Labor Zionist ideals live on at Habonim Camp Gilboa

Categories: Personal Stories of Zionism, Israel and Progressive Identity
By Julie Gruenbaum Fax



Labor Zionist ideals live on at Gilboa

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

In real life, Leo Goldberg doesn’t dance and sing.

But at Camp Gilboa, where he’s spent summers for the past 9 years, Leo Goldberg dances. And he sings. A lot — and loudly.

“There’s this emphasis on everyone being able to express themselves, and in not being limited to the way you express yourself at home, so it leads to people who are normally shy being outgoing, and kids who wouldn’t get along at home becoming good friends,” says Goldberg, a freshman at Williams College, who started attending Gilboa at around age 11 and now works as a counselor there. “It’s a really tight-knit, intimate community.”

With 140 kids at a rented facility in the mountains near Redlands, Camp Gilboa is the smallest of Southern California’s Jewish residential camps. One of seven camps in North America affiliated with the Labor Zionist movement’s Habonim Dror youth arm, the camp is dedicated to social justice, cultural Judaism, Israel — and socialism.

While the political socialism of the movement’s founding is no longer pushed, the idea of communal living and mutual responsibility is still central to the camp’s unusual identity.

Campers help prepare meals, wait and bus their own tables and clean the bathrooms — really clean, because there are no janitors to pick up after them. All care packages are pooled and divided, and rather than a canteen with parent-backed tabs for soda and candy, kids put their money into a general fund that is democratically administered for things like replenishing toiletries, bunk parties, or charity.

The camp is culturally Jewish — the kitchen uses kosher meat and doesn’t mix meat and dairy, and Shabbat is marked by Israeli dancing and discussion of the weekly Torah portion. Daily activities include Hebrew hour and educational interaction, and while there is a rock-climbing wall and unheated pool, there are no basketball courts. Counselors are in charge of all activities from wake up through lights out — there are no specialists — and despite getting paid a pittance, they come back, summer after summer.

“I love camp. It’s what I look forward to all year, and then I look forward to doing it again,” says Zak Greenwald, a student at UC Santa Cruz who has been a counselor for three summers.

Not long ago, it wasn’t clear if the camp would survive.

Founded in the 1936 in Saugus by American socialist Zionists energized by the budding Jewish state, Camp Gilboa mimicked Kibbutz communal living. The camp flourished on its own site in Idyllwild through the 1960s and into the ’70s, when, like many other Zionist youth movement camps, it began to decline. The New York Habonim camp closed in 1984; in California, camps affiliated with the Zionist youth movements B’nei Akiva, HaShomer Hatzair and Young Judea didn’t make it through the 1990s. Camp Gilboa was sold and shuttered in 1982.

“The fact is the role of Israel in American Jewish life declined, and didn’t have the emotional pull,” said Bea Chenkin, the volunteer executive director of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance, which along with Naamat USA supports the camp. Chenkin, who worked in Jewish education for more than 50 years, has been involved with the Labor Zionist movement since she was a child in Chicago, and her five kids went to Camp Gilboa.

“If we said to people, ‘Send your kids to camp and it’s like sending them to a Kibbutz,’ it didn’t resonate with a lot of people in the same way it did when we were building and creating a state,” said Chenkin.

In 1995, a group of Gilboa alumni, who couldn’t stand the thought of their children not having the same life-changing summers they’d had, got the people and the funds together to rent a site and reopen the camp. With no teenage alumni to tap as counselors, it was a slow, but passionate start.

Today, most of the staff — including the head counselor and the executive director — are alumni of the reborn Gilboa.

In the past two years, enrollment has grown by 30 percent, thanks to Gilboa’s increasingly prominent alumni presence in the community, word of mouth marketing and an enviable retention rate. Organizers are looking toward purchasing a new site within the next five years.

“There is a group of kids and parents who love Israel and are interested in expressing their Judaism culturally and having a strong Jewish identity and connection with Israel. And they find us, and we find them,” said executive director Rachael Sevilla.

Sevilla is the only paid administrator at the camp; a volunteer shaliach (emissary) from Israel has a living stipend paid by the Jewish Agency. A camp committee of parents and alumni take on tasks such as recruitment, registration and fundraising, and work with Sevilla to plan the summer. The youths themselves run monthly year-round activities.

The entire budget of the camp and other programming is about $200,000, which is covered primarily through tuition, with some fundraising.

Part of the camp’s success has been its ability to repackage itself for 21st century needs, while retaining the core values that created the loyalty in the first place — a love for Israel and Judaism, and the communal and egalitarian standards of socialist philosophy.

During the year, for instance, a weekend retreat in New York will cost the same for a Californian and Midwesterner, because the price is set to cover travel costs equally for everyone. In the yearlong pre-college Israel program, kids live in a co-op style arrangement with a joint fund and work with underprivileged populations.

At camp, those ideals are reflected in the work kids do around the campus, from gardening to scrubbing toilets to building bookshelves, and in their depositing their weekly allowance into a kuppah, a general fund that a bunk decides how to spend.

The approach gives kids a sense of ownership and community.

“What makes it so unique is everyone feels that Gilboa belongs to them, and that is why everyone wants to put more effort into it and make it a great thing,” said Yair Castel, Habonim’s shaliach.

That translates to the home environment, as well.

“It brings out this sense of responsibility to everybody,” says Judith Landau, whose three kids are products of Camp Gilboa.

Her daughter found a love for Judaism through camp and is now an officer in the Israeli Air Force, working on environmental policy and living an Orthodox life.

Her youngest son, previously somewhat reserved and isolated, discovered he was a comedian and a poet.

Her middle son, Itamar, tapped into his leadership potential. For the past two summers he has served as rosh machane, head of camp, and after graduating UC Berkeley last year, went to work as a counselor at Habonim Dror’s post-high school program in Israel.

Passionate idealism like his, and the drive to see it actualized, is what has sparked a revival of Habonim Dror in America, and its Israeli counterpart, HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed (Youth Who Work and Teach), which has reframed the kibbutz socialism on which Israel was founded. Now, a growing number of youths live in urban kibbutzim — cooperative living arrangements where young people pool their stipends and dedicate themselves to education.

That is the spirit that infuses Camp Gilboa, as well.

“I think in this very cynical world, we’re a camp that teaches hope and idealism and making the world a better place. What a fabulous thing that is for our kids,” said Julia Greenwald, chair of Habonim Dror’s camp committee. “At the end of last summer, I looked around and I said to the kids, ‘In 10 years I want to know all of you, because you are the people who are going to make this world a better place.’ And I really believe that.”

To learn more about Habonim Dror North America, visit

To learn more about Camp Gilboa,

© 2006

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