History of Hashomer Hatzair USA

Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) was born in Vienna during World War I with the merger of two organizations that had originated in Galicia, Hashomer (The Watchman) and Ze’irei Zion. The founders were molded by both Zionism and Jewish socialism.  Each of the two organizations brought their own emphasis: Ze’irei Zion an educational program aimed at deepening the national consciousness of Jewish youth, and the Hashomer groups the model of the Baden-Powell scouting program. 


Both were youth groups independent of adult supervision and direction. Hashomer Hatzair right from the start was a youth movement imbued with the basic educational approach of “youth leading youth.”


Hashomer Hatzair was “transported” to North America in the 1920s by members of the movement in Europe. Alongside the immigrants, there were American-born shomrim and shomrot in the early years, whose parents had arrived in North America before World War I or in the early 1920’s. 


The visual history we are sharing tonight does not cover all 100 years of Hashomer Hatzair in North America, in part because the history is very much still being written. Instead, we are hoping here to celebrate our history by sharing important parts of the past that may not be so well known, while also emphasizing the core values and work of the youth movement throughout its history. There may be things you would have liked to see here but there is so much we could have included! (maybe more about our humanistic approach to Judaism, or Hebrew, or rikud, or shira, or our beautiful chultzot…)

Early evidence of North American Hashomer Hatzair is an unsigned letter, dated October 22nd, 1922, addressed to the Histadrut in Palestine, addressing an unacknowledged contribution of $233 to the fund for the settlement of the first Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz at Beit Alpha. The letter also asked for two copies of Kehiliyatenu, a collection of confessional pieces from the utopian commune Bitanya Ilit.


The first official bulletin of the movement was dated May 4, 1925. A message from that time says that “In a review of the state of the movement from 1925, we learn that there were now three “gdudim” in New York and Brooklyn – in Brownsville, Boro Park, and Manhattan.  And it developed in other places also. It could now be called a national organization.


A significant debate in the movement in the 1920’s was choosing between socialist activism in North America and preparing for becoming pioneers in Palestine, but not just any perparation. The members of the movement wanted to be trained together, in preparation for communal living. The first group left for Connecticut in March 1927. A good development for the future of American kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair perhaps, but disastrous for the leadership of the youth movement, as many turned further to the left, abandoning their Zionism.


There were two other developments at the end of the 1920’s that would have lasting impact on Hashomer Hatzair in North America. The first summer camp of Hashomer Hatzair opened in 1928, in Highland Mills, New York. Here is a report from that summer:


“Summer camp: 1929. On Friday evening, at sundown, all the shomrim assemble clothed in white – an impressive sight. The spirit of the Sabbath pervades everything  and even the trees in their whispering seem to await the start of the Sabbath. At last Zeiger appears. He leads about in a circular procession. Later he speaks in exquisite Hebrew about our strong ties with the past, and with former generations…about the new national and social foundations in our homeland. We are drawn closer together by his words and feel as one..After the lighting of the candles we sing Chassidic songs expressing the hopes and sufferings of our people.


An even more dramatic development was the formation of the first kibbutz aliya in 1929. The decision came at the end of the summer camp season, with news of the unrest and murder of Jews in Hebron. At this point in history, no other Jewish organization in North America had decided to re-define Zionism, from providing philanthropic, political and moral support to the Jewish homeland, to instead actually making plans to join the people living there.


The first kibbutz aliya trained together on a farm in Plainfield, New Jersey. And on April 11th, 1931, a group of six shomrim, five from Montreal, and one from New York, left for Palestine on the SS Providence. An additional 22 joined them soon after.


By 1932 Hashomer Hatzair in North America numbered about 1500 members in sixteen branches across ten cities. By 1939 there were twenty-six branches stretching to the Pacific Ocean. 


In addition to what is shown in the visual presentation, there were other kenim in: Brooklyn (Brownsville, Boro Park – Bensonhurst), Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Hamilton, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Rochester, Albany, Troy and others.


During the 1930’s Hashomer Hatzair also gained support (both political and financial) from people such as Irma “Rama” Lindheim, Charles and Ida Cowen, and Supreme Court Justice Luis D. Brandeis, who the movement’s first kibbutz, Ein Hashofet, was named in honor of


On the eve of the Second World War, Hashomer Hatzair in North America was represented in most of the largest and some of the smaller Jewish communities, from coast to coast. Brought to the New World by immigrants, the movement was now largely American. It had expanded and prospered and taken firm root.


World War II brought new problems to Hashomer Hatzair in North America. As a Jewish socialist movement, there was a question of its attitude to the war, and this was connected to another issuethe nature of fascism and how to best defeat it. Secondly, a conflict developed between the movement’s ideology and its ongoing educational work. How could the idea of Aliyah to kibbutz be maintained while the shores of Palestine were closed during the war. Thirdly, there were practical questions. What would be the fate of the movement when so many of its young men, its leaders, were conscripted into the military? 


