Participation in Israel programs in British Jewish Youth Movements is declining, but the value of gap year programs in Israel and involvement in Youth Movements must not be underestimated.
If I was to be given the chance to do an Oscars- style acceptance speech when landing in Israel to mark my official transition to Israeli citizen, there are a few key people I would be sure to thank. Family, friends, the Israeli Immigration office, blah blah blah, but without a doubt, most of my thanks would be directed at Habonim Dror, the culturally Jewish and Zionist Youth Movement, informally known as ‘Habo’.
So, just in case they do introduce an aliyah speech-on-arrival requirement, here is the long version of my thank you speech:
There is no denying that the origins of my connection to Israel stem from my involvement with Habo, shaping and forming the person I am today and the choices that I have and will continue to make.
I am not going to start at the most obvious place of my Habo journey, the beginning, as then I would have to bore you with details of my intrigue when my friends returned from the ‘best two weeks of their lives’, with stories of late night ‘continuations’ (a notorious kissing game, particularly bad for self-esteem) and singing bizarre songs about how they had seen a bird with a yellow bill (and it had landed on their window sill). We were 12 years old, they had all just been on their first Habo Summer Camp, and I had no idea what they were talking (or singing) about.
In fact, I am actually going to start at the place where I sat in a circle with 26 others, after spending nine months living together in Israel as part of a gap year program with Habo (‘Shnat’), emotions running high as the reality of returning to England drew closer. During this year we lived on a Kibbutz, toured the country, went on a one week trip to Poland, volunteered in various roles and lived together in a big house in the North of Israel. The programme was based on teaching us about Jewish and Israeli history, Israeli Society with a focus on interpersonal relationships and living in a communal setting, including sharing money. It was now the final night of the programme and we all sat reflecting on our memories of the past year. Everyone took home something different from their experience in Israel, some taking nothing at all, but I know that this particular moment still stands out to me eight years on as a time of both clarity and happiness.
I want to point out that I was never taken to Israel as a child. Due to the Second Intifada I didn’t go on Israel Tour as many English Jews do at the age of 16, and I had very little experience of Israel or Israeli culture in my life up until I went on Shnat. My year in Israel didn’t enable me to live out my personal Zionist dream, mainly because I never had one, and the programme at the time didn’t offer a true insight into what it would be like to live in Israel. I had minimal contact with local Israelis, learnt a small amount of Hebrew and focused my attention mainly on other members of the group and our interaction with each other. Despite this, the feeling of acceptance, belonging and connection to Israel (in the most sincere and least cheesy sense of these three words) that I was introduced to during Shnat sparked off an emotional association with the country that would turn out to be very influential.
The Shnat experience opened doors for me, not only to a country which I could make my own, but metaphorical doors in my mind allowing me to stop and consider what I want in my life, what was important to me and how I had the power to achieve it. I imagine that very few people have such an opportunity presented to them at the age of 18.
So I returned from my gap year, enlightened and excited, ready to move onto the next stage of ‘the Formula’. Accordingly, I started my Psychology degree at Birmingham University, studied hard, drank copious amounts of vodka redbull and put up a different Facebook album for every night out (we were limited to only 60 pictures per album in those days!). Although the past year was now a distant memory, I continued to be involved in Habo as a leader and I continued to return to Israel year on year. I was never shy about my love for the country, but at the same time my current life forced the questions that I had been occupied with on Shnat into the corner of my mind. As far as I was aware, I was English and I was always going to be.
As time went on, I began to consider my career options, none of which considered or contemplated a future in Israel. I picked law. But just as I was about to start law school, I got cold feet. But what about Habo? Have I experienced my last ever camp fire? My involvement had waivered but now I was being presented with an opportunity to run the organisation that had given so much to me for the past ten years, and not only this, I would get to do it with three of my closest friends. I wasn’t ready to let go. I postponed law school for a year and became a Movement Worker for Habo. One of the most challenging yet rewarding, frustrating yet fulfilling jobs I have ever, and probably will ever, do. It was during this time that Israel came back into the picture and it was during a seminar in Israel that I opened up the ‘aliyah box’ for the first time, seriously exploring what was inside. I began to realise that there were some parts of me that were not truly settled in England, and that were probably never going to be. Once again, Habo was giving me the platform to ask questions and enter into discussions that I had put to the side for so many years.
In the summer of 2012 I rented a room in a flat in Tel Aviv, staying in the most non-touristic area I could find right next to the Central Bus Station and I explored the city for five weeks. And when I left, I promised myself I would return soon for good. I just had the small matter of completing a two year training contract in London first! So before the flip flops, had to come the heels.
There are many reasons as to why I have decided to move to Israel this year, but I know for certain that my past involvement in a Jewish Youth Movement is one of them. During my time in Habo, from an inquisitive child on summer camp, to a leader who came back year after year, and finally to my role as a Movement Worker, I was able to explore questions that are sometimes unanswered and most often not even asked.
The ultimate part of the Habo journey is to make socialist-aliyah, living in a socialist group or community and working to improve Israeli society. I am not making aliyah as part of Habo or any other Youth Movement. I left the movement several years ago, and I am moving to Tel Aviv as an individual to fulfil my personal dream. However I am certain that my future in Israel will be founded upon the values and morals instilled in me by the movement, beginning a journey that has undoubtedly been fuelled and fostered by my time in Habonim Dror. And for that, I will be forever grateful.