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Bring back Jewish Youth Counterculture

November 16, 2009 – 9:36 pm18 Comments

Source: www.Nostal.co.il

Source: www.Nostal.co.il

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.”

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  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I agree with you 110%!
    Fortunately, redemption is at hand, for those of you Jews who might still give a damn about humanity (and our place & role in it as Jews) in this vacuous postmodern swamp! Here’s a small sample of how…
    Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBkfF4r8TQQ
    (please excuse the Jewish Agency’s cheesy kitsch way of presenting our radical counter-culture lives for fundraising purposes!)
    and also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra_V4Yk-0R8
    and http://radjew.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/young-communities-edit.pdf
    and if you want to try to get in touch with the incredible, radical, counter-culture renewal which is taking place in several of the movements here in Israel, or want to get in touch with the chalutz within yourself, follow our blog here and please do comment and pass on our blog to whoever might be interested.

  • jewinthefat says:

    Perhaps the problem inherent in the notion of Youth Movements as a counter culture today is that the ‘counter-culture’ is no longer a relevant alternative for young Jews in Australia.

    Young people today may not necessarily associate with the overarching culture of anti-Semitism to the same extent as in early 20th Century Eastern Europe, and as such, rather than the Youth Movements of today representing the fight against anti-Semitism, they represent a social/religious/ideological activity on a weekend. Thus as the culture has shifted, so too should its counter.

    As young Jews are more aware of their relative safety in the Diaspora (in Australia, for example), as Jews and Jewishness have become a part of mainstream culture, and considering the overall strength of the State of Israel (despite what some media and extreme parties may dictate, the case for a democratic, Jewish homeland in Israel is not being upended, nor is the State itself disappearing any time soon) – it remains to be seen what the new space for Youth Movements in Jewish Australia is.

    I am not saying that the Youth Movements have become redundant – but perhaps, as with many ideologies and movements based in community, the movements themselves have come to a crossroads, where they can continue to provide the same service, or they can take stock of the past, and re-envision their future as a vital youth community institution and service. Youth Movements need to reevaluate their place in this post-modern community, as well as how best to serve the new communal paradigms, and the needs of young Jews in australia.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Joel,

    It’s pretty much accepted now in the Australian Jewish community that youth movements are part of the process of getting a Jewish education. Often it is now the parents who send their kids to movements, rather than a self-initiated step. The structure is kinda similar to an afterschool activity – a meeting on the weekend and then camps in the summer. In this generation, the post-highschool trip to Israel is also pretty much just a variation on the ‘gap year.’

    In the few fictional accounts of youth movements in the earlier half of last century that I’ve read, there seems to be a lot sneaking out at night to meet with the other chaverim. The parents are either disapproving or oblivious to these episodes.

    Now I would think that the current integration of the stucture of the movement into the ‘mainstream’ culture, and the parental support, would be advantageous in some ways, in terms attracting chanichim. But maybe it is not conducive to creating a counterculture ideology?

    I’m only semi serious about this but I wonder what would happen if you had some midweek, midnight meetings… or maybe you can think of some more practical ways to shake-up the accepted structure of how youth movements happen.

  • ariel says:

    I recall when I was in the movements that someone at the ZFA had suggested that until mid-late teens, youth don’t really have a grasp of the various ideologies offered by the movements nor the maturity to deal with it.

    This person suggested that all the movements be merged until age 15-16 when they would branch out into their current forms and the chanichim would choose which ideology to join, after careful consideration. Before that, the kids would get a broad Zionist overview with tastes of each ideology so they can make an informed choice when the time comes.

    In hindsight, I think its a brilliant idea that should be investigated, especially since – as Joel points out –  participation in the movements is declining. Better to have one large movement than several smaller ones.

