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Jewish Journal

Habonim Dror celebrates 75 years of joyful Jewish camping

by Ryan smith, Contributing Writer

Posted on Nov. 3, 2010 at 10:43 am

Not every American summer camp can claim to have helped smuggle arms to freedom fighters.

Then again, the camps associated with Habonim Dror North America — the progressive Labor Zionist youth movement that celebrates its 75th anniversary this year — are anything but typical.

Unlike camps affiliated with a particular movement of Judaism, the Habonim Dror camps bring together members with an intense love of Israel and collectivist attitudes. When the State of Israel was established, its adherents were at the forefront of American Jewry offering to help.

“One out of 10 volunteers from the United States in the ’48 war were Habonim members,” said Jonathan Krasner, assistant professor of the American Jewish experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York.

Some of its camps taught agricultural techniques and other skills that would be important to establishing the new state. And there was the weapons thing, too.

Seth Brysk, 41, a former national president of the organization who lives in Los Angeles, remembers the pride there was that Camp Galil in Pennsylvania hid arms that were sent to Jewish communities in Israel to help with their defense.

But like so many others who have been part of the movement, he’s particularly proud of the impact it has had on individuals, including himself. “It really helped to forge my Zionist identity, in many ways my Jewish identity,” he said.

Brysk, now Los Angeles regional director for the American Jewish Committee, will be representing his generation on Nov. 20 during a gala celebrating Habonim’s milestone anniversary. Joining him will be Rabbi Ronnie Cohen and Janet Farber. In addition, Adar Belinkoff will receive a special award for being a lifelong activist for both Habonim and Ameinu, previously known as the Labor Zionist Alliance.

The event, which will take place at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, is co-sponsored by Ameinu and Habonim Dror’s Camp Gilboa.

Habonim Dror, which means “the builders of freedom” in Hebrew, is the result of a merger between two groups. Habonim formed in London in 1929 before coming to North America six years later, and it joined with the youth Zionist movement Dror in 1982. Plenty has changed since then, but there remain a number of high-minded goals facing members: pursuing social justice, giving Israel a central place in American Jewish life, making aliyah and encouraging the equality of all people, to name a few. This is not to say that those get in the way of having fun. Far from it, according to campers who return to Habonim Dror’s seven camps in the United States and Canada year after year. (There are also year-round activities and programs in Israel.)

“We sort of provide a home for people who don’t necessarily feel at home in other places,” said Ronnie Cohen, 64, who began attending camp in Saugus when he was 10 and went on to become the organization’s national treasurer.

“I guess what I liked was the singing and the dancing and the intellectual atmosphere that surrounded it.”

In California, youths can attend Camp Gilboa, located in the San Bernardino Mountains, where they’ll find themselves in a living experience that creates a kibbutz-like community.

“Everything is shared,” explained Dalit Shlapobersky, executive director of the camp that hosted 135 youths last summer. “If the kids get a package from home, they’ll share it with their entire age group or the entire camp.”

Decisions are made as a group. Chores are done together. That’s what helps create a unique sense of unity among participants, according to Kara Segal, 23, camp director for the past two summers. “At camp we do an hour of work in the morning before breakfast, something like cleaning the bathroom or chopping vegetables. And I think that tangible experience of being part of a community was a very meaningful one,” she said.

What began as a movement with the goal of creating a Jewish state and then cultivating and populating it has evolved over the years as the world and Israel changed. “In the ’80s, Israel existed. It was a stable entity, the kibbutzim were going through some processes of privatization, and we no longer knew what our purpose as a movement was,” said Talia Spear, national director. “We didn’t have a good answer as to how to actualize our values and ideology anymore.”

The answer was found, in part, through greater focus on social justice. As a result, when participants now take part in a nine-month program in Israel after they graduate from high school, they don’t just spend that time on a kibbutz. They’re also in cities working in education and encouraging tolerance.

The movement’s membership is relatively small, with only about 1,500 youths taking part across the continent, but that doesn’t mean its impact hasn’t been significant.

“A lot of Habonim alumni end up becoming involved in the leadership of the Jewish community in one way or another, and so I think the influence of Habonim is felt disproportionate to the actual numbers of kids who were involved,” HUC-JIR’s Krasner said.

In Southern California, that contribution was endangered in 1982 when a declining Camp Gilboa was sold and closed. It wasn’t until 1995 that some alumni managed to rent a site and reopen the camp. Now leaders hope to use the 75th anniversary of Habonim as an opportunity to secure the camp’s future through a campaign to raise about $3 million to purchase a camp.

“We have reached a point where we’re stable enough to launch a campaign to operate our own camp, and this is now necessary for us to grow and run a full Habonim Dror program,” said Liz Bar-El, chair of Camp Gilboa’s camp committee.

The centerpiece of the experience, of course, remains the campers, and after 75 years, one look at them is enough to know that some things remain the same. As Norm Kane, co-chair of the gala and a former Habonim member, observed, “Some things you change, but the spirit and the enthusiasm and the ideology of the kids has remained pretty much as it was at the beginning.”

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