Planting Trees, The Matrix & HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed

April 14, 2016

Last week, someone asked me how I’m settling into my work here in North America as an Israeli emissary. I smiled and answered that I’m absolutely loving it – I feel like my mission here is the most meaningful thing I could possibly be doing, in the right place and at exactly the right time. I’m going to try to explain why, via one of my favourite books, one of my favourite films, and a great deal of love, respect and gratitude for Habonim Dror North America, HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed and the partnership between them.

One of the most beautiful books I have ever read is Jean Gioni’s short story ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’.

The story is an inspiring allegory for the surprising human ability to bring about real, long-term change by patient, consistent, determined grassroots activism. It is surprising because such evolutionary activism is simultaneously against all the odds, against the grain and against the tide – everything about our reality attempts to convince us that we are powerless against the forces of nature. Spending your life building something which does not obey these supposedly predetermined, undeniable laws of nature – or human nature – requires incredible personal devotion. To me the story is specifically relevant for maintaining hope for social change via education. The trees are people – the children, youth, and young adults we are educationally empowering. The ensuing forest is the blossoming of a better society.

Obviously, in my adaptation, the solitary shepherd does not live and work alone but rather should strive to be the change one wants to see in the world by living in a community and working in a team. Postmodern, capitalist society can be so lonely, atomized and alienating that such a reinterpretation of the protagonist’s methodology is essential – only with togetherness can we bring fertility to such a wilderness. Blogging from the wilderness of a Starbucks in Manhattan whilst ‘grande vanilla coconut lattes’ are distributed to the masses is clearly a very different variety of barren landscape to the Alps of Provence but you get the point.

Relocating from our urban kibbutz to Manhattan is sometimes reminiscent of getting jacked back into the Matrix from Zion.

Being an emissary here does increase my consumption of steak and red wine, as well as every other type of raging carbon footprint consumerism imaginable. But blissful ignorance? No, not with this many homeless beggars everywhere – in the subways and on the streets, even sleeping rough in doorways during snow storms and nighttime temperatures well below zero.

Shining brightly against the sinister backdrop of NYC’s tempting, almighty, Babylonian, golden calf, Matrix empire, I have spent the past 4 months being inspired and impressed by HDNA – the movement which is planting trees here. The crew of this Exodus/Nebuchadnezzar are distributing the red pills of Socialist Zionism to wake up and liberate young Jews from the slavery of the matrix.

However, unlike so many on the left, they are not only offering critique and deconstruction, but are also planting trees – they are rebuilding Zion! In less metaphorical terms, Habonim Dror North America works across the USA and Canada by running educational camps, events and seminars for children, youth, students and young adults. The movement uses informal, experiential education methodologies in order to create an open, inclusive, radical, empowering, constructively critical, Jewish, Zionist, Humanist, Feminist, Socialist environment in which young people can connect with their identity and community.

Having been active in HDUK during the 1990’s and then working internationally through World HD in Israel until 2010, I was exposed to a deep ideological, existential crisis which paralyzed the movement. Some HD countries never recovered (eg Hungary, Sweden and Turkey have disappeared completely over this period). Some HD countries still function organizationally but have forgotten or given up on some of their core movement values and visions in the name of survival or ‘progress’. Some have shrunk, having been out-competed, usually by more post-modern, pluralist, mainstream organizations.

Thankfully, HDNA is one of the youth movements which has managed to come out the other side of that crisis. I have found myself having the honor and privilege of serving a truly wonderful group of young adult leaders who have vision, passion and commitment whilst also being supremely warm, welcoming and inclusive. Over the past 20 years, they have made huge changes whilst remaining true to – and even strengthening – their historical core values. The results of such a process of renewal are really surprising and inspiring to witness, rather like a forest seemingly spontaneously sprouting out of nowhere in the barren Alps.

