It started because of the coronavirus, but in less than four months, it’s become a tradition.
Every Sunday evening (Israel time), several hundred graduates of the Southern Africa branch of Habonim Dror, the Socialist-Zionist youth movement, tune in from around the globe for a weekly conversation. They range in age from late teens to early nineties (though, to be fair, most are over 60) and include participants from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel and, naturally, South Africa.
They’re called HED talks – no, not TED, though they have definitely drawn inspiration from the series. The acronym stands for Habonim Engaging in Dialogue, and the topics have ranged from the effects of West Bank annexation on the State of Israel to coming out as gay in a Jewish youth movement (that is, when such things were rarely discussed). The content is definitely a draw, but so is the opportunity to meet up with old and beloved friends, some not seen or heard from in decades. The gatherings are held, of course, over Zoom.
The latest tally shows that since HED was launched in late March, close to 1,200 Habonim graduates have registered for at least one of the weekly talks. Were it not for the global pandemic, this brand new forum would probably never have seen the light of day. Today, it may be the largest and most geographically diverse active Jewish alumni group in the world.
In his opening remarks at the inaugural HED talk, Toronto-based attorney Stephen Pincus, the driving force behind the initiative, described it as “a community bound by a deep common experience and some core values.”
“For many of us, the movement was a formative influence on our lives,” he said. “It was the place of first loves, of lifelong friendships, of exhilarating social, cultural and intellectual adventures, where we learned to think, how to relate, and how to dream.”
Habonim Dror is an international youth movement with branches in more than 20 countries. Its Southern Africa branch, which also includes Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, was set up in 1930, and was initially envisioned as a scout movement. After the establishment of the State of Israel, it shifted its focus to Zionism and educating young South African Jews about Israel. For many years, and certainly during the apartheid period, Habonim was the most popular Jewish youth movement in South Africa. In recent decades, it has shared the limelight with B’nai Akiva, the Orthodox Zionist youth movement, as the South African Jewish population has grown increasingly religious.
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Pincus estimates the number of graduates of Habonim Southern Africa at about half a million. Tens of thousands of Jews have left South Africa since the 1970s – many to Israel, but many more to other English-speaking countries. Among this huge exodus were many who grew up in Habonim.
“For many of us who lived in Southern Africa during the apartheid years, Habonim was a very powerful forum for expressing our disagreement with the situation,” says Dave Bloom, former head of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (also known as Telfed), and a member of the HED organizing committee. Bloom grew up in Rhodesia, and today splits his time between running a software business and working as a professional personal historian.
To mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of Habonim Southern Africa, a mega-gathering of movement graduates from around the world had been planned for late October. The week-long event was meant to have been held in Israel, and hundreds of former Habonim “chanichim” (movement members) and “madrichim” (movement leaders) had already registered when the pandemic struck.
“We were looking for a way to keep the energy going and keep people engaged, so we decided to start these weekly Zoom sessions,” recounts Bloom. “Initially, we had no idea how it would go.”
The first talk was held on March 29, and since then, they’ve been held on a weekly basis, every Sunday. “A lot of people have compared it to the old days in Habonim when we’d get together on Sunday evenings,” says Bloom, who moved to Israel in 1973 and lives in the central town of Kochav Yair. “It seems to have captured people at the right time and the right place, with people at home during Covid looking for things to do, and the best proof is the big group of regulars coming back week after week.”
More than half the participants live in either Israel or South Africa, he says, the remainder divided among the United States (nearly 20 percent) and Canada (15 percent), with a smattering from the United Kingdom and Australia. “We try to accommodate as many time zones as possible, but the Aussies are definitely getting the short end of the stick,” says Bloom. “The way it’s scheduled, they’ve got to be awake at 4 a.m. if they want to participate.”
Some of the sessions have a more TED-like format, with one keynote speaker, while others are more conversational. Often, there are breakout sessions toward the end to provide participants with the opportunity for more intimate conversations. “It’s not unusual that they spend another hour schmoozing after the main talk is over,” notes Bloom.
When choosing the lineup, Pincus says he and his team are looking for balance in what he describes as “the three G’s” – geography, gender and age. Finding younger participants, he concedes, is often a challenge, but at the most recent gathering this past Sunday, about a dozen current Habonim members, dressed in their signature blue shirts, joined the forum. All of them are participants in a year-long leadership training course in Israel; they shared stories of their experiences during the global pandemic living on a kibbutz.
Presenters at HED are generally chosen from among the large pool of Habonim graduates. “If you look around, there is a wealth of talent to choose from,” says Pincus, who headed the youth movement in Southern Africa in the late 1970s. This past Sunday, for example, the keynote speaker was Diana Aviv, the former head of Feeding America, the second largest charity in the United States. Originally from Johannesburg, she spoke about political and social tensions in America today.
Booked for an upcoming HED session on the state of the world economy are two other famous Habonim Southern Africa graduates: Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel and, before that, chief economist of the World Bank; and Bradley Fried, chairman of the Court of the Bank of England. With so many doctors among this cohort, the HED organizing committee couldn’t resist the temptation of bringing a bunch of them together for a session held in April titled: “Habo doctors in the time of Covid.”
Officially, the sessions start each Sunday at 9 p.m. Israel time. Participants who show up early, though, get treated to a half-hour slide show of old summer camp photographs set to music that is meant to stir up memories of days gone by. It would be a mistake, however, to see these gatherings as simple reunions, insists Pincus. “We wanted to create something that would get people to look forward and not just back, to rebuild this community not just for the sake of nostalgia, but with a view to practical concrete outcomes, whether in politics, healthcare, education, law or social action,” he says.
Or as Bloom puts it: “We hope this forum we’ve created will not just be about talk but also a bit about walk – and that some of what goes on at our weekly sessions can be translated into some sort of advocacy work.”