By this time the first kibbutz Aliyah was long in Israel, establishing Ein Hashofet. Most members of Kibbutz Aliyah Bet were already on their way to Palestine, to establish Kibbutz Kfar Menachem. Kibbutz Aliyah Gimmel, headed to Hatzor, was on the training farm and preparing for Aliyah. A fourth group was about to come into existence, eventually settling on Kibbutz Ein Dor.


After December 7th, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war, a conference was called to make plan’s for the movement’s work under the new conditions. A small Trotskyist faction, who were already at the movement’s training farm, claimed that under the conditions then of world imperialist struggle, Palestine could not be developed and traditional Zionist work was no longer justified: the task of the socialist-Zionist at that juncture of world history was instead to struggle for world revolution and the defeat of imperialism. The movement’s national executive discussed the dissident faction and decided to expel three of them. The official attitude towards the war was finally concluded in a special council on December 31, 1941 with the participation of 293 members from the United States and Canada. A clear plan of action came out of this, with the understanding that the working class had a vital interest in the anti-Nazi war. There was ideological turmoil still around this issue and many members left. 


But by April 1943, 100 shomrim were serving in the Armed Services, mainly members of Kibbutz Aliyah Gimmel and Kibbutz Aliyah Daled, and by April 1944 the number had risen to 200. All institutions of the movement were reorganized and mainly run by women. Attempts were made to keep those serving connected to the work of the movement. Many examples of correspondence have been kept in various archives and in “Against the Stream.”


The focus of Hashomer Hatzair after the end of World War II turned back to organizing for Aliyah to kibbutzim. Three kibbutzei aliya of Hashomer Hatzair, Kibbutz Aliyah Gimel, Kibbutz Aliyah Dalet and Kibbutz Aliyah Hei reached Palestine in various clandestine ways between 1945 and 1948, and many of them took part in the Israeli War of Independence.


At the end of World War II there were nearly six million Jews living in North America, making it the largest Jewish community in the world. Jews felt more secure. Zionism, for the most part, meant a sentimental connection requiring donations of funds and not much more. This, of course, was not the Zionism of Hashomer Hatzair. Far from the mainstream of Jewish life in North America, the movement was educating Jewish youth to reject the golah (exile) even one as “golden” as America, in order to build a new life, as Jews, in a state of their own. A quotation from a shomer of that time:


“In Hashomer Hatzair we were doubly sure about that new day: The United Nations decision on partition in November 1947 and the Declaration of the State six months later proved it. It was clear that the kibbutz was the vanguard of the working class in Israel and that by becoming chalutzim in the kibbutzim, we were in one fell swoop redeeming ourselves as Jews, redeeming our ancient homeland, and ipso facto, redeeming the world at large. And the world, it seemed then, was with us. The revolution in China, the valiant struggle of the ELAS in Greece, the opening of new frontiers of socialism in Eastern Europe; we saw the future and we were part of it.”


New groups of shomrim and shomrot continued to settle on kibbutzim in Israel after the establishment of the State of Israel, but other work was carried out by the youth movement in support of that. Some shomrim worked sending illegal arms shipments to Palestine and smuggled gold for their purchases. Shomrim worked on Aliya Bet ships and at the detention camps in Cyprus. The destruction of the large and dynamic movement of Hashomer Hatzair in Europe placed greater responsibility on the North American movement and the response helped re-establish a ken in France, and open a new branch in Chile. 


A story that is not well-known, perhaps, is the role of shomrim in the ships bringing post-war refugees and immigrants into Palestine, and then Israel, despite the official British objections and blockades. There are records of shomrim on boats such as the Hagana, the Josiah Wedgewood, and there were eight shomrim aboard the ship that came to be known as Exodus. David Baum, of Kibbutz Aliya Hey (founders of Kibbutz Sasa): wrote of this experience:


There was a problem with the fuel. The immigrants filled every conceivable corner so we could not reach the sounding tubes to ascertain the situation in the fuel tanks and in one case, we used the fuel too long and evidently there was water on the bottom of the tank, and it put out our boiler fires. This made the ship stop dead. We went down into the boiler room and transferred the pump to a tank where we did have fuel. But we had to break up some of the benches and bunks which people were using in order to relight the boiler with a wood fire. We were finally able to get enough steam for the ship to start again after about eight hours, and go on our way. The stokers were led by a member of Kibbutz Aliyah Hey. Together with the ex-partisans they worked in a boiler room with a probable temperature of 4800 Centigrade. They had to change constantly because it was impossible to stand the heat for more than a few minutes.”


