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Jewish Journal

Habonim Dror’s path to engagement

by Roberto Loiederman

January 23, 2014 | 3:46 pm

The Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews, released in early October, triggered much handwringing about the finding that 20 percent — referred to as “Jews of no religion” — see themselves as Jewish because of culture or ancestry, not because of any connection to the religion. 

On the heels of that survey comes another about alumni of Habonim Dror North America (HDNA) that suggests such labels may not tell the whole story. Titled “Building Progressive Zionist Activists: The Long-term Impact of Habonim Dror,” the survey was carried out by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Steven Fink, senior methodologist and analyst at Avar Consulting in Rockville, Md. The HDNA survey makes the case that HDNA alumni — many of whom self-identify as nonreligious Jews — are often involved in Jewish organizations, in many cases taking leadership roles, and that they’re also ardent supporters of Israel, boasting a very high rate of aliyah (immigration to Israel). 

Habonim and Dror, both founded many decades ago, are Jewish youth organizations that merged in the early 1980s. The resulting group, HDNA, manages children’s summer camps at seven North American sites as well as community activities all year in locations throughout the United States and Canada. It also runs a workshop program in which young adults spend a year in Israel. 

HDNA is proudly dedicated to Zionism, progressive causes in the United States and dovish policies in Israel. Its Web site avoids mention of denomination and makes it clear that HDNA’s aim is to create leaders dedicated to social justice, equality and peace. 

The December Cohen-Fink study, which was commissioned long before the Pew study results became public, analyzed answers provided by nearly 2,000 “Habos” (HDNA alumni) and compared the results to a 2011 study of New York-area Jews, carving out a segment of the earlier survey that “loosely resemble[s] the Habos.” The HDNA survey answers were compared to those of New York-area Jews born in the United States who were not ultra-Orthodox or Modern Orthodox and who, as youths, attended an overnight Jewish camp. The wording of a number of questions on the two surveys was intentionally replicated as well. 

According to the report, HDNA alums scored about the same as the New York comparison group when it came to synagogue affiliation: 48 to 50 percent. But regarding Jewish engagement, the survey indicates that Habos “outscore the N.Y. comparison group.” When asked if they belong to a “Jewish organization (not a synagogue or JCC),” Habos answered positively 51 percent of the time, compared to 29 percent for the New York group. Similarly, 63 percent of Habos said they participate regularly in a Shabbat meal, compared to 40 percent for the other group, and 39 percent of Habos said they regularly light Shabbat candles, compared to 24 percent. 

The Cohen-Fink study provides many comments by Habos attesting to how and why attending a Habonim Dror camp led to a Jewish identity that’s active and engaged but not necessarily in an affiliated sense. Some, for example, reported that when they were teens, they drifted away from Judaism as a religion but that Habonim Dror camp gave them a chance to experience being Jewish in a different — yet still “positive” — way.

“The Habonim experience informs many of the things I’ve done in my life, whether it was to get involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry when I was in high school and college, or whether it’s the kind of issues I take on as a public official,” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who attended Habonim for eight years, from the age of 10 through high school, mostly at Camp Gilboa in Southern California.

“Habonim is more than a youth group,” Yaroslavsky told the Journal. “It has an agenda: leadership, social justice and Zionism. They’re all about teaching kids self-reliance, debating issues, to question things as they are, to advocate and do things to promote human rights and obviously to promote and defend those values in Israel, as part of Zionism. It’s produced a lot of leaders here in the U.S., and it’s produced a lot of leaders in Israel, a lot of Americans who were part of Habonim and moved to Israel and settled there.”

One of the most striking results of the Cohen-Fink study is the high percentage of Habos who have settled in Israel. Of the 2,000 Habonim Dror alums surveyed, nearly one-quarter of them have made aliyah. Half of those subsequently came back to North America, but half remain in Israel.

Zak Greenwald, a 25-year-old who, as a 10-year-old in 1999, started going to Camp Gilboa, has continued to be a part of HDNA, in one capacity or another. At present,
Greenwald lives in a “communa” in Haifa with other HDNA alumni. 

“Habonim was the central element to my decision to make aliyah,” Greenwald told the Journal. “This was done through questioning many aspects of life in the Diaspora with my good friends from Habonim. We all made aliyah together.”

Habonim and Dror both were founded in the early years of the 20th century, at the same time that kibbutzim were being formed in Israel, and much of HDNA was shaped by the can-do, we’re-all-in-it-together kibbutz model. 

Helen Katz, who identifies herself as an activist, grew up in Los Angeles and still lives here. She was a camper and madrich (counselor) at Habonim during the 1950s and was also deeply influenced by the kibbutz-like nature of the camp. 

“It was a camp held together with spit and string, so if anything broke, we had to deal with it,” Katz said. “We all felt we were really making a contribution, and that was the way we should function in life: taking action rather than being passive and letting everything be done for us. It wasn’t analyzed, it wasn’t expressed in words, it wasn’t prescriptive. It was just done. 

“It was a community of kids that were taken seriously, and we worked together to make the camp work. It’s what made many of us become activists.”

Elizabeth Bar-El, a Habonim camper during the late 1970s, is now a senior planner for the city of Santa Monica and board president of Camp Gilboa. When asked what have been Habonim’s lifelong effects on her, she laughed: “Let’s see … besides kind of everything?”

Like so many other Habos, Bar-El made aliyah and lived in Israel for seven years, coming back to the United States in 1992. 

“You make aliyah and you think, OK, we’re going to raise our kids in Israel, that’s the plan, but then you don’t, you come back, so we put our kids into Habonim Dror instead,” Bar-El said. “And it’s had a huge effect on them.” 

Bar-El said those who attend Habonim usually develop a “very positive” relationship to their Jewishness: For the unaffiliated campers, the camp often becomes their Jewish identity. The Cohen-Fink study buttresses the point that “unaffiliated” does not necessarily mean less Jewish or less Zionist.

Referring to the concerns raised by the Pew study, Dalit Shlapobersky, HDNA Camp Gilboa executive director, told the Journal that many unaffiliated children who attend HDNA camps clearly go on to make “an impact in their Jewish community and are ardent supporters of Israel.”

She added, “It would be interesting for folks to know that ‘Jews of no religion’ are among our most engaged Jewish community members.”

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