  • Joel says:

    Jewinthefat makes a pertinent point in that it would be somewhat futile to act ‘counterculturally’ to a culture that no longer exists or never existed. To act against a level of antisemitism that existed in Eastern Europe but in no way exists here is irrelevant and simply impossible. However, counter culture is by definition a relational term – seek the culture of the day, and that which is unacceptable in it, and pursue change; act against it. The concept is relevant to every single age that possesses a culture against whose grain one could grind. But don’t be deceived. As I wrote earlier, the dearth in ‘Big Zionist Hopes’ or ‘Big Jewish Struggles’ of the past does not warrant the level of complacency that currently exists amongst youth. THAT is the new focus towards which youth movements need direct their attention in this ‘post modern world’ – the sheer post modern-ness of it.

    In the past, the goals were specific, the battles were clear; often ‘us versus them’. Now the battle is a tenuous and ambiguous one, but no less vital – the battle is against apathy. Youth movements, apart from building self-confidence in youth and providing a forum for free and open expression, a place of education and a place to create friendships, has a role in instilling the value of social responsibility. Movements need not direct youth toward a specific cause necessarily, but simply elicit a feeling that there ARE causes and social deficiencies whose resolutions are predicated on collective feelings of social responsibility followed closely by action. And youth are no less important in that than any other member of the population, if not more.

  • jewinthefat says:

    The mark of a highly evolved ideology is that it seeks not only to realise its own ambition, but also recognises its complement in others, and wrestles just as valiantly to facilitate the aspirations of that other. That other which could possibly be its competitor for the affections of the masses. For without this community, ideology is nothing but a self-important notion that life could be, would be, should be.

  • It’s interesting and sad that the Australian Jewish reality is so comfortable that it can blind our potentially radical youth to the evils and injustices which they should and could be dedicating their lives to.
    The point of counter-culture is NOT just to contradict reality per se. If reality is good, then we should not fight for evil! We don’t need to counter apathy with activism in order to live up to the vision of being a counter-culture: that would be entirely circular and meaningless in its lack of core values. The reason that youth movements should be counter-culture is because the prevalent values of the surrounding society are abhorrent to us. The shallow, materialistic nature of the dominant Jewish culture in the diaspora should be disgusting to us – not because it is mainstream, but because it is wrong in both Jewish and human moral terms. True, anti-semitism isn’t what it used to be (thankfully!), and the Jews of Australia (and Britain, and North America, etc.) generally have a very privileged socio-economic place in the capitalist democracies – but since when does that mean that we don’t need to rage against the machine? We need to be counter-culture because world is burning and the Jewish world is dissolving!
    We need to be counter-culture because we have inspiring visions, we have beautiful values, and the reality is a long, long way from living up to them. We need to learn from the youth movement revival in Israel (eg machanot haolim, hanoar haoved, hashomer hatzair and garinei omanuyot are all enjoying radical counter-culture revivals and also growing numbers, despite most Israelis thinking they were dying out in the 1990’s). How can anyone think that our movement work is done when our Israeli counterparts are producing inspiring communities such as these:

  • l says:

    joel, the irony is that zionism is the man, man.
    with the exception of hineni – australian jewish youth movements are imported cultural models which now function in socio-political contexts far removed from their origins. which doesn’t make them irrelevant (as rachsd correctly pointed out, they are part of the conventional education system).
    the ‘counterculture’ has never decelerated – it has simply moved on beyond what the current jewish zionist youth movements can offer ideologically in terms of understanding and formulating identity, ethnicity etc.
    but sweet as for being willing to argue the point.
    – l

  • Joel says:

    I’m very glad that you are posting those links in order to illustrate real and practical examples of the way in which an idea can come into fruition and effect such incredible change for the better. And these are all youth movements. What age group are the youth movement workers who work on these projects? Are they mostly the leaders or the chanichim?