Of course, in reality, it has been very far from natural – it has required a very long, hard slog by some extremely dedicated people, many of whom have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for years. There are too many individuals to thank for this ‘miracle’ of human endeavor, but some of the groups who deserve the credit include: the young members and leaders themselves; the parents; the mazkiruyot (secretariat groups) of the camps/regional activities/central office; the alumni; the voluntary camp committees and boards; the professional staff; the emissaries (and the people who send them from World HD, JAFI and the WZO); the HDF and other private donors and foundations; and, of course, the graduates in the Kvutzot Am ‘tnuat bogrim’ (adult movement) who lead the movement by example from Israel.

Above all else though, besides for the movement members themselves, the greatest single factor in the renewal of HDNA has undoubtedly been the partnership of their sister movement in Israel, HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed / Dror Yisrael.

The lengths and depths to which they have both nurtured and challenged HDNA to ‘arise and build’ are profoundly moving to me. My words do not suffice. Neither ‘The Matrix’ nor ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ references can do justice to the extent of their educational revolution nor the beauty of their vision. Instead I’ll share the wise words of Muki Tzur, here writing publicly to HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed graduates when they pioneered Eshbal, one of their first ‘educators kibbutzim’, as an apt blessing, hope and aspiration for all of us, against all the odds.

 

“They will not believe you. They will think you are an accident. An invasion from outer space.

Or perhaps that someone is dragging you by the scruff of your neck, that it isn’t your doing. That ghosts from the past are having a go at you. Actually, your youthful spirit is irritating. Haven’t you read the sociological studies and the obituaries, haven’t you heard the compassionate sermons, haven’t they whispered in your ears that you were born too late? Don’t you know that the candle has been extinguished, the dream is over? Haven’t they taught you to dry your tears and confront the world with cheeks still wet and your fists clenched? What are you doing there in Eshbal? Now, at this stage, you dare to come and say that you want partnership, education, a social experiment?

Now? Now you will stand up and face your friends and followers, and not tell them to learn to bow under the yoke as though it were a pleasure, to dream and walk about hypnotized by the glitter of power over others. Won’t you, too, try to put out the sparks of an inner awakening, of the search for togetherness based on the individual? Will you dare to seek meaning in your work, responsibility in your relations with each other? Will you reach out beyond the horizon and to roots nurtured from the depths and learn to act? Will you speak to others equals, boldly yet humbly?

Go your own way, with discerning eyes and candor in your hearts. Don’t be alarmed. You have not been called upon to sacrifice yourselves. Not to a blind idealism, only to the difficult task of building. To bear the barbs of being “contrary to expectations,” bewildered and confused.

Don’t let your striving for the future burn out, nor futile dreams consume you. But do not take the obvious road.

We shall watch you, believing that you and those who will follow you be able to straighten things out somehow, and overcome the fashionable apathy and discord without arrogance, with a great deal of love.

Muki Tzur, Kibbutz Ein Gev”

Eshbal: Against All the Odds, Kibbutz Trends ,1997

Translated by Hana Raz.

Meeting a Murderer

February 22, 2016

I feel like I’ve been scuba diving. I jumped into the middle of the ocean, planning to tread water close to the surface for a while. Instead, I sank much deeper than expected. I plummeted. I’ve been submerged, deep beneath the sea, struggling back towards the surface. Now I’m back up – able to gasp fresh air and breathe normally again.

I expected that this would be the most ‘live and online’ time of my life, publicly posting pictures, blogs and anecdotes left, right and center. Instead, I’ve pretty much gone dark for over two months. After such an intensive time, there are now so many moments to share – filtering them down to the most significant is challenging. I’ll start with a short story…

One morning I was travelling on the subway, on my daily commute from Manhattan to Brooklyn, after dropping the girls off at school. As usual, the carriage was packed. The man stood next to me was counting coins in his huge, rather grubby hands. He was quite short but unusually wide – not fat but extremely strong looking, or ‘built like a brick shit-house’, as a Brit would say – I’ve no idea if an American would use that phrase. When he looked up at me, I was struck by his intensely piercing blue eyes. He loudly asked me and others around us for a quarter (25 cents) so that he would be able to get back again after meeting his caseworker. He held out his hand to show people that he almost had enough for the subway ride and just needed one more quarter. Generally, the people around us ignored him, looking the other way and staring into space as if they hadn’t noticed his existence. He had such a striking presence that he it really impossible to not notice him, even amongst a city full of fantastical characters. I gave him a quarter and he carried on talking loudly. He explained that his caseworker was meant to help him find a job but that nobody wants to employ a murderer like him.

