So You Think You Can Change the World

In the first of a three-part series, Judy Maltz checks in on alumni of Young Judaea, America's oldest Zionist youth movement, which has proven to be a breeding ground for major Israeli movers and shakers.

They're the movers and shakers behind Israel's environmental movement, they've spearheaded initiatives to promote Middle East peace and interfaith dialogue, and they include among their ranks some of the country's leading human rights advocates. They're also some of the most influential voices in Israel's think tanks and prominent figures in its growing civil society movement.

Beyond the fact that they share English as a mother tongue, what unites these individuals is that they all trace their roots in activism to Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States. It was in the summer camps and clubs of Young Judaea, they say, that they developed their passion for tikkun olam (repairing the world ) - a passion they brought with them when they transplanted themselves here years later.

Many of them still retain strong ties with the movement, which sets itself apart from others in being religiously pluralistic and politically nonpartisan, and which this summer marked its own milestone: After 70 years of operating under the partial and later full sponsorship of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, Young Judaea became a fully independent nonprofit organization.

For Simon Klarfeld, the newly appointed executive director, it's no coincidence that Young Judaea alumni have been at the forefront of promoting a better, fairer and more just society in Israel. "As with any good recipe, it's about the ingredients and how they are uniquely blended and developed," he says. "The Young Judaea experience is about educating young people about their place in the world as Jews, Zionists and human beings, developing leadership skills and being part of a community that offers role models, mentors and friends passionately working together for a common cause."

Among their ranks you'll find Alon Tal, the founder of Adam Teva V'din, Israel's first environmental watchdog, and one of the founding heads of Israel's Green Movement; Gershon Baskin, the founder and former CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, who played an instrumental role in negotiating the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit; Yossi Abramowitz, one of the founding fathers of Israel's solar power industry and an internationally celebrated environmentalist; Eilon Schwartz, another prominent Israeli environmentalist who founded the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership and has just created a new organization, Shaharit, with the rather ambitious goal of promoting a new brand of Israeli politics; Debbie Weissman, an orthodox feminist who presides over the International Council of Christians and Jews; Jessica Montell, the executive director of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog in the Palestinian territories; Miriam Schler, the longtime director of the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, the largest of its kind in Israel; and Noah Efron, a former Tel Aviv city council member, among the founders of a new and rather unusual municipal party that cut across the traditional political divides.

"There was nothing explicitly in the Kool-Aid we drank at Young Judaea," says Efron, who held various leadership positions in the movement while attending high school near Washington, D.C., and who now chairs the department of science, technology and society at Bar-Ilan University. "It was more about the notion that Israel is there not only for you to enjoy but also to make a better place - that that's an essential part of your Zionism."

Wasn't coming to Israel to be passive

While all her friends at other Jewish summer camps were playing color war, recalls Schler from the rape crisis center, she and her peers at Young Judaea camp were taking in a different message - that they had an obligation to change the world. "It was obvious to me when I moved to Israel that I wasn't coming here to take a passive role," she says.

Tal, who today teaches at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, credits several aspects of the socialization process that Young Judaeans undergo at a relatively young age with the fact that so many have become high-profile activists in Israel.

"First, it's the sense of chutzpah you develop there - in this case, the chutzpah to believe you can go to a foreign country and change things there," says the former director of Tel Yehuda, the Young Judaea summer camp for high-school kids, who serves today as the Israeli representative on Young Judaea's newly formed board. "Then there are the real leadership challenges that are given to very young kids. When you're 13 and 14, you're running local clubs, and when you're 16, you're organizing national conventions for thousands. The idea that 'I can do that' is very much a part of it."

Sara Cohen, a founder and former director of the Keren Kolot educational institute at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, began attending a Young Judaea camp in North Carolina when she was 12 years old. "What I found about people in Young Judaea is that they felt passionate about making the world a better place, and that they came to their critique of our society not from a place of passivity, negativity and cynicism but from a place of 'we've go to do something,'" says Cohen, who is now serving her second term as secretary of Ketura, a kibbutz founded by Young Judaeans, after immigrating to Israel in 1986.

Baskin began his decades-long career as a peace activist while serving in the first group of Interns for Peace, a program created to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence. If chutzpah is one of the defining traits of Young Judaeans, then Baskin arrived in Israel with a healthy dosage. In 1981, he submitted a query to the government to find out how many Israeli civil servants were engaged in improving Jewish-Arab relations. When he was told that there were none, he wrote a proposal to set up an institute for education for Jewish-Arab coexistence. "Hire me," he told them. They did.

"Everything important in my life I learned in Young Judaea," says Baskin, who joined the movement at age 14 and moved up the leadership hierarchy before moving to Israel in 1978. "For us, aliyah wasn't a change of address, but a qualitative change, a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. These were the values that were passed down to us and the ones we passed down to our campers."

Weissman, who has been living in Jerusalem for 40 years, is a former national president of Young Judaea. "The fact that I was president of a Zionist organization, and today I'm president of an international interfaith organization - there's a connection there," she says. "We were taught at a young age that we could be entrusted with leadership responsibilities."

For many of these Young Judaea alumni, the Israel they came to 20, 30 and especially 40 years ago is a different Israel from that of today. And even then, it was a different Israel from the Israel they learned about in summer camp. "When I first moved here, we lived in Be'er Sheva," says Varda Spiegel, Former nurse of the Bedouin Mobile Unit. "I started walking around and saw Bedouin for the first time. That's how I found out there were Bedouin here. It's not something they talked about in Young Judaea."

Montell, the B'Tselem director, agrees that Young Judaeans are presented with a rather rosy view of life in the Jewish state. "For me," she says, "working at B'Tselem is the perfect way to try to make the reality closer to that idealized Israel I fell in love with as a teenager."

Schler notes with irony that today she has to send her children to Young Judaea camps in the United States to develop an appreciation for the values that originally brought her to Israel. "That's where they have to go now to learn the importance of social change and get a sense of their Jewish identity," she says.