Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies

Recollections of Detroit Habonim

Daniel J. Elazar

I was a member of Habonim during most of the years I lived in Detroit -- from 1949 until 1953, that is, for my last two years of high school and first two of college. I was not yet in Habonim when the State of Israel was established (in fact, I was in the hospital recovering from viral pneumonia) so I was not part of the initial celebration, but the new state was still a fresh experience for all of us. As young people we were less engaged by the wonder of it than by the struggles over aliya and particularly over kibbutziut as distinct from mere aliya. A number of "elders" in the movement rushed off to Israel in 1948 and early 1949; unfortunately, many of those from Detroit returned disillusioned two or three years later, which had its effect on us all.

Detroit Habonim in the late 1940s and early 1950s was on the fringes of radicalism in a city which was noted for its urban radical movements in the 1930s. We grew up in the shadow of the Reuther brothers, the UAW, sitdown strikes, and militant unionism, and were all influenced accordingly. We sang the right labor songs and were moved by them. The Spanish Civil War was merely a decade before, and was still a potent factor in determining allegiances and attitudes. Indeed, looking back on the period, the Spanish Civil War was probably a greater force in our lives than the Holocaust, even though Habonim itself absorbed a number of Holocaust survivors who had settled in Detroit. We had considerable contact with the panoply of radical groups that existed in Detroit, not only Zionist radicals like Hashomer Hatzair, but Communists, Trotskyites, Socialist Labor Party people, and even a few surviving Wobblies. Of course we were in the vanguard of the folk song revival, with Pete Seeger and the Weavers number one on our hit parade.

In some respects, my Habonim ties were an unexpected match. I was a strongly committed Zionist and sought a strong and committed Zionist youth movement. My earlier experiences with Young Judea had convinced me that a movement so much under the thumb of its parent organizations, particularly Hadassah, was doomed to remain parve; it never could take a stand on the crucial issues that mattered to young Zionists at the time, particularly the issue of aliya. I was one of those who seceded from Young Judea in 1949 when an effort was made to establish an American branch of Hanoar Hatzioni, but the effort failed and, in any case, I was the only member of Hanoar Hatzioni west of the Appalachians.

In Detroit I could not find any kindred spirits who were committed to intensive Zionism, without an equal commitment to Zionist socialism or some dimension thereof, such as the kibbutz. There is, where Habonim and I diverged since I was not a socialist (not even then). Labor Zionism did not hold that kind of ideological appeal for me. Moreover, I was observant. Friday nights at the moadon were off limits for me by my choice. Our family spent leyl Shabbat together and even if we had not, the character of Shabbat at the moadon was not to my taste. To compound matters, Habonim in those days was still closely tied to the Eastern European origins of most of its active members and placed a great deal of emphasis on Yiddish. I, a Sephardi and Hebraist, had little sympathy, much less afinity, for that aspect of the movement. Finally, I was committed to taking my studies seriously, especially my Hebrew and Jewish studies, whereas my peers in Habonim tended to view the movement as a surrogate for serious Jewish study. Nevertheless, I became a wholehearted member, deeply involved in Habonim affairs, and count the experience as one of the important formative experiences of my life.

I think that the success of my klita into Habonim had to do with the particular group which I encountered, which was somewhat atypical from a Habonim point of view, although it certainly furnished its share of leaders for the movement. Paradoxically, what set it aside as special was that it was more Americanized than the other Habonim groups in Detroit and, from my limited experience with the rest of the country, most other places as well in those days.

In any case, Habonim furnished me with a hevrah in a city where I was notably alone. We had moved to Detroit early in 1948 when I was in 9th grade, a difficult time to fit into a new school framework, especially one in which most of my classmates had been together since kindergarten. Moreover, while over 90 percent of the students in the school I attended were Jewish, few had serious Jewish interests. While I attended Hebrew high school and later the Midrasha (College of Jewish Studies), there were not many like me who did so and few of them were of my age or shared other interests with me outside of the classroom. Thus, Habonim filled an important gap in my life. While I have since lost contact with most of my friends of those days, the only Detroiters or former