Bring back Jewish Youth Counterculture
By Joel Lazar
As a heavily involved youth leader, I, like many others, have become increasingly concerned with the decline in chanichim (movement attendees) over the past few years. Beginning some decades ago, the decline has been widespread, affecting movements whose ideologies span labour Zionism to religious Zionism, secular to orthodox and Israeli pioneering to Diaspora-conservationist. After completing an intensive three day seminar with 150 like-minded movement leaders from around Australia, I’ve come to realize the paramount importance of a counterculture ideology (Wikipedia – it is truly All Knowing) in the sustenance and growth of youth movements in contemporary society and in Melbourne no less.
The concept of counterculture is closely attributed to members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s in America. The writers, poets, musicians and ideologues of that era were those whose voices and actions were defined by their opposition to mainstream culture and politics. The counterculture establishment gave birth to the civil-rights, anti-war, feminist and free-speech movements. Members of that culture plainly identified a surrounding culture that was unacceptable in their eyes and warranted change. Change is what they achieved.
It was a very similar value system that spurred the establishment of the youth movement phenomenon in the early 20th century Eastern Europe. The very grain of society was anti-Semitic and goes without saying, did not exactly possess an unyielding aspiration for the birth of and return to a Jewish national homeland. Characteristically, a strong Jewish and Zionistic counterculture lead the impassioned youth of that period in undertaking the boldest Zionistic endeavour to face Jewish youth in our national history. Harnessing a burning desire to rectify social and communal injustices as well as attain a historico-national dream, they sought like-minded youth, equally willing to devote their lives to a collective cause and thus, youth movements were born.
Unfortunately, counterculture ideology has decelerated to a slow meander. One could easily attribute our ideological withering to a lack of once-in-a-generation leaders like Mordecai Anielewicz or Joseph Trumpeldor (legends of Hashomer Hatzair and Beitar respectively) who zealously lead their movements against mainstream culture. Equally, one could claim a dearth in outlets towards which and around which we can focus our energies; nation-defining moments such as the First Zionist Congress, the first Aliyot to Israel or the Declaration of the State of Israel. But in complete intellectual honesty, we come to realize that both those reasons are no cause to be swept up in the slow hum of Western apathetic ‘progress’.
The movements of the past, whilst lead by names now immortalized, were driven by an unyielding group mentality, the power of the kvutzah, without which nothing could have been achieved. Asefot (committee meetings), held dutifully and democratically in most of the movements as well as personal testimonies relating the raw hardship of ideological life, are testament to the essentiality of the collective. Regarding national causes to draw forth our energies, there are no less of them in contemporary Israeli and Australian society. On the middle-eastern front, enemies still seek to destroy Israel and society there is very far from perfect; public education, governmental hierarchy, poverty and the wellbeing of minority-groups are all challenges that have no short-term solutions. In Melbourne and Australia there exist social deficiencies that include homelessness, Aboriginal and immigrant disadvantage, drought, intolerance and social and cultural friction. In our Jewish community there is a need for more accessible Jewish and Zionist education and even stronger support for the aged, poor, frail and broken. Evidently, there is unfortunately no lack of causes.
Each movement has a constitution and value system that has the potential to upturn worlds. All that is required is an army of youth to seize those values, arm themselves and go to battle. But few soldiers appear forthcoming. The value system our society has come to adopt is a commoditised, instant-gratification, apathetic, ideologically-void one. It is a highly influential culture that promotes comfort and apathy to change. This culture adversely affects the mission of our youth movements in that “the competitive and materialistic climate has crowded out the pioneering ideals and romanticism” that youth movements once possessed (Jewish Virtual Library). It was precisely those ideals that upturned worlds.
To embrace a modern-day counterculture would be to turn off one’s iPod and Facebook. To be counterculturally religious would mean standing impervious to an increasingly irreligious and Godless surrounding. To possess socialist values would mean resisting and even combating a capitalist culture that brazenly supports child slave labour. To be an environmentalist would mean actively assisting in curbing carbon emissions and water wastage. To be Zionistic would mean, without shame, to publically identify with Israel’s right to exist. To be Jewish would mean to live Jewish.
To embrace counterculture in this way would mean to care when most people don’t. And the greatest effect that counterculture ideology can have on the world is when lived out maximally, as it once was; with all ones heart and all ones soul (the Shema prayer). The world doesn’t need token gestures, for they abound in our world and lead mostly to self-aggrandizement. Youth movements must shy away from such activity if they are to achieve their true purpose.
Youth-movement ideologies are hard-wired to embrace counterculture. Those with the greatest hope not only of physical survival but of ideological success are those that boldly act against cultural, social, religious and political norms that are identified as being false, corrupting, valueless or unjust. When the youth of our community are lead to internalize that idea that thirteen-year-olds courageously combated demonic Nazi forces in the Warsaw ghetto and Jewish seventeen year olds established a kibbutz movement upon which modern-day Israel now stands, they will know the value of swimming upstream. They will collectively stretch out their hands to those in need and act in ways they know to be right.
This article first appeared in the Hineni Iton.
Most of Joel’s life is occupied with fighting for the Jewish and Zionist cause as a madrich at Hineni. He loves his Judaism, the Jewish People and the power of words. He’s about to begin his second year studying Law and a Diploma of Writing at Monash Jewniversity.
He says: “My mind is like a little child who, on his way to the ice-cream truck, gets distracted by a butterfly, and diverting his course towards the winged creature, is suddenly transfixed by a ball rolling along the path which the child never quite reaches – he arrives home and can’t account for anything that just transpired; but he’s certain he was on the cusp of greatness. I’m still waiting on that cusp.”