New York City in 1904 was the center of the massive immigration of over two million Jews from Eastern Europe to America, the “Goldene Medina.” Theodor Herzl had just died, exhausted by his efforts to change the course of Jewish history. Among those attending a memorial service in New York were three yeshiva students- Abba Hillel Silver, his brother Max, and Israel Chipkin. Inspired by Herzl’s efforts, they decided to form a club in his honor, whose object was “the dissemination of the Zionist ideal and the self-cultivation of Hebrew among the Jewish youth in this city.” Dues were set at five cents weekly, with one cent given to the Jewish National Fund. The Dr. Herzl Zion club began a new direction of activity for American Jewish Youth. Zionism became a fresh focal point for Jewish idealism and creativity.
By 1909, other Zionist youth societies were formed throughout the country. A special conference was held on June 10th and 11th of that year at 204 East Broadway in New York. Fifty delegates attended; some from as far away as St. Louis and Louisville. A name was chosen for this new organization- YOUNG JUDAEA. Young Judaea’s aims were described as advancing the cause of Zionism, furthering the mental, moral and physical development of Jewish youth, and promoting Jewish culture and ideals. The new organization continued to flourish. During World War I, 20 Young Judaeans joined the Jewish Battalion to fight in Palestine and some remained there.
By 1919, there were 14,500 members of Young Judaea, in 715 clubs. In 1924, Young Judaea established a relationship with the Tzofim, the Scouts of Israel. In 1929, Herbert H. Lehman, then Lt. Governor of New York, became an honorary president, and throughout his lifetime continued to support Young Judaea.
The depression years of the 1930’s were difficult for Young Judaea, as finances and membership began to suffer. But with the rise of Hitler in Germany and the increased awareness of the vital importance of Zionist goals, membership began to pick up. In 1934, at Young Judaea’s 25th Year Celebration, seven regions were represented – New York City, Connecticut, Seaboard Tri-State, Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, Southern, and Texas.
Hadassah entered into the life of this already flourishing organization in 1936, when its National Convention approved an annual subsidy of $2,500.00 (one quarter of Young Judaea’s total budget at that time), and passed a resolution, excerpts of which read as follows:
Whereas Hadassah recognizes Young Judaea as a great potential force for the fostering of Zionist ideals and the integrating of American youth into the Zionist movement, and whereas in order to mobilize American Jewish youth for Palestine in ever-increasing numbers, it is essential that Young Judaea have a dynamic program of education and an expansion and intensification of organization…Be it resolved that the chapters of Hadassah throughout the country be urged to foster the organization of Young Judaea groups, to help in securing leaders and to cooperate generally with local Young Judaea committees.
The years of World War II substantially increased Young Judaea’s membership, although many activities, like national conventions, were suspended. An important trend started in 1947, when the first high school age president of the organization was elected. Senior Young Judaea was established at that year’s national convention and from that point on, leadership was gradually transferred from the adult leaders to the youth members.
Building the Foundation
The years 1947 and 1948 were exciting ones for the Zionist movement. In 1948, a group of Young Judaeans, feeling a great need for self-fulfillment, formed an off-shoot of the movement called Plugat Aliyah. This group became the first garin, or settlement nucleus, of Young Judaea, helping to establish Kibbutz Hasolelim in the Galilee.
Young Judaea entered the 1950’s as the largest Zionist youth movement in America with a membership of over 15,000 in approximately 1,000 different senior and junior clubs. This decade brought many innovations to the movement. Young Judaea began to run summer trips to Israel, and in 1956 established its Year Course Program. The 1950’s also saw the arrival in the United States of Young Judaea’s first Shlichim, Israeli advisors.
The 1960’s were a time of turmoil and upheaval, for all Americans. For Young Judaea, this was a time for increased action, not only on behalf of the Jewish community, but for tikkun olam in general. In 1963, after an in-depth debate at the National Convention, Young Judaea became the only Jewish youth group to send an official delegation to the civil rights march in Washington. In 1964, Young Judaeans performed at the New York World’s Fair. In 1968, Young Judaeans were busy raising funds for starving Biafrans and by the end of the decade, the movement was actively involved with the plight of Soviet Jewry.
The 1960’s also brought major action on Young Judaea’s behalf by Hadassah. The National Board overwhelmingly recommended that Hadassah take over sole sponsorship of Young Judaea. Up until this point, Young Judaea had also been supported by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). This would enable Hadassah to do a more effective job for youth by giving youth work equal status and emphasis with all its other projects in Israel and America. The decision was approved by Hadasssah’s 1967 National Convention. In 1968, a college age level of Young Judaea was established called Hamagshimim (the fulfillers). The entire movement was renamed Hashachar (the dawn), signifying the birth of a new movement. Hashachar, as a youth movement sponsored by Hadassah, inherited the legacy of Junior Hadassah and took it in a new direction.
