Three Thoughts on the Youth Movement

By Joe Grabiner

I’m coming to the end of ten years of unbroken involvement in RSY-Netzer. I’ve cut my hair, cleared my desk, and at the end of this week I’ll leave the Sternberg Centre as an outgoing Movement Worker.

The movement has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the single best thing I’ve been involved in during my life so far. After eleven consecutive summers of kef I wanted to put forward three unconnected reflections on our dear youth movement before I go.
  1. Mobile Phones, Mental Health, and Hadracha

First, I want to suggest one fairly uncontroversial claim, and then another that may be a little more contentious. The uncontroversial claim is that the current high level of mobile phone usage (and social media addiction) amongst both our chanichim and madrichim is bad for them. This may seem obvious but in recent summers it’s become so apparent to me just what a brilliant thing we are still able to do in banishing mobile phones almost completely from our machanot.

When our young people are distressed about a social matter, whether romantic or purely friendship, it is almost always the case that a mobile phone appears somewhere in the story. There’s usually a ‘and then he posted X on Instagram’ or ‘and then they created this Whatsap group without me’. Although I’ve got no statistics to back it up, it seems all too clear that social media usage is making our young people worryingly unhappy and dangerously anxious. As a young person addicted to social media myself I’m not at all surprised. I crave likes and cyber-appreciation. How will I know my friends truly like me if I’m not in numerous Facebook and Whatsapp threads with them at all times? Thankfully I’ve got sufficiently honest relationships with good friends who are all too willing to burst my social media bubble and remind me that it’s human interactions that deepen relationships- not comment threads.

Taking away the phones of our chanichim (even just temporarily) frees them from the bondage of social media and the mental slavery of working out how they will curate their lives across various profiles. It liberates them into the sphere of real life human interactions. Don’t get me wrong, our young people can still be tremendously unkind to each other in person, yet there is a different character to it, and usually the real life disputes are easier to resolve. Even if they are not easier to resolve they serve the purpose of teaching our young people resilience and personal strength. Dodging and ducking through two weeks of fragile adolescent social dynamics is part of what makes camp a growing and maturing experiences for our chanichim.

On the flipside of this, our madrichim are on their phones more and more. As long as they are still fully committed members of the tzevet, and the ‘camp bubble’ is preserved for our chanichim, then this isn’t a problem per se, but in recent years it’s highlighted a different albeit connected trend. Our madrichim are suffering from mental ill health in pretty large numbers. Now here’s my second claim: the way we conceptualise hadracha is under threat from our current approach and understanding of mental health. To be a leader is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. At the point of leading on your first RSY-Netzer event, however many events you’ve been on as a chanicha, you should find it a scary and tough task. Hadracha is brilliant, but it’s also hard, and finding it tough is necessary to growing and developing as a madricha. We need a movement of madrichim who can find things hard, and do them anyway! If, as seems to happen more and more, our movement is made up of brilliant individuals who are suffering from anxiety and depression then we need to think carefully about how those people are pushed and push themselves.

We need to reconceptualise hadracha but we need to do so in a way that preserves what is good about it. Across my time in the movement I’ve seen countless cases of people who have real struggles in their lives behave in remarkable ways once given the chance to lead. Depressed bogrim who find it hard to get up for their uni lectures, or alephs who suffer badly from anxiety in their ‘normal’ lives, are then transformed when in the rough and tumble, all-in-this-together-atude of a machane. They conquer their struggles and function with great personal satisfaction as full members of a tzevet. It is that tzevet itself that can create an atmosphere of unique support. Here are a group of people who are with you 24/7, all dedicated to the same overall goal. At it’s best it can and should be an environment of trust, kindness, and love (and if all goes well you’ll get a cheeky snog with someone you fancy at Sumpar at the end of it all). However, it’s important we tread the line carefully between support and self-indulgence.

