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Changes in Priorities Threaten Jewish Youth Movements

Oren Lee-Parritz

Professor Gil TroyZionist youth movements were once a solid fixture in the lives of young people in both Israel and the Diaspora not too long ago. Their influence has extended way beyond their participants � having had a significant impact on the development of Jewish society and the growth of the state of Israel. However, nowadays we are witnessing a decline in such participation.

These groups are not to be confused with synagogue movements such as USY, NCSY, or NIFTY. These organizations have always dwarfed Zionist groups in popularity but serve a different purpose altogether. Their function is more social and they are generally tied to synagogue movements such as conservative, orthodox, or reform. However, many of these groups certainly express Zionist views and contribute to related efforts.

The history of these Zionist movements in America can be traced back to the early European youth groups in Germany that began in the late 19th century as a reaction to the modern era. They espoused a romantic return to nature and folk culture. These aspects of the early youth movements fit in quite well with the needs of the early Zionism � namely a departure from modern society and the building up of a new one in a largely unsettled wilderness (mandatory Palestine). Gradually, Zionism became the driving force behind many such movements all over the world.

Many scholars agree that Zionist youth was instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel. Concretely, these movements built and populated scores of Kibbutzim in mandated Palestine as well as nascent and modern Israel. Kibbutzim were indeed central building blocks to the modern sate. Furthermore, Zionist groups provided a great deal of political and financial aid for Israel since before and throughout its existence. In addition, they played a large role in successfully pursuing many other Jewish causes over the past century. An example of this is their active involvement with the cause of Soviet Jewry, for whom they won many battles. Many of these youth groups operate on similar principles: uniting their constituents socially and ideologically via activities, camp, and Israel trips to encourage Aliyah. It is also very common for Zionist organizations to be aligned with a political party.

According to Professor Gil Troy, faculty of History, McGill University, author of "Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today", the popularity and activity of these movements is on the decline. He posits that there are many reasons for this. One reason is that more recent contentious issues involving Israeli politics have caused some friction between Israel and American Jewry. In addition, Professor Troy cites certain changes in Jewish sociology: "�the �us� of the movements doesn't resonate in the me-me-me, my-my-my world of the Ipod,". In other words, today�s Jewish (or American) youth are too cemented in their individualistic outlook to put any time and effort into organizations that are so fundamentally communal. Other societal shifts shoulder some blame as well: "�the ideology of the youth movements doesn't resonate anymore and kids are too over-programmed and too pressured internally, in school and by their parents to be on career track�", leaving little room or motivation for participation.

Various literature on the history of Bnei Akiva around the post war era indicates a decline in participation due to material advancement- that is, people became comfortable in their newly acquired wealth and lost interest in utopian ideologies. This could be an accurate description of the state of affairs today, given the growing affluence of the American-Jewish community.

Given that many of the reasons for the decline of these groups and activities have been attributed to changes in American society, it would be interesting to investigate whether or not such organizations are in decline in other countries as well.

While the popularity of the youth group activities is certainly on the decline. Gil Troy points out that Jewish summer camp is alive and well. This is because "�one fits into the Yuppie script, [and] the other doesn't -- the Jewish professional is very happy to send the kids off to camp -- that works for the family, [and] specialty camps are growing, so a Jewish specialty camp has it's own rationale�" . As can be expected, there are changes in the flourishing camp atmosphere: "�directors of TY (a Young Judaea camp), Sprout (another Young Judaea camp), and other movement camps will tell you the growing pressure to offer computer skills, swimming, and tennis lessons, etc. Youth movements don't fit into any American script -- and take precious time away from school work and other career-building extra-curricular [activities]".

One interesting development is that Zionist movements may be gaining some momentum among young adults on college campuses. This is perhaps in light of the most recent attacks on Israel by the media and the academic community.

It is important to look at a few of the major movements in America. Young Judaea is one of the largest of these movements. It is a non-partisan movement backed by Hadassah that is also religiously unaffiliated. Young Judaea is active internationally. Aside from its emphasis on the Zionist cause, it is also very focused on social action, promoting Jewish culture in the face of assimilation, and peer-led democracy as its governing process. According to their official website, Young Judaea has experienced a decline in membership. Professor Troy believes that its unaligned nature has helped it persevere: "In a non-ideological age, being seen as less heavy-handed-- and being able to be connected to Hadassah and thus �safe� -- is essential [for a Zionist youth organization�s survival]". (www.youngjudaea.com)

Hashomer Hatzair is the oldest Zionist youth group. It has long been an advocate of a bi-national solution to the Arab Israeli conflict. Politically, it is left of center, tracing its origins to Marxist-Zionism. One of it most famous members is Mordecaij Anielewicz, a central figure in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Hashomer Hatzair was very involved in the organization of the early Palmach (the precursor to the IDF) as well as illegal immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine under the British mandate. It is still currently active in the United States and many other countries, though it is based in Israel. Hashomer Hatzair is largely secular. (www.hashomerhatzair.org)

Habonim Dror is another left of center Zionist Group that is most closely affiliated with the Labor party. In addition to Zionist ideology, this international movement also has a significant focus on social action. This group is not particularly religious, and tends to focus more on Jewish culture. Habonim Dror has been heavily involved in the Kibbutz movement, and thus has suffered with the recent decline of the traditional Kibbutz. This has forced them to rethink many of their institutions and ideologies. As of late, they have been operating more in conjunction with Hashomer Hatzair in order to cope with some of these contemporary challenges. (www.habonimdror.org)

Bnei Akiva is the largest mainstream religious Zionist group. It is also international. Many of the Zionist movements have traditionally been secular (with a particular distaste for traditional religion). Furthermore, the religious community originally had a strong distaste for Zionism. Bnei Akiva contributed to the foundation for a partnership of these two seemingly incompatible ideas, and religious Zionism has flourished as a result. The movement emphasizes Torah v�Avodah (work and Torah): "combining Torah learning and observance with active contribution to the Jewish people and society, to bring about the rebirth of the Jewish nation on its land,". It is currently most closely aligned with the NRP (National Religious Party) and operates many Yeshivot. (www.bneiakiva.org)

Betar is a secular right of center international movement most closely affiliated with Herut and Likud. It is the descendant of Ze�ev Jabotinsky�s revisionist Zionism. Their ideology is also non-socialist. Historically, they were instrumental in the building of Israel�s navy. Aside from Zionism, they are most well known for combating anti-semitism all over the world. Many of their alumni are prominent figures in Israeli society: Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Menachem Begin, and Ytizhak Shamir. (www.betar.org) According to Professor Troy, "There was something incredibly special and empowering about a great youth movement - graduates came out with a real sense of ownership regarding the movement and the Jewish world - it's a shame to lose that spark". This development is coming at a time of hardship for Israel and during a modern era that has proven to be very alienating for many. Given Zionism�s reactionary nature, perhaps these circumstances provide hope that a resurgence is on the way.


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