An SOS was sent out and a British warship approached, but understanding it was a shipload of Jews headed for Palestine, the Haganah was left alone with its problem. When the Hagana reached territorial waters, the British commanded it to stop but it kept going, and cannon fire began. The British tried to board but were met with barrages of tin cans. Eventually the decision was made to surrender, the crew changed clothing and mingled among the passengers, joining them in the detention camp in Cyprus.


The 1950’s meant Senator Joe McCarthy, witch-hunts, the Cold War, the Rosenbergs, the pressure to take sides, and the very real Korean War. This dark period of American history, also impacted Hashomer Hatzair.


Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, hundreds of pages of FBI files on Hashomer Hatzair from that time period have been uncovered. Ruti Reiss (later Yakir) who was mazkirat tnua at the time said “It’s hard to imagine how hysterical things were at that time.” The initial motivation for FBI interest in Hashomer Hatzair seems to have been the Korean War, when many shomrim from Kibbutz Aliya Zion (to Gal-on) chose to evade military service by departing earlier for Israel. In general, members of the youth movement were politically opposed to this war and the imperialist policies it represented. They also felt if they needed to take up arms it should be in defense of the young State of Israel. Whatever the reason, FBI bureaus in Los Angeles, New York, Newark and Detroit undertook investigations of Hashomer Hatzair for possible violations of the Registration Act (for foreign agents). A report dated June 15, 1953, in addition to speculating about the political activity of Hashomer Hatzair, also commented that the people at the training farm in Hightstown “are, for the most part, slovenly people, who seek an easy living.”


In addition to political oppression there were other factors in the 1950’s that led to a steep decline in Hashomer Hatzair’s membership, to about 400-500 in all of North America. One factor was the move of Jewish communities to the suburbs and the difficulty in maintaining active branches in the cities while also failing at a move to the suburbs. Alongside the challenges, however, there were new programs connecting members to Israel, such as the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad. And the development from the 1950’s that has had lasting impact was making Camp Shomria the movement’s major educational tool. In the 1950’s camp was held for three weeks (and in primitive conditions) but by the 1960’s Shomria became a “real camp” lasting for seven to eight weeks.


The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 was a traumatic experience for most Americans but in spite of the remorse felt by members of Hashomer Hatzair, the movement felt that the 1960’s held possibilities for expansion and increased activism. The escalation of American forces in Vietnam, though, had a profound impact on the movement. It was no longer a luxury to attend college but rather an imperative in order to maintain student deferment status. And so it became harder to keep older shomrim and shomrot organized and active. One response was to expand the training farm in Hightstown, New Jersey and make it the location for national leadership training seminars, beginning in 1966.


An extraordinary bulletin was sent out by the national executive of Hashomer Hatzair on May 31, 1967, about how the mobilization of forces in Israel had put an end to normal life there, with kibbutzim being among the most severely affected. Shomrim and Shomrot were asked to either drop everything and spend time in Israel, or to go to the training farm to replace those who had left for the same purpose. 


Despite this, movement activites were begun or restarted in Boston and in Chicago. And again, Hashomer Hatzair had to deal with political tensions. Not everyone who was politically active in North America was enthusiastic about the Six-Day War. A number of older shomrim and shomrot were active in radical campus activities and helped found the Radical Zionist Alliance. Movement members were especially active in demonstrations against American involvement in the war in Vietnam. 


And other issues of the times had their impact on Hashomer Hatzair. At the Fifteenth Convention of the movement in May 1971 a resolution was presented by the Women’s Caucus of North American Hashomer Hatzair. The traditional position of “complete sexual equality as befitting a radical socialist-Zionist movement” was reaffirmed but there was a demand for more vigilance against male chauvinism that had crept into the movement. 


Another issue that was seriously debated at this convention was a resolution to change the tenth shomer commandment: “The shomer is clean in word, thought and deed, does not smoke or drink, and retains his sexual purity.” Throughout the 1960’s some of the movement values, like a disdain for fancy dress and makeup became more socially acceptable. The tensions around this issue perhaps were best captured in the decision made in 1969 to help make sandwiches to help a friend of one of the shlichim who had a food concession at the original Woodstock Festival. After a long discussion, it was decided that it was okay to make the sandwiches, as long as the money went into a kupa (communal fund) AND no one was allowed to actually listen to the music.


There were some meaningful interactions between Hashomer Hatzair and the political left in the 1960s, most prominently led by Yehuda Krantz, who had joined the youth movement in high school. Yehuda dropped out of high school to devote himself to radical Zionism, convincing the American Zionist Youth foundation to fund a radical Jewish high school paper, The Thorn, and reaching out to dialogue with leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. Tragically, after founding a ken in Philadelphia, Yehuda was hit by a car while on his way to address university students. He was only 17 when he died. Ken Derech Yehuda in Philadelphia was named in his memory.