Hadracha is nothing if it is not about pushing oneself. I don’t want to be mistaken for putting forward that we should ignore peoples’ needs. That’s not what I am suggesting. However, I do have a fear about the destination we could find ourselves in by mistake. RSY-Netzer is counter-cultural in a number of ways. One of those ways is that it is ‘softer’ than mainstream society- people are more at ease with each other, and that’s brilliant. Yet if this results in an approach to those with mental ill health that pussyfoots around them and offers them no challenge, then I fear we’ll lose what is most brilliant about youth leadership. We need to build a spirit of resilience, support, and bravery. I fully believe we already have the systems in place- what we need now is the courage to walk the line between embracing each other when we’re down and pushing each other to do more when we can.

  1. A Marxist Analysis of Hadracha (or ‘why madrichim already inhabit a communist paradise’)

(This is a particularly nerdy attempt to bring together two of my favourite things: hadracha and political philosophy. It doesn’t quite work but hear me out on it…)

Karl Marx had an analysis of capitalism based partially on how products are made. For Marx, we are in a pre-revolution period of history because too few people (the bosses) own all the means of production. What this means is that a few people own all the things that are necessary to create products. So, the owner of a factory owns all the equipment, all the raw materials, and then simply has to pay the workers a wage, after which the factory owner gets to keep all the profit that is made on the product. The workers are paid the lowest amount they can be paid to do the job, and their wage is unconnected to whatever profit the factory owner is making from their labour. For Marx, this is why a communist society would be one in which their would be collective ownership of all industries.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that for Marx workers are also alienated. This refers to the way in which workers in an industrial society lose all connection to the product they are creating. Once upon a time one person would be responsible for the creation of a product, say a chair, from the beginning until the end of the process. They would gain the satisfaction of seeing the chair being created and they would know that their labour has gone into creating it. In an industrial society the ‘division of labour’ causes people to take on much smaller specialised roles on a bigger production line. Therefore, the worker who has a role sanding-down a hundred chair legs does not receive the same satisfaction as they would if they made one complete chair. They are alienated from their labour and from the product of their labour.

In my view, the youth movement defies this analysis and instead exists in a communist paradise already. Yep, It’s bold…but here goes…

Let’s say the product of our youth movement is broadly ‘more ideological young people’. The chanichim are the raw material and the madrichim are the workers. However, all the other things that are needed to create the final product are things that the madrichim (the workers) possess themselves. They develop the programming and engage in the all-important social interactions that shape our young people. Once the ‘product’ has been created it is also the madrichim themselves (through their own collective ownership of the movement) who continue to ‘own’ the additional value of the product. More ideological young people only go to improve our movement further.

Yes, one could make an argument that the computers that the Movement Workers use are crucial to the process, or that the tissue paper that goes into to making resources is crucial to the process, and that the madrichim do not ‘own’ these things. However, these elements of production are relatively minor- they are the things that allow the REAL process (the human interactions) to occur. These objects are just accessories to the real production process. In this, our madrichim exist in a post-capitalist communist reality. Huzzah!

As an additional element you’ll remember that I explained how, under capitalism, workers are alienated from their labour and from the product of their labour. In quite the opposite way to this, to engage in hadracha is to see and appreciate the transformation of young people in real time across hours, days, weeks, and even years! This is the product of our labour as madrichim. By committing ourselves to positive social interactions with our chanichim we see our time and effort realised in their changing behaviors. Every bold new point made in issues groups, every fear conquered on the climbing wall, every proposal put forward at Veidah is a realisation of the labour of madrichim. For me, hadracha is a sphere where madrichim are most in touch with their labour and the product of their labour. In this, we’ve created a unique and truly utopian role for ourselves- never take it for granted!

  1. Believing in stuff is good; having responsibility is even better.

RSY-Netzer gave me something to believe it and this is a bloody brilliant thing. Our ideology is one that I was taught to agree with, hold dear, and then preach myself. As a 13-16 year old it’s so incredibly easy to be despondent about the world. You’re grumpy, you hate everyone and everything, and you believe that no one will understand you…ever. Having something to believe in and a community around you who shared those beliefs protected me against the depths of grumpiness. There is nothing that is quite as motivating and energesing than having a purpose and trying to chase that purpose with all your energy.

