There's an unusual program planned this summer for counselors and older campers at Camp Gilboa, Southern California's newest Jewish summer camp. They're taking part in a national referendum to decide their political relationship with the Israel Labor Party.
It's a real vote, not an exercise. For decades, Habonim-Dror, the Zionist youth group that runs Gilboa and six other camps, has had an ill-defined, arm's-length relationship with Labor and its U.S. wing, the Labor Zionist Alliance. Lately, the two sides have discussed drawing closer, starting with free LZA membership for older Habonim-Dror members. The youth movement recommended the plan to its college-age members in an e-mail referendum in February. It passed, 59-1.
So why another vote? It seems Habonim-Dror's national secretariat decided the first vote was too easy. The lopsided approval made them suspect that their famously unruly membership wasn't paying attention, says national Program Director Ellen Friedrichs, 24. "So we decided to take more time and present a greater understanding of the issues."
The referendum is sparking debates at all seven Habonim-Dror camps. At the California camp, though, the mere act of voting on the youth movement's future has a special poignancy. In a sense this summer marks Habonim-Dror's rebirth as a youth movement in California, after nearly two decades' absence.
First opened in the early 1940s, Gilboa was shut down in 1982 for lack of funds and leadership. It reopened in 1995. This summer, its fifth, is the first time it will be staffed mainly by its own local graduates, not just by Habonim-Dror members flown in from elsewhere.
"It's momentous," says first-time counselor Aviram Soltes, 18. "We're the first generation of Gilboa-niks who have come up through the movement and returned to be counselors."
Habonim began in England in 1929 as a Jewish scouting club with ties to the kibbutz movement. Brought here three years later, Habonim (Dror was a smaller group absorbed in 1980) has been distinguished for generations by its strict principle of youth autonomy. Its only adult presence is a half-dozen Israeli educational advisers, or shlichim, in key cities. Camps also accept adults as cook, nurse and business manager. The first Habonim camp, a dozen kids in a tent in the Catskills in 1932, had Golda Meir as shaliach.
Autonomy has given Habonim members (full disclosure: This writer was one) a raffish image, part Zionist militant, part merry prankster. Over time, they've smuggled arms to pre-state Israel, marched against the Vietnam War, helped create the Soviet Jewry movement and been denounced by successive Israeli prime ministers for their anarchic radicalism. They also founded five Israeli kibbutzim. Another is planned for next year.
But autonomy has left Habonim more vulnerable than most groups to change. Never a mass movement -- membership peaked at 3,500 in 1948 and 1967 -- it plummeted in the 1980s. Its leftist views fell out of vogue. Its main funders, the World Zionist Organization and United Kibbutz Movement, were fighting for their own survival. Cut off, Habonim began shutting down. The California camp closed in 1982, the New York camp in 1984.
In the last five years, somehow, it's turned around. After-school programs now operate in 20 communities. A savvy new crop of shlichim, mostly in their 20s, has built new partnerships with federations and Jewish community centers. The national office is now funded by the camps, each owned by a local alumni committee.
The California camp reopened in 1995, the New York camp in 1998. Total registration at all seven Habonim-Dror camps this summer is about 1,500, the strongest season in decades.
The numbers make Habonim-Dror the fourth-largest sponsor of Jewish camps in the country, behind the Reform movement (6,000 campers in nine camps), the Conservative movement (3,500 campers in seven camps) and Young Judaea (2,400 campers in six camps).
Summer camps may be the least appreciated asset in the arsenal of American Jewish continuity. Recent studies suggest they're one of the most powerful tools available for creating a strong Jewish identity, up there with day schools and Israel travel.
"The power of camping is in the fact that there is an intrinsic, intensive community that young people build, that creates its own rules, its own boundaries," says Rabbi Rami Arian, director of the year-old Foundation for Jewish Camping. "It's not like a supplementary school. The kids live in it and soak it in 24 hours a day. It's really powerful when it's done thoughtfully."
Surprisingly, there are only about 100 Jewish-sponsored overnight camps in all North America. Total registration is about 30,000. That's less than 5 percent of the estimated 750,000 Jewish kids in the 9-to-16 age range. Arian thinks that's way too low.
"If we believe what the community says all the time, that the great challenge is to build strong Jewish identities, it's absurd to think 5-percent market penetration is anywhere near satisfactory," he says.
Arian would like to double or triple that in the near term. But it's expensive. At $10,000 a bed, opening a new camp costs upward of $3 million, he says.
Unless you do it the Habonim-Dror way. The New York and California camps were opened by local committees of thirtysomething alumni. They rented sites for a few thousand dollars down. Staff was mobilized by national Habonim.
Shira Schlesinger, 24, Gilboa's director, is a 1999 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. She flew to Los Angeles from graduation with $50 in her pocket, because the movement called.
"When the movement said, 'We need you to come out for a few weeks and set up,' I said OK," Schlesinger says. She spent the next month living and working with three staffers in an alum's guest room in the Valley.
Her campers aren't having a summer like kids elsewhere. No horses, no computers. She couldn't even afford a $20 dry-erase board for announcements.
What they are getting, she says, is a sense of their own worth. Campers elect committees to set rules and run the cooperative canteen. Work squads maintain the grounds. Programs include heavy doses of Hebrew, Jewish history and politics. "It's an ongoing challenge to teach without brainwashing," Schlesinger says.
What they end up with is an unparalleled sense of ownership in a Jewish institution. "Kids are smart, and we don't challenge them enough," Schlesinger says. "We don't give them enough credit."
So how will she vote on joining the Labor Zionist Alliance? "I'm absolutely against it," Schlesinger says. Why sacrifice autonomy?
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.