Awkward moment. I looked down. Was he serious? Joking? Crazy? Dangerous? There was nowhere to go. I was briefly lost for words but the silence needed breaking. I decided to be brave and go with it – enjoy the ride.

I looked back up into his amazing eyes, half-smiled and asked him what he meant. He explained that he had recently been released from a 20 year sentence which he served in a series of maximum security federal prisons – he reeled off a list of them which I don’t recall. I asked him what he had done. He told me – and the rest of the carriage – that he had shot somebody in the face, in the middle of a crowded street, in broad daylight. It was over money – what else? Although I was the only person engaged in the conversation with him, I knew that the other passengers were all silently listening to our little talk-show. I managed to enjoy playing the host until two NYPD cops came into the carriage at the next stop. At that point my friend started mouthing off loudly,  complaining about widespread corruption, bullying and abuse of power by the police. Thankfully, the NYPD cops managed to look the other way and ignored him completely, just like all the rest of the passengers.

My next post will be about something more normative, like thousands of young North Americans building a grassroots Jewish socialist Zionist (r)evolution…

Countdown to Capitalism…

December 3, 2015

The massive, life changing upheaval I’m now beginning to go through is worth blogging about. Or at least that’s what a bunch of people have told me, anyway.

You see, I’m about to make the big move from living in a fully cooperative, anarcho-syndicalist, socialist Zionist, activist community in a remote northern periphery of Israel, to the beating heart of capitalism: Manhattan, NYC.

new chalutzim

I’ve been living in and building Jewish socialist communities in the Middle East for nearly 17 years now, since February 1999. When I set out from England to Israel on ‘aliyah’ (immigration), I was young, unmarried and had no children. I’m now 41, married with 3 kids and totally immersed in activist community life.

Although I grew up in Leeds, England and have also lived a ‘normal’ capitalist life in London after leaving home, I’ve never lived that life with a family and never lived as a family without a very intensive cooperative, communal life. My Jewish identity and culture has been rebuilt and redefined as an inseparable aspect of my holistic community life. My finances are fully cooperative. On the income side of the equation I’ve been working as part of a nationwide movement which owns our own means of production and provides resources for our members’ needs, rather than paying wages to employees. In addition, community members who work ‘outside’ of our own economic system, for example teachers or social workers who are employed by the local municipality, also pool their salaries and thereby redistribute their income. On the expenses side, I’ve been consuming cooperatively with groups of various sizes, ranging between 3 and 350 people. This distribution of our wealth according to our needs takes place on multiple levels, for example via joint bank accounts, car pooling, co-housing, community childcare and education, cooperative grocery store, inter-community nationwide cellphone network, and more.

In the past week, we have become temporarily separated from all of that. We are going to spend the next few years as ‘shlichim’ – emissaries – helping young Jews in North America to get connected to the inspiring, activist, Israeli intentional communities which we call home. The irony is that in order to connect them, we need to disconnect ourselves. The process of leaving ‘Siach’ (our intimate ‘kvutza’ living group of 8 adults and 9 kids) and ‘Mishol‘ (our urban kibbutz of 80 adults and 60 kids) was incredibly painful and distressing. Saying goodbye to such an amazing, supportive, loving bunch of friends and partners has re-emphasized just how privileged we are to have managed to find these people and to have built our lives together with them. It has reminded us just how interwoven every aspect of our lives has become – social, economic, educational, cultural, ideological, physical and practical. The crazy adventure of life in the Big Apple will no doubt provide many fascinating experiences and alternatives. Some of these will surely distract us from feeling intimately and holistically connected to the people and platforms which we are coming to present. However, right now I am primarily struck by how unimaginably lonely it is going to be without our friends and life partners from our intimate group, our kibbutz and our movement.