Reinforcing Zionist Commitment
During the 1970’s, Young Judaea went through a period of clarifying its goals. Following the euphoria of the Six Day War, many members wanted a stronger commitment to Zionism. This was one of the factors leading to the founding of Kibbutz Ketura, in 1973 by Young Judaea graduates.
At the 1972 National Convention, a resolution was passed, after much debate, changing a line in the Young Judaean Constitution from “Aliyah is Zionist self-fulfillment” to Aliyah is the primary goal of this movement, in that Aliyah is an early step in the realization of the Zionist ideal of a Jewish State.”
The issue of how much the movement should focus on Aliyah was an ongoing debate during the 1970’s. This decade also saw a continued stress on social action. Action for Soviet Jewry increased and in 1979, Young Judaeans began holding an all-night vigil for Soviet Jewry the night before the Solidarity Sunday parade in New York.
The search for a unifying movement goal has continued through the 1980’s. The 1983 National Convention expressed the Young Judaean VISION as follows:
We the members of Young Judaea envision a world where all Jews will be living in Israel in peace and unity. We will be living on the foundations of Judaic and Zionist moral codes. All the Jews will be committed to these codes, to Israel, and to being a personal example to the rest of the world. Individual commitment to this vision, along with personal and group development, is essential to the realization of the vision.
The rest of the 1980’s were highlighted by continuing movement efforts in the realm of tikun olam. The national Mazkirut kept the issue of Soviet Jewry on Young Judaea’s agenda and in December of 1987, there was strong movement representation at the March on Washington for Soviet Jews. Young Judaeans also embarked on letter-writing campaigns in support of refuseniks such as Anatoly Sharansky, Yoseph Begun, and Ida Nudel (each of whom was eventually allowed to emigrate to Israel).
Social action remains one of Young Judaea’s priorities to this day, although there has been a struggle to find a “cause” that captures the movement’s imagination like the plight of Soviet Jewry. In 1993, Young Judaea gathered 8,000 signatures on a petition to the Clinton Administration calling for more U.S. involvement on behalf of Israeli soldiers missing in action.
The 1980’s and 1990’s also saw fundamental changes in the American Jewish community and its relationship to Zionism. As the relationship between Israel and the Tefutzot (Diaspora) soured over contentious issues, involvement in Zionist youth movements became less of a priority. Partly in response to this phenomenon, Young Judaea took measures to build upon existing Israel-Diaspora relationships by formalizing partnerships with its two sister movements, the Tsofim in Israel, and the Federation of Zionist Youth in Great Britain. This new framework called ATID, began programming seminars and face-to-face interactions in 1997, and established as its goals:
- Strengthening of Jewish Zionist pluralist identity, and Jewish unity within the Jewish people.
- Strengthening the connection between Jewish, Zionist youth in Israel, and Jewish, Zionist youth in the Diaspora.
- Increasing the inter-movement activities, which have existed for so many years, and deepening the Jewish Zionist education within every movement.
A further danger to Jewish continuity manifested itself in assimilation and loss of strong Jewish identity. Young Judaea’s membership during this period is a story of disappointing decline followed by hopeful recovery. Membership shrunk to around 4,000 by the end of the 1980’s but ended up climbing above 10,000 by the end of the next decade. Tel Yehuda, which had been running two camps (Aleph and Bet) for nearly 20 years, was forced to close Machaneh Bet in 1989 because of decreasing enrollment; in the late 1990’s, however, a sudden boom in camping interest enabled Tel Yehudah to grow to the point of reopening Machaneh Bet in 2002.
There were other positive indicators throughout the 1990’s that Young Judaea was once again establishing itself as the leading Zionist youth movement in North America. The movement’s Israel Summer Programs exploded from a participation of around 60 in the mid-80’s to an enrollment of over 1,300 during the last half of the decade. And in the most significant post-graduate development since the founding of Kibbutz Ketura, Merkaz Hamagshimim was opened in 1996. The Merkaz serves as both an absorption and a community center for young olim (and potential olim) integrating themselves into Israeli society. It also houses a variety of social, educational, and entertainment programs that enrich the long-term experience of its inhabitants.
A minor ideological shift occurred during the 90’s when a longstanding principle of the chukah was amended. For decades the movement proclaimed Aliyah to be its primary goal; in 1995, after much debate, the National Convention body voted to make Aliyah its ultimate goal, making room for “the fostering of Jewish and Zionist identity” as its primary goal. Few in the movement perceived this as an ideological compromise, but rather a realistic update of what the movement could effectively accomplish.
The 1998 Young Judaea Continuity Study provided wonderful news with which to complete the decade. The goal of the study was to gauge the impact that Young Judaea had on the Jewish lives of the movement’s graduates. Of the alumni surveyed, 95% of them had married other Jews. In categories ranging from ritual observance in the home to community involvement to commitment to continued Jewish education, Young Judaea’s alumni consistently scored significantly higher than a random sampling of American Jews who had participated in a similar study a year earlier. The survey indicated that Young Judaea was succeeding in its purpose of building strong Jewish and Zionist identities and committed young Jewish leaders for the future.
