Life Lessons From the Youth Movement

It's hardly surprising that Hashomer Hatzair, along with most other secular youth groups in Israel, has declined in popularity in recent decades.

I recalled the idealism of my youth last Shabbat, when I attended the "Shomer Tamid" (A Shomer is Forever) event at Givat Haviva. This year marks 95 years since the founding of the Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard) youth movement in Galicia, Poland, and as the organization attempts to stir itself from the state of suspended animation it's been in over the past few decades, it invited everyone ever associated with it, anywhere, for a day of catching up and music at this educational campus of the kibbutz movement in the north.

It's hardly surprising that Hashomer Hatzair, along with most other secular youth groups in Israel, has declined in popularity in recent decades. Ideology is dead, and Hashomer was the most ideological of movements. If it is to rise again, it will need to define different goals for itself than educating members to live on one of its 80-plus kibbutzim, which in the meantime have traded in their uniform economic and social model, leaving each to pick its own path. And the organization must compete with many temptations that glitter far more brightly - and demand far less - as they seek the attention of young people these days.

For most, the reunion was pretty much just that: an opportunity to see people one may not have talked to for years, but with whom one once shared a deep connection. And the convening of an estimated 7,000 current and former shomrim - the still-active ones decked out in their traditional blue shirts with V-necks, held together with a white-lace tie - did not attract much attention in the local media. To me, though, the memories stirred up by the event hit hard, reminding me of why I look back on the three years I spent in the movement in Philadelphia more than three decades ago as perhaps being the formative influence in my life.

In his appropriately titled "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members ... The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs." I understood neither the words nor the meaning when I read Emerson back in high school, but now I get the point.

Forget the socialism, and forget the fact that Hashomer Hatzair always considered itself to be superior to all other youth movements (which probably felt the same way about themselves). It was what life in the movement taught us about responsibility - for ourselves as individuals, and for ourselves as part of a collective - that made it all worthwhile. Ideology is fleeting, but self-reliance is for life.

In the movement, we did everything ourselves. Members of the kvutzah (the individual "group," the smallest in a series of concentric circles that characterized the movement's organization, all the way up to the kibbutz) functioned as a unit who were mutually responsible, but each of whom was encouraged to take on as much as he or she could. There were no paid counselors, and the minimal adult supervision we had came from an Israeli advisor whose principal responsibility was to make sure we didn't hurt ourselves. Aside from the rent for our modest quarters, which was covered by the Jewish people through one agency or another, our expenses had to be covered by members' weekly dues.

But we met, twice a week or more, and when we did, we put on plays, formed choirs and dance groups, discussed politics, made up and played games, hiked, learned about Israel and Jewish history and Marx and Borochov, flirted, and laughed and laughed and laughed. During Hanukkah and Pesach, we organized our own overnight camp in the mountains - again, with little or no adult supervision - and I remember those times as among the most fun I ever had. And in the summers, there was Camp Moshava.

Every decision came at the end of a discussion, in which the educational implications of the move under consideration were turned over again and again. These conversations went on until late at night, and in the end, decisions were made by consensus, not by vote. We made fun of everything and everybody, but ultimately we took it all very seriously. We did this because we honestly believed that human beings could improve themselves, and together could build a better society - and that the power to change things was in our hands.

We knew that the kids whom we led as counselors were looking to us as models, just as we looked up to those who were ahead of us in the movement. And so, the expression "whatever" (as in, "clean up your room and finish your homework before you watch TV," which is responded to with a withering "whatever ...") wasn't part of our vocabulary.

Most members of Hashomer Hatzair in North America didn't come on aliyah in the end, and many of those who did eventually went back. And among those who are still here, many or most do not live on kibbutz any longer. But none of that means that the youth movement was a failure. On the contrary. Everyone who spent any substantial time in it came out with a greater sense of his own strengths as an individual, and with an understanding of collective responsibility. True satisfaction came not through accumulating material possessions, but through creating and discovering on our own.

Could it be we were on to something that still has value today?

David B. Green edits the Friday opinion page of Haaretz English Edition.