habonim Dror, my passion for Judaism blossomed. It’s a very important place because there you can have an opinion that is both progressive and supportive of Israel—when so many other people will either just write Israel off or will say there’s no way to be pro-Israel and pro-peace. Habonim Dror is a place where you can do that.”
A 2013 study by Steven M. Cohen & Steven Fink suggests that Erica’s experiences are not unique: it found that Habonim Dror alumni demonstrate remarkably high Israel engagement, communal engagement, and progressive values. Yet Habonim Dror’s ability to produce those results depends on it receiving the funding it needs.
Resources allocated through the World Zionist Congress would make a critical difference to all these organizations. To support the Zionist youth movements and progressive values, go to www.zionistelection.org, register to vote, and vote for Hatikvah: the Progressive slate, number 8 on the ballot.
Minna Elias is the Chair, Governance Committee of Hashomer Hatzair, Inc. (USA); Joel Winograd is chair of the board of Habonim Dror North America.