Along with the new millennium came new challenges and changes in the movement. Facing the realities of a second intifada in Israel, Young Judaea Israel Summer Programs saw a significant drop in its numbers. Enrollment was further impacted by the decision in 2002 to shift the age in which chanichim would participant in the Machon program in Israel. Over the last several years Summer Programs enrollment has been making a comeback. In addition, several new programs were created to expand the offerings of YJI short-term programs, including Amirim, a summer volunteering program for college students and young professionals ages 18-35, and in 2008, Young Judaea began operating as an official provider of birthright israel programs.
Remarkably, Year Course, valiantly weathered the storm of the second intifada and with the exception of the 2002-2003 program year, saw dramatic increases in enrollment leading to record high registration every year from 2003 until today. In the past ten years, enrollment increased from 150 to 540 participants, making Year Course the largest gap year program in Israel. In addition, many new program offerings have been initiated into Year Course including specialty tracks, designed to appeal to students with interests such as visual arts, medicine, sports, performing arts, and more; travel programs which take the concept of the educational field trip to a global level by exploring Zionism and Judaism in countries throughout the world, and the development of two specialized programs geared towards students who are seeking a more religiously enhanced program.
In 2006, Hadassah and Young Judaea endeavored to expand its program offerings by acquiring the Jewish Agency sponsored program, the “WUJS Institute Arad.” Since 1968, this international program has provided post-college young adults with opportunities to live, learn, volunteer, and grow in Israel. Facing the closing of the Jewish Agency’s absorption center in Arad, which had provided housing for WUJS students, Young Judaea made the decision to leave Arad and relocate the program to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This move is believed to be a positive and critical step in expanding the enrollment of the program in the coming years.
Back home, Young Judaea in America has seen several major changes as well in the 2000′s. Enrollment in YJ summer camps has been on the rise and in addition to Camp Tel Yehudah’s Machaneh Bet reopening in 2002, Camp Young Judaea West reopened as well. The movement also has invested major efforts in several social action projects, including the creation of “Caravan for Katrina” to provide relief supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As a part of this effort, trucks were driven across the US, stopping along their route at local Young Judaea groups to pick up relief supplies, before finally reaching the stricken Gulf Coast communities. Perhaps the newest change that Young Judaea is implementing is in the area of year-round programming. No longer meeting the needs of today’s youth, the club structure is being fazed out and instead there is a continued emphasis on our summer camps, programs in Israel, and regional-level activities like conventions, participation in community-wide events and innovative programs planned by Young Judaeans all across the country.
Young Judaea Today
Today, Young Judaea faces many challenges. Some of them are a continuation of those facing past generations of Judaeans. Others are a product of today’s social atmosphere. More than ever before, as an organization, Young Judaea must seek ways to attract American Jewish youth who are drawn into competitive atmospheres in school, who are becoming alienated from their Jewish heritage, who are uneducated about Israel.
But above all, it should be remembered, and it should be stated clearly, that as different as Young Judaea is from the first club formed in 1904, the movement has kept its ideals and its commitment to Judaism and Israel. In an era when many of America’s youth have become apathetic, Young Judaea is still striving to bring change to the world, and a future of promise to the Jewish people.
Youth Movement Partnerships
Canadian Young Judaea
Young Judaea in the U.S. is proud to partner with Canadian Young Judaea in an effort to promote Year Course across North America. Founded in 1917, Canadian Young Judaea is Canada’s largest Zionist youth movement. CYJ operates six residential summer camps across Canada, along with Biluim Israel, a one-year leadership program in Israel and offers year-round recreational, Judaic and Israel programming for Jewish youth. Canadian Young Judaea is pluralistic and apolitical, being unaffiliated with any one stream of Judaism or any political party or movement. Canadian Young Judaea also offers Israel and Zionist programming for students on college campuses.
FZY (Federation of Zionist Youth)
FZY, Young Judaea’s sister movement in Great Britain, like Young Judaea, values peer leadership, pluralism, the strengthening of Jewish identity and ties to Israel. On Year Course, FZY and North American participants live, work and study together. Through their interaction, participants are provided with a look into another component of Diaspora Jewry, have a chance to learn about each other’s culture, the ability to foster the connection between the two movements and the opportunity to make friends from another part of the world.
Tzofim (Israeli scouts)
The Tzofim are Young Judaea’s sister movement in Israel. The Tzofim may participate in several of the Year Course sections. This offers the Year Course participants from North America and Great Britain a unique insight into the lives of Israeli youth today and a chance to exchange ideas with their Israeli counterparts.
Young Judaea, FZY and the Tsofim form the umbrella organization Atid (future), an international partnership of pluralist Zionist youth movements.