Back to Blogging

June 17, 2012

Last week I was at the ROI Summit 2012, which has re-inspired me to tell the world about the Activist Kibbutzim. I have edited the RadJew blog posts, deleting all of the content which was about other stuff, thus focusing this blog on the Activist Kibbutzim. Hopefully I will make the time to keep adding stuff, making this the ultimate online starting point for those who are interested in this blossoming phenomena in Israel. It is an historic time! Last week Kibbutz Mishol (our kibbutz in Nazareth Illit, the biggest urban kibbutz in Israel, formerly blogged here as Na’ama) was officially, formally, legally registered in Israel as an Urban Kibbutz. Also last week, 15 different networks and movements of activist communities legally registered our umbrella NGO – The National Council of Activist Communities. Unlike previous attempts at building such umbrellas (such as Ma’agal Ha’Kvutzot, which nowadays includes about 7 of the independent / non-movement urban kibbutzim and kvutzot) this one actually includes pretty much all of the potential activist community networks. Furthermore, it is genuinely representative of the grassroots activists ourselves, rather than being a philanthropic attempt to represent us by an external agency such as the Shahaf Foundation. I intend to blog more about the Council and our constituent communities and networks, as well as about snippets of our community life – co-housing, skill swapping, time banking, car pooling, cooperatives, social justice projects, and more! Coming Soon…

Rebuilding Israel’s Utopia

December 17, 2009

I’ve been a bit sick today, so it’s only going to be a short post with links to other (good) stuff…

One of my Israeli friends was recently asked if there are any books or websites in English about the whole new urban kibbutz / adult movements / kvutzot thing. He assumed that there weren’t any yet, and was surprised to hear that there are already a few relevant sources:

The first book I know of which includes significant coverage of the urban kibbutzim is Daniel Gavron’s Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia. There are also a bunch of relevant parts in Mike Tyldesley’s No Heavenly Delusion. The most recent is James Horrox’s A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement, which includes plenty about the new kvutzot. He has also written one of the best short overviews I have seen, entitled Rebuilding Israel’s Utopia, describing the whole phenomenon. After only 2 years, Rebuilding Israel’s Utopia is already rather out of date, since things are growing and developing fast and constantly. For example, Ma’agal Hakvutzot has changed completely since then, becoming a specific network of the independent kvutzot and urban kibbutzim without the adult movements, who are in many ways the biggest players. Nevertheless, it’s still probably the most accurate summary article that I have seen.

There’s also an out of date overview which I wrote years ago here together with a few choice words by Nechemia Meyers. There have been a few other overview articles, but mostly they include all sorts of other wierd and wonderful communities alongside the radical new jewish socialist zionist chalutzim. I guess that it’s understandable that many people include any new young intentional community along with us, but I guess that gives me the opportunity to make it clear that I am not just covering any old group. Those that are not socialist cooperatives internally and / or do not work externally towards peace / social justice / equality might be lovely people individually and collectively, but they don’t really count as RadJew chalutzim, since they aren’t “Rebuilding Israel’s Utopia.”

Here are a few examples of such ‘about us and also them’ type articles:

In Israel, Kibbutz Life Undergoes Reinvention

All Together Now

Why Communes Now

Inspiring Pioneers: Kvutsat Aseef

December 11, 2009

Although 99% of the radical Jews who are pioneering Israel’s social frontiers in urban kibbutzim and kvutzot are native ‘sabra’ Israelis, there are a small – but growing – number of olim [immigrants] involved. They are pretty much all from the international chalutzik socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror, which historically built about 50 traditional kibbutzim all over Israel from the 1930’s to the 1980’s.

Kvutsat Aseef: Ilan Brandvain, Renata Kibrit, Jacki Silbermann, Gil Browdy, Nadav Barzilai, Naomi Kassel & Ruth Stevens

The Habonim Dror Tnuat Bogrim [graduate adult movement] includes people in 3 kvutsotYovel (in Migdal Ha’Emek), Ogen (in Hadera) and Aseef (in Netanya) – as well as a number of olim who are in various stages of processes forming new groups and communities. Altogether, they include people who are originally from England, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Holland, Uruguay and Brazil.

