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Youth movements’ healthy competition on eve of machanot

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GILLIAN KLAWANSKY

So they say as they count down days to their respective machanot. They insist the two movements are enjoying a closer working relationship than ever before.

While Progressive youth movement, Netzer, successfully caters to a relatively unchanging, niche group of kids, there’s often strong competition between the mainstream Habonim and Bnei Akiva camps. That is, especially now with Betar no longer in the picture.

Much like Netzer, they offer sun, sea, activities, delicious meals, prayer, inspiration, socialising and more. South Africa’s Jewish youth movements are all poised for exciting summer camps.

Habonim and Bnei Akiva are expecting large numbers at their respective machanot this year –  Habonim  around 660 kids and Bnei  almost 750. Together with madrichim, support staff and speakers, Bnei will have over 1 000 people on site, while Habonim will have around 850.

Netzer is expecting around 50 chanichim at their Grabouw site and will have 22 madrichim, some of whom are international and come to South Africa especially for camp.

“The fact that we’re small is actually one of our biggest selling points as it creates an environment where kids have individual attention, which they love. We’re like a family,” says Kendyll Jacobson, Netzer’s rosh machaneh.

“Everybody plays a role in our special Shabbat services. Outside visitors are always wowed by these really incredible Shabbats we host.” 

With the other two movements having similar numbers of chanichim, it’s clear there’s room for both. “I think there’s not really much of a fight,” says Habonim’s rosh machaneh, David Schwartz. “We’re the predominant camp in Cape Town – the majority of Cape Town kids who go to camp come to Habonim – and we’re expecting just over 100 of them. In Johannesburg, it’s split about 50/50 between kids who come to Habonim and Bnei.”

Schwartz however acknowledges that there are challenges. “In each grade there are always kids who are on the fence about which camp they want to go to, especially when they’re considering where their friends are going. But on the whole, we have a big core of kids who come to Habonim.”

Habonim would never actively target Bnei chanichim, says Schwartz, but the movement does send letters to some potential campers, who may incidentally belong to other movements.

Bnei Akiva’s rosh machaneh, Martin Skudicky says: “We’re both growing, so we must be doing something right!” he says. “There’s always going to be banter and rivalry with Habonim, though, but the rivalry is more healthy than unhealthy. Together we can offer more chanichim the chance to come to camp rather than trying to steal the same few people from each other.”

The first-ever South African Zionist Youth Council Seminar took place this year, where the two mainstream groups came together and discussed possible joint projects. The first of these was a campaign for Movember, where Habonim and Bnei madrichim worked together to raise funds for men’s health.

“We’ve grown tremendously in our relationship with Habonim this year,” says Skudicky. “I’ve personally worked quite closely with the top leadership at Habonim, through the youth council and we’ve been able to break that tension that’s existed previously.” Schwartz agrees and is excited about the potential their strengthening relationship offers.

Asked what sets Habonim apart, Schwartz says: “Our campsite is really incredible and unique with massive grounds spanning the breathtaking Onrus beach, accessible throughout the camp.

“There are great facilities on the campsite and it’s just a beautiful environment to have a camp in.”

Offering varying activities from sports events to arts and crafts to singing around campfires, Habonim also offers different learning experiences with madrichim and fascinating guest speakers. The camp also has a revamped kitchen with a chef from Israel.

“Because we’re not geared towards one stream of Judaism, on Shabbat we offer different services,” says Schwartz. “Kids can go to an Orthodox service, or a Reform or Egalitarian service.

“They can also experience Shabbat through studying different Jewish texts. We offer a holistic, wide experience for every different Jewish kid who wants to come, from the religious to the secular. There’s really something to connect to for everyone, which definitely sets us apart.”

Jacobson says:  “If Netzer had competition, it would be Habonim, as they have branched out more in the last few years to include more Progressive Jews, which is great. But we still have our core base of chanis.”

“We have an open door policy, so anyone is welcome, from Orthodox Jews, to non-Jews who have an interest in Progressive Judaism.”

While Bnei is known as a religious camp, Skudicky says everyone, regardless of their observance levels, is made to feel comfortable. “We don’t force anything on anyone – we just want kids to grow and attain the self-confidence they need to find a sense of purpose.”

Says Skudicky: “Bnei offers the best of everything. We have an unreal campsite with amazing facilities, including two putt-putt courses, a new obstacle course and revamped bathrooms. There’s a massive variety of activities including arts and crafts, sports, educational programmes, a beis midrash with tons of learning content. We have shiurim, a beach close by and incredible ruach and a community vibe.

“We’ve upped the game in terms of meals from Nando’s to schwarmas to burgers as well as a variety of chefs with one for kids who are lactose intolerant. There’s a brand-new barista service on camp in our tuckshop as well.”

Bnei are constantly innovating when it comes to marketing the movement and machaneh says Skudicky. “We do school visits and launches even offering photo booths and party buses –  we always look at things we can do better or differently. We publish a Rosh Hashanah magazine and we’re very active on social media.”

Netzer targets chanichim through the Progressive shuls. They are sometimes involved in the services, so people get to know them. They also interact with the shul’s databases to encourage parents to send their kids to the camp. 

At camp, they do a lot of educational activities around the five pillars that underpin their movement and they offer sport and cultural activities as well a fabulous scenic tiyul.

All three movements believe the future of youth movements in South Africa is bright.

 

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