  • Joel says:

    “the ‘counterculture’ has never decelerated – it has simply moved on beyond what the current jewish zionist youth movements can offer ideologically in terms of understanding and formulating identity, ethnicity etc.” – I

    That sounds interesting, would you care to elaborate? Are you suggesting that counterculture is alive and well but the mode via which to express that ideal cannot be accomodated for by youth movements here as our youth movements bare little resemblence to their origins (historical and geographical) and to the societal circumnstances that spawned those ideologies?

  • Joel – these (see my previous posts) are neither projects of youth movement chanichim nor madrichim – these are youth movement graduates (aged 20-something to 30-something) who are living out their radical values and visions in their adult lives, after being exposed to these counter-culture ideas, experiences and relationships in the Israeli youth movements. The Israeli youth movements are achieving this despite the overwhelming capitalist, postmodern, post-Zionist reality of typical Israeli youth (and adult) culture today.
    I guess that’s the big bottom line here – youth movements are meant to change peoples’ lives, not just to provide a counter-culture whilst they are chanichim, and not just whilst they are tafkid holding madrichim during movement activities, but also for their whole adult existence afterwards, once they are no longer youth movement members. If that is not happening, then it should be no surprise that the lack of true vision trickles down through the movement and effects chanichim participation.
    Here’s a few great, inspiring quotes from the ‘classic’ zionist youth movement counter-culture era:
    “The Chalutz is the new type of man born of the movement of Jewish renaissance. In him that movement finds its complete expression… Through his very personality he helps to effect a decisive change in the life of his people. His is a two-fold task: external liberation from the yoke of strangers, and inner liberation and recovery of spiritual independence, refusing to live on foreign cultures.” (Martin Buber (

    “Only a few stubborn people would renounce public acclaim, would turn away from the smoothly constructed highway into the unknown path, and they were the people who laid out the paths that we tread today .” )Berl Katznelson(
    “Israel’s existence, although it be climax of a nation’s dream, is not fulfillment enough of the dream: our problem as a society and nation is not simply to be or not to be, but how. How to be, that is the question. The scaffolding and emblems of statehood are important, but not everything. What of quality, of human values, of equal opportunity, of social justice and civil liberty, of democracy, of creativity of labor?” (Abba Eban(
    “The strength of the Chalutz movement lies in action, and not in words. That is the greatest contribution to the history of the Jewish Renaissance… Only the Chalutz movement was there to change for the better, towards fulfillment… Here among people accustomed to indulge only in abstract thinking, have arisen people who, with their own hands, have built a nation.” (Chaim Nachman Bialik(
    I find it hard to believe that people can’t see the relevance of the chalutzim and chalutzot and their ideas and actions today – they are just as pertinent as they were 100 years ago, if not more so. Re-read my links and re-watch my videos now – the chalutzim and chalutzot are alive and kicking! Maybe Australians just don’t want to believe? This is nothing to do with anti-Semitism – it’s about our ability to believe and to act on our beliefs. I will post some more inspiring examples of current cutting edge Israeli youth movement chalutzim on radjew later this week… I hope that Australian Jews won’t be immune to the power of their dugma ishit…

  • Kol Ha Kavod Joel – this Galus Australis blog has really got me all fired up…
    HERE is a great Haaretz article which deals directly with one of the Israeli youth movement’s inspiring counter-culture revivals in the face of Israeli postmodernism.
    These are the same guys behind the incredible Fugees stuff I already mentioned.
    Chalutziut is now! Wake up, Australian Jewish youth!

  • samo says:

    really enjoyed reading through this blog and the comments.
    this is also an issue which im very passionate about. I think it would be great for the youth movement leaders to print this off and discuss it with their bogrim!!
    What James and his reJewvination crew are doing in Israel is inspiring. I’ve met with them and seen what they do first hand on several occasions. Pursuing social justice in Israel and creating the Israel that they want to see. It’s a lot easier to be overwhelmed and do nothing.
    If the youth movements are looking to be counter culture and swim against the tide of racism, fear mongering and poverty, then I would like to suggest that whilst you are in Australia you should be pursuing social justice in your own backyard.
    Bogrim, Use your skills and talents to work in soup kitchens, run hadracha courses for Sudanese refugees who are in high school, spend a week in an aboriginal community running school holiday activities, lobby the government to treat asylum seekers humanely.
    Your likely response: “we are too busy and this is not our agenda.”
    Fair enough, but if you want to be dynamic, relevant and counter culture, I would reccomend putting Activism (with a capital A) back on your to do list.
    Creating a more humane and compassionate world, whether you are in Israel or Australia, is a deeply ingrained Jewish concept.
    “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and an almost fanatical love of justice . . .
    these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it.”

    Albert Einstein


  • samo says:

    just 2 points of clarification (POC).
    1) this is the older samo.
    2) youth movements must continue to pursue their ideologies using their brilliant informal education methods. My post is merely a suggestion that if you are looking to shake things up and revive, then I reckon implementing tikun olam programs will inspire your channichim and make them proud to be Jewish and part of your movement. (as well as making a meaningful difference in the world!)
    P.S: how awesome is that einstein quote?

  • asher says:

    although these are all very good ideas, they do not constitute counter-culture. No mainstream westerner in his/her right mind would oppose the initiatives that you are promoting. Yes, they are fantastic goals and perhaps they will generate interest but that appeal cannot be born out of a desire to rebel against the norm.
    “I” is correct, in that the counter-culture has developed beyond the ideological content of the youth movements themselves. In other words, the world accepted Zionism as an ethically legitimate ideology fifty years ago even if a few loud minorities refused to. It was at that point that Zionism ceased to be counter-culture, as it became a part of the mainstream.
    The problem with contemporary society is that the apathy inducing ideological undercurrents deter any sort of rebellion against mainstream values. post-modernism discourages the contest between value systems by trapping each person in their own subjectivity, thus legitimizing the entire process. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion now. As such, there is no “right” or “wrong,” only what you believe and what i believe. There is no point of tension, no object to project ones ideological fervor onto. In a sense, by removing any possibility of objectivity, society eliminates a target for counter-culture to act in contrast against. I question whether or not counter-culture can even exist in such an environment.
    On the other hand, I think there may be something to your suggestion of countering apathy, Mr. Loveshack (if that is your real name…). Such a struggle would be uphill indeed, as the soul crushing forces for ideological monotony are strong. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the comfort that we enjoy. It may simply be a societal defence mechanism, an unavoidable product of the evolution of culture. the social constructs that discourage rebellion make for an extremely stable society. the real problem, other than mind numbing boredom and meaninglesness, is stagnation…
    I am reminded of the times of Socrates. His dialectical method of philosophy came about during the very peak, and the beginning of the decline, of the Greek Empire. He brought with him a strict rationalism that tore apart the values of the mainstream, much more abrasively but still similar to the Post Modern destruction of political and religious beliefs. However, out of the ashes were eventually born new modes of belief. This is the outcome that we must seek.
    In order to do so, one must isolate and utilise the existential needs of contemporary Western society…
    I’d love to rant far longer but i’ve got shabbas dinner awaiting me.
    i’ll end by saluting you who seek to put an end to the apathy. It isn’t healthy for us. It dulls our minds and our spirits. We need a healthy dose of ideological value to rejuvinate our zest for purpose. good luck to you!

  • Joel says:

     Asher, your points are most valid. However, on your quote:

    In a sense, by removing any possibility of objectivity, society eliminates a target for counter-culture to act in contrast against. I question whether or not counter-culture can even exist in such an environment.

    I would like to suggest that the counter-culture I am referring to is therefore not necessarily one that opposes already-existing, well-developed value systems (Capitalism, Zionism, Racism etc.) but rather, post-modernism is a value system in and of itself. It is an ideology that defines itself by giving credence to the subjectivity of morals and value systems – ironically, it could be said, that it is a system that has the capacity to deny the existence of its very own self (after all, is moral subjectivity is a valid ideology, maybe that very same ideology is bogus when perceived subjectively – it’s a circular argument). How tragic that a moral system, about which such an absurd proposition may very well apply, is the dominant system and culture to have overcome our world.