Today I got sent a copy of this article, which made it easy for me to decide which inspiring pioneers to write about this time! Kvutsat Aseef are from Brazil, Israel, the USA & Canada. I got to know some of them pretty well when they were 18 years old, trying out life in Israel on a program in 2002. I remember severely pissing them off when I expressed my doubts about the likelihood of them being willing and able to follow through on their ideological ideas in practice. Well, some of them have, so I owe them a sincere apology for doubting them back then, and I also owe them a great deal of love and respect for who they are and what they are building today. They are injecting fresh energy and creativity into their part of the movement, Israeli society, and the Jewish people, whilst maintaining their autonomy and unique essence. Beautiful – yet they are self-critical and therefore modestly unaware of how appreciated and impressive their amazing little kvutza is in the eyes of those who are around them. I enjoy the privilege of having contact with them, and I hope that they are enjoying the world which they are creating as much as they deserve to for their contribution to it.

I warmly welcome any comments posted from anyone who would like to give Aseef some virtual public encouragement! (Critiques or questions are fine too!)

(You can also see a pdf of the original article here).

Inspring Pioneers: Tamuz

November 26, 2009

In a dark period of my life, when I believed that kibbutz was dying out (along with ideology in general) and that there was therefore no place left to live according to both of the values of freedom and equality, Kibbutz Tamuz was one of the places which saved me from despair. As one of the first urban kibbutzim in Israel, they opened my eyes to the new methodologies which could house my radical values and implement my visions for a better life and society. They re-inspired me to believe in the eternal nature of values in a postmodern world. They renewed my faith in humanity.

Unfortunately, their website in English seems to have gone down (the Hebrew site seems fine), so I have uploaded a bunch of stuff which I hoarded from an ancient version of their site, as well as some old articles and a BBC radio clip. It’s all rather out of date now, to be honest, but hopefully the inspiring effects of their radical Jewish pioneering will overpower the past-the-use-by-date stagnancy of my hoard:

Kibbutz Tamuz’s old (but still great) website stuff

Kibbutz Tamuz’s old (but still great) Kehilla projects

Kibbutz Tamuz in the Jerusalem Post

Kibbutz Tamuz in the Daily Telegraph

Kibbutz Tamuz on BBC World Service radio

Blowing Our Own Trumpet, Loud & Proud

November 17, 2009

So, there’s this blog called Galus Australis which has got me all fired up.

In particular, the Bring Back Jewish Youth Counterculture post by Joel Lazar has provoked me into posting about another inspiring bunch of Jews, although I was planning to stay blog-quiet for another couple of days until Thursday, honest ‘guv. Have a look at it, and you’ll probably see why I felt the urge to post prematurely!

Inbal & Yair - two of my close friends, neigbours, & life partners

This time, I am loudly, proudly blowing our own trumpet, since I live in Kvutsat Yovel in Kibbutz Na’ama of Machanot Ha’Olim. Inbal and Yair, who are featured in the article, are my close friends, neighbours and life partners. Our kids are in kindergarten together. We share our money (and pretty much everything else too!). Nevertheless, I reckon that the nepotism and immodesty are legitimate, and I’ll try to explain why…

I love it! I love them! I love our kibbutz!

That might sound simple – and it is! At least once a week, something happens here which reminds me how lucky I am to have found my way into such an exceptionally inspiring community and movement. I prefer who I am becoming, as a human being and as a Jew, when I think of myself as being influenced by this environment. The people in Kibbutz Na’ama are honestly the most wonderful people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. There are just so many lovely people here, it overwhelms me. I know that there are lots of fantastic people in the world, but how come so many of them are concentrated here together?!? And how did I earn the right to live amongst them?!? It all seems quite unfair on the rest of humanity, to not have a share in the profound satisfaction which being a part of this gives me. So many people here are committed, passionate activists; they are creative, artistic and cultured; they are modest, honest, pragmatic and idealistic; and most of all, they are nice! However ridiculous and subjective this all may sound, they really are nice, warm, and friendly – perhaps to a somewhat nerdy extent – these are really, really good people, doing really, really good things.