The members of Hashomer Hatzair in the 1960’s and 1970’s were a mixture of children of former shomrim from the thirties and forties, and “red-diaper” babies, children of Communist party activists. Hashomer Hatzair, in comparison with other youth movements, has always been filled by first-generation Americans, children of immigrants. Ariel Hurwitz, a shaliach at the time (and editor of our source, Against the Stream) recalls driving a vanful of shomrim and shomrot from New York for an activity in Montreal. When they crossed the border, the immigration officer asked each person where they had been born. The responses were Argentina, Belgium, Italy, Cyprus, Israel and Poland. In fact Ariel himself, long living in Israel, was the only American-born person in the van. For other members who were children of more mainstream American Jewish families, the attraction was perhaps renewed Jewish pride following the Six Day War and the radical challenge of New Left ideology.


The following decades brought ebbs and flows to the membership of Hashomer Hatzair. Kenim were opened in Spring Valley, New York, in Ann Arbor, and in Philadelphia. Eventually all three closed. The difficult decision was made to send chanichim and chanichot from the Los Angeles ken in to the Habonim summer camp in the 1990’s, effectively closing Ken Nirim. Kenim have remained active in the New York area and in Toronto.


Changes in the kibbutz movement brought another serious challenge – if Aliyah as a group to kibbutz was no longer the aim of membership in Hashomer Hatzair, what was in fact the aim? A question still being answered to this day…


We are not offering any answer to this here, but would like to highlight a few things that have been generated by Hashomer Hatzair in recent years:


Achvat Amim, a movement-building platform based in Israel, provides frameworks for young adults to engage in meaningful partnerships with Palestinians and Israelis in the movement for self-determination for all, was founded and brought to sustainability by members of Hashomer Hatzair who chose to make their home in Israel as individuals.


Most recently shomrim and shomrot from around the world answered the call for emergency assistance in Ukraine, staffing a relief and educational center.


Before leaving this very brief historical review, we will mention that Hashomer Hatzair is very much alive – 100 years of any organization is something to be celebrated, especially for our very unique youth movement. And here are some things that have remained as notable accomplishments of Hashomer Hatzair in North America.


These are the kibbutzim of North American Hashomer Hatzair


Ein Hashofet

Kfar Menachem

Hatzor

Ein Dor

Sasa

Barkai

Gal’on

Nachshon

Hazorea

Barkai

Lahav

Shomrat

Harel

Gvulot

Adamit



If Hashomer Hatzair North America had only contributed these kibbutzim would it be enough? Fortunately, we don’t have to debate that because there are contributions that Hashomer Hatzair has made that are truly unique


Hashomer Hatzair, both the youth movement and its “vatikim” (former shomrot and shomrim) have been central to keeping left-wing Zionism alive in North America, even in the most challenging of times.


And perhaps the greatest gift that Hashomer Hatzair has given the Jewish people and the entire world, is our unique educational model.


Making use of the revolutionary notion of “youth leading youth” that was at the foundation of the early movement in Europe, North American Hashomer Hatzair added ideas from such leading educators as John Dewey and Jean Piaget  in emphasizing experiential education, an emphasis that is still very obvious today – with outdoor environmental activities and even a farm that helps feed the camp during the summer.


Hashomer Hatzair’s understanding of the autonomy of youth has been a powerful driver of handing over responsibility in a way that many adults might take exception to. But one of the unusual things about people who have been members of Hashomer Hatzair, regardless of whether they moved to Israel or stayed in North America, is their candor in describing those years as the most significant in their lives.  Why is this? 


A partial answer may be that the older adolescents and young adults who educate in Hashomer Hatzair and lead younger groups become role models for younger members. Developmentally, this fills a vacuum at a time when many adolescents are breaking away from their parents and teachers. The role of youth educators would not be as effective and powerful if it were not for the long chain of intentional “hadracha” training activities, and the sense of belonging that is maintained for all ages.  Hashomer Hatzair in North America has institutionalized and is continually refreshing this training, whether it be in the “Yedid” summer program or earlier in its history in the “Hechalutz Training Farms”  (in Plainfield, New Jersey, Earlton, New York, Liberty New York, and Hightstown, New Jersey). And all of this continues to come together in activities at Camp Shomria.


Perhaps the most powerful, and radical, aspect of Hashomer Hatzair education over the past 100 years has been the notion that the intimate group, the kvutza, is the prime unit of concern. Not the individual, not the corporate/capitalist world, and not even the family. The kvutza. If you are skeptical, take a look at how many times in how many configurations “Jimbalaya” is said before shabbat dinner at the moshava!


Enjoy this scan of our past 100 years. Look at it again and again. But don’t leave it as a static lesson. Think about it. Act on it. Help us move Hashomer Hatzair forward for another 100 years.


See you at the Reunion!

Chizku ve’imtzu



(With thanks to Ariel Hurwitz, editor of Against the Stream)

1 comment


  • Harlan Baker

    Thanks for filling in details about the movement that I was unaware of.


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