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.
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.