Would I have come to the same conclusions about the world had I not been part of RSY-Netzer? Perhaps I would have, but I’ll never really know, and even if I had done, I wouldn’t have had a community of people around me believing the same things. I’ve felt part of lots of different communities in my life. I loved my secondary school and felt very at home there; I love Tottenham Hotspur and feel a real sense of quasi-religious community when going to home matches at White Hart Lane. However, neither of these things are the same as my involvement with RSY-Netzer. Crucially, in having a set of beliefs attached to it, the movement provides purpose. In a world so void of truth and commitment this is worth hanging onto. It’s useful to note that our set of beliefs aren’t even that solid. We are extremists for nuance, fundamentalists for self-education, beyond that there is a huge difference in individual doctrine across our chaverim. Yet it doesn’t matter that our individual decisions may converge- it’s the central tenets of our ideology that still manage to hold us together.

Even more than believing in stuff, being given responsibility is life-changing. If hadracha is build on the interactions we have with our chanichim then it reaches its peak when we are given significant responsibility over those very same chanichim. As a seventeen year old, leading on Atid for the very first time, I was given the chance to be the ‘Rosh Campsite’ for one night for one of the campsites we were using for tiyul. I was responsible for the general supervision of the pitching of tents, cooking of dinner, and anything else that may be going on that evening. A series of unfortunate events mixed with terrible weather meant it turned out to be one of the most challenging nights of my life. However, when the rain finally stopped and we were back on the main site a few days later I felt such a sense of achievement- it fueled me for the rest of machane. We’ve all got memories of being given responsibility, feeling the pressure, and growing as a result of those experiences. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that giving people this kind of trust is under threat. We’re more concerned than we’ve ever been before about parents, about organisational reputation, about how our movement looks on social media. All these things are important, but we’ve got to make sure we keep them in perspective. We must keep giving our madrichim those moments of responsibility and those chances to grow. We must let people fail and the let them sore. We must let people lead. We can always be there to support and offer advice along the way, but only by allowing people the chance to take a step forward themselves will they reach their own full potential!

Perspective

A year ago I came across a book published in 1956 by the name of ‘The Jewish Youth Group: A Handbook For Progressive Jewish Youth Groups’. It’s a collection of essays that give advice and guidance of how to build your very own synagogue youth group. The different contributors are mainly young adults who were involved in YASGB (the Youth Association of the Synagogues of Great Britain), which became RSY, and then eventually RSY-Netzer. Parts of it are comically dated (I mean…it was published 60 years ago), however, parts of the first chapter, entitled ‘The task of the Youth Group’ wrung very true to me. In it, Colette Kessler states that the youth group should have a threefold goal:

  1. Awaken the love of God and Torah
  2. Stimulate the sense of the ‘community of Israel’
  3. Arouse an ardent consciousness of the ‘Mission of Israel’

Reading these goals I was taken aback at just how similar they are to three of our four pillars in RSY-Netzer today. Put a different way ‘loving God and Torah’ could be Reform Judaism, ‘community of Israel’ could be Reform Zionism, and ‘mission of Israel’ could be Tikun Olam. There it was, in black and white, in 1956- the roots of our ideology. However, the passage goes on even more beautifully: ‘Obviously these aims can be realised only in an atmosphere of harmony and friendship. Every member of the youth group must be made to feel deep in his heart the truth of the Psalmists’ words: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for breathren to dwell together in unity”’.

As things have changed they have also stayed the same and just as likely as chanichim will continue to enquire about the age of their madrichim so to things will continue to change and they will also stay the same. The movement has given me so much. It has given me friendship, belief, energy, purpose, motivation, a moral compass, a community, role models, a partner, a sense of duty, and so much more besides. If it offers you a small fraction of what it’s given me you’ll be very lucky indeed. Own the movement, be responsible for it, drive it forward, hold it tight (but not too tight), and most of all, enjoy it.

This article is reposted from the Reshet Blog with permission.

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