    How then do we act to counter this culture? We do not necessarily need an objective value system in order for us to counter it – rather, it seems, the very subjectivity of it all is that which is we must counter. If we are sure that we know certain things to be True or Right, that they are worth fighting for; that ideologies in which we believe are valid and will bring about  a better Israel/world for Jews/Humanity – and post-modernism responds to that by saying, “meh, you can never really claim that your 100% right” or “there’s no real cause out there worth fighting because justice is in the eye of the beholder” – then youth movements must come along and crush that attitude to dust.

    The broad concept of the ethical validity of Zionism, Asher, is difficult to assess. Fifty years ago, you suggest, was a time when Zionism was widely unaccepted. However the 1947 UN partition plan 181 saw a majority of nations legitimise the right of Jews to a homeland. It is difficult, I admit, to assess if the general masses are those to whom we look to gauge the popularity of Zionism, or to national leadership bodies such as those represented in the UN (who in truth are meant to represent their people). But today, to ask a range of people around the world “What is Zionism and is it a good thing for the world?” I would not at all be surprised if the terms “Zionist regime”, “colonisation”, “Palestinian oppression” or “David vs. Goliath” were thrown out, not just be ‘vocal minorities’ but by the layman who is rather unsure of what the ethical implications of Zionism are for the rest of the world – the media suggests that it’s not-so-good.

    But even if Zionism as a broad ideology is widely accepted, the more intricate elements of Israel’s continued right to exist, its claim to self-defence (even in ostensible offensive actions) etc. are far from legitimate in many people’s eyes and those issues become the new “Anti-Zionist” culture against which youth movements must battle. We are all very well aware of such sentiments.

    I do finally agree though that isolating that existential vacuum that most definitely exists is essential in being able to structure our youth movements accordingly – to cater for a different age; one that fosters a value system that is quite content with sustained inaction in the face of global moral turpitude.

  • Yes! Yes! Yes! Yet again, I find myself agreeing with Joel. Simply, in a post-modern vacuum culture, being modern / ideological / moral IS counter-culture! That’s exactly why the movements can now make such a comeback – because people need heroes, and post-modernity denies our youth that need. People – especially youth – increasingly need inspiration and attachment in a world full of ambiguity and alienation.
    “We present these youth with an alternative model of democracy, Zionism and social justice, discuss basic values with them like genuine tolerance and humaneness”, explains Becker. When asked if it doesn’t seem too naive or too late, he raises his eyebrows and says: “As long as the candle is lit, change is possible, and even if it flickers a little it’s still possible to repair. You have to choose between good and evil, and I prefer to choose good.”
    This isn’t a quote from 20th Century Europe. It’s the 2006 result of a youth movement education which we can (and should) all be proud of, because as Jews we believe and act according to right and wrong, even when that flies in the face of the dominant culture which denies morality and would have our youth be apathetic bystanders rather than radical activists.

  • Wolf says:


    I believe there are less chanichim simply because more Jews are assimilating… we are following the path of America. I would also suspect that an exception to this rule would be the ultra-orthodox groups like maybe the Adass youth group or Tzivos Hashem.

    We are now the third or even fourth generation after the war, and aside from loose cultural ties, many people just don’t have that spiritual connection anymore.

    We are lucky to live in a free democratic culture that our ancestors in Europe never had. A culture that is more than willing to accept all people of all backgrounds. Only the religiously observant will stick to their guns, because our ‘culture’ is often seen by secularists as insular and antiquated (not my personal opinion necessarily).

    Over time there will be mostly only frum Yidden once again, because the secularists will assimilate over time and the prevelant remaining culture will only be religious orthodox streams. Just like what’s happening in America.

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