Now I like Facebook as much as the next person. The plethora of unsubstantiated opinions, photos of children on their first day of school, the public declarations of happiness and the requests for window cleaner recommendations – what’s not to like?! There are of course things that I don’t like to see on my newsfeed and then there are the things that I really like to see – usually because I’m genuinely interested in what the post-er has to say.
One such page is that of Habonim Dror. As a graduate of the movement and having spent 12 years shimmying my way through its ranks (or whatever the socialist equivalent is), I always love to see what the movement is up to and how it is continuing to grow.
There is, however, one absolute exception to this. And that’s during the months of July and August; also known in youth movement speak as ‘Summer Camp’.
I’ll take you back to my beginning, and hopefully explain why.
It was the summer of ’99. I bundled on the bus, rucksack higher than my hat-laden head and sleeping bag swinging like a pendulum around my knees; schlepping everything I would need for the next 14 days into a small bag. I saw a few of my friends at the back of the bus and felt a wave of relief.
At age 12, the kids in the year above who barely acknowledged me in the school corridor were now in touching distance, and it was making me nervous. I literally had no concept, idea or understanding of what the next 2 weeks of ‘machaneh’ (camp) would look like. But the others were going on camp and, at age 12, that was good enough for me. I waved goodbye to my mum at North Manchester Ken in the depths of Broughton Park and off I went.
Ready for my first experience of summer camp, of a Jewish Youth Movement and of being away from home for two weeks sans parents.
When I arrived in the Cotswolds, 5 hours and 3 sugar come-downs later, I was thrust head first into world that I could never have possibly imagined. We were told we would be put in to our ‘tiyul’ (hiking) groups for the next 5 days before all regrouping for the last 10 days on ‘main site’. And then suddenly, my eyes were locked on these all singing, all dancing, all joke cracking, all enthusiastic and all not-giving-a-damn-about-what-other-people-thought-of-them-madrichim (leaders). Two weeks suddenly didn’t seem long enough.
In those days, summer camp was undoubtedly different to what it is today. The £200 price tag covered your 2 weeks of camping, eating, transport and fun.
Now it would probably get you half way down the M4 on the outward journey to Wales. On main site, the shower rota was drawn up at the beginning and it was your turn every 2 or 3 days.
You were allowed to phone home once during main site and with a 10p piece that pretty much meant ‘Hi-mum-yeh-im-fine-yeh-i-fell-off-the-assault-couse-they-thought-it-might-be-concussion-but-im-ok-now-ok-gotta-go-bye’
Being away from my parents for the first time in my life for this long was like the blindfold coming off as I stood on the brink of teenagedom and it was in every way the most amazing feeling.
Habonim Dror summer camp was a whirlwind of creativity in the form of music, camp fires, face painting, jokes and man-made interactive games. It was like the best parts of the best UK summer festivals where the Heston Blumenthal food tent is replaced with the jacket potato tent.
BUT (and it’s a big one…) Outside of the music, the songs, the ruach, the dances, the games, the wit, the joy… Outside the Jewishness, the Israel bit, the madrichim, the walking, the schlepping, the kibud, the meeting new people, the boys, the bonfires and the guitars…Outside of it all; the one thing that made it the most magical universe that had ever existed in my 12 years up to that point…?
That my parents had absolutely no concept of it.
They didn’t know what it looked like or what it smelled like (probably for the best). They didn’t know how dreary it was when you woke up in a tent that you had put up with your own hands and saw that the ground mat had crumpled so your sleeping bag was wet at the bottom.
But you had to figure out a way of walking the whole next day so that the sleeping bag could dry out off the back of your rucksack.
They didn’t know about the songs with the rude puns at the end of a line. They didn’t know about the wide game.
They didn’t know the sheer joy when it was so rainy on tiyul and you had walked for miles (probably 2) and some kind soul in alishvatz Abergavenny took you in for an hour to give you a cup of tea and let you fill your water bottle up from a hosepipe.
They didn’t know the misery you felt when you got home after 2 weeks of being immersed in the noise of camp and suddenly felt like you were consumed by silence.
When breakfast was lonely and chocolate spread sandwiches were off the menu.
In the summer of ’99, our parents knew the following:
They knew you arrived safe.
They knew you were enjoying yourself (see said phone call home)
They knew what time to pick you up at North Manchester Ken
And that, for me, was the key. That I had this whole amazing kaleidoscope I could immerse myself in and it was all mine. That first taste of almost teenage freedom! Habonim provided me with a new thought process throughout my teens.
It was a place I could get away from my parents and inhabit a world of my own.
It established a self-confidence which came from making my own choices without their watchful gaze – even if those choices were at times the wrong ones.
It provided me with challenging conversations and interesting ideas about the world we live in and what my place in it might be.
It broadened my understanding of relationships and how to think of other people. It taught me about questioning the status quo.
It spewed key words and key songs that have been permanently etched in my brain and will probably never leave: ‘Neged Hazerem’ (against the stream) ’Im Tirtzu (if you will it) ’Dugma Ishit’ (lead by example…AND EVERYONE SIT ON THE FLOOR).
I have honestly found myself taken aback at the level of information and photography that Habonim have provided on my newsfeed during this summer – showing parents every smile, tent, dance and toranut rota. I don’t want to blame Habonim as I’m sure they are just bowing to the will of the parents, some of whom I have seen complain on Facebook that the movement hasn’t put up enough photos of their child’s particular camp! In this day and age of constant contact and playing hostage to your handheld prison, I would have thought that two weeks of summer camp is the prime opportunity to escape – to go through the 9 and 3/4 barrier with a swish and leave your parents feeling slightly bewildered at Kings Cross Station? Of course, I recognise that we live in an age where the threshold for communication has lowered; the ‘no news is good news’ mantra has been replaced with ‘all news is good news’ and I am not suggesting that the movement doesn’t maintain contact with the parents.
I am all for that and believe that the onus should remain on each youth movement to update the parents with emails about safe arrival and general updates – especially on Israel Tour which I appreciate comes with an added requirement for reassurance. But is there really the need for the daily updates and photos? Is there really the need for madrichim to spend time with phones in the faces of these chanichim, documenting their every move?
As a former movement worker, I know only too well what the frenzy of camp looks like and the mammoth level of logistics and welfare issues that need juggling at any one minute. Surely the madrichim and movement workers could better spend their paparazzi time?
The magic of the movement – what gives it its special ‘thing’ – is that the chanichim not only inhabit a new world, but for the first time they begin creating their own worlds (cue previous article about the importance of the movement to the success of known Jewish actors/comedians etc). When I see this constant stream of pictures and updates, I feel like I am intruding on a world that doesn’t belong to me. And most of all, I worry that by allowing access-all-areas to the parents, we are preventing the chanichim from truly embracing that magic and we are ever so slightly muting their deafening mifkad shouts of ‘Al Tikrah Banayich…Elah Bonayich’ – ‘Don’t Call Us Your Children…Call Us Your Builders’.