Don’t misunderstand me – it’s still a work in progress. We haven’t reached utopia! People here are far from perfect, and the society we are building is flawed: there are constantly tensions and disagreements; misunderstandings and relationship breakdowns; and even some selfishness and loneliness. We are human beings, warts and all. It’s just that, as far as I have ever experienced or heard of, this happens to be the about the best collection of 100 human beings that it’s possible to find together in any one place and time, and they are living together as a Jewish community, working (very hard) building a grassroots movement for peace, social justice and equality in Israel and ultimately the world.

I reckon, therefore, that the extent of my love for these people, for what they believe in, for what they are doing, and for the strength, meaning and fulfillment which I gain from them daily, earns me the legitimate right to blow our own trumpet, loud and proud.

Here’s the article.

Here’s the previously posted video and post about us & the Fugees.

Inspiring Pioneers: Acco & ‘Young Communities’

November 12, 2009

The HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed (Working Studying Youth) graduate adult movement ‘Dror Israel’ is by far the biggestHaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed network of new kibbutzim and kvutzot building peace, social justice and equality throughout Israel. They were the first of the classic Zionist youth movements to make the revolutionary shift from traditional agricultural / industrial kibbutz settlement to social pioneering, and are arguably the most ‘hardcore’ of all the new chalutzim.

I already introduced you to the inspiring pioneers of Eshbal and Hadar, so now here is the hat trick: Acre

noal acco2The Urban Kibbutz in Acre gets some good coverage in the Young Communities Video by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Young Communities is a bit of a watered down, generic image which the Jewish Agency and others use for fundraising purposes. Young Communities includes some rather less radical folks alongside the pioneering kibbutzim and kvutzot which I am blogging about. Nevertheless, most of the footage and commentary is focussed on the totally radical Acre dudes.

Whilst we’re on the subject, there is another Young Communities video here and also a rather tasty little booklet which they made. There is also a related Israel program called ‘Shnat Kehilla‘ for 23-35 year olds to try out life in one of the Young Communities (including urban kibbutz) with it’s own slightly different edit of the video, as well as a facebook page with a whole bunch of info and photos about various communities.

Shabbat Shalom (by the way, check out my Parsha)!

James.

PS I have a few Google Wave invitations to give out now – write me your email address if you want one!

Inspiring Pioneers: Efal, Shaal, Reshit & Hadar

November 5, 2009
Kibbutz Efal

Old School Pioneers: Kibbutz Efal

Why is it that ‘commune’ sounds like something totally radical, whereas ‘kibbutz’ sounds like something rather old and stale? Strangely, I doubt that it has anything much to do with the fact that kibbutz has been around for 100 years. I think it’s because the kibbutz was so successful and influential (for a while, at least) that they became culturally legitimate and therefore even semi-mainstream, even though they are essentially a type of commune. The word ‘commune’ still conjures up images of cults, hippies, drugs and orgies, or at best some very extreme environmentalists, whereas kibbutz, despite the socialism and often heroic social activism, is associated with Jewish State-building and national responsibility.

So where does Urban Kibbutz fit in to that picture? Radical activist communes or mainstream national institutions? Originally I was thinking that I would only write about one cool community in each blog entry, but I guess that I am already getting impatient…

Instead, I will introduce you to 4! So, click the links, read about them, and get inspired!

The first two are historical attempts which no longer exist – Efal & Shaal: The idea of building an urban kibbutz only really started flourishing all over Israel relatively recently, but the roots go back a while. I thought it was important for people to know a bit about the historical background, as well as the modern cutting edge.

The second two – Reshit & Hadar – help show the wide range of today’s grassroots phenomenon: Reshit are middle-aged orthodox families in Jerusalem, whereas Hadar are secular 30 year olds in Haifa. By the way, Hadar isn’t actually their name – it’s just a name I gave them because that’s where they are! The full description would be something along the lines of “HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed Tnuat HaBogrim [Dror Yisrael] kvutzat kvutzot mechanchim ironi b’Haifa” (the Working and Studying Youth graduates’ adult movement [Freedom Israel] urban group of groups of educators in Haifa” – rather a mouthful! Anyone know if they have a shorter name?

I’ll blog on more inspiring radical communities next week. In the meantime, if anyone has any responses, critiques, suggestions or ideas, I’d love to see your comments on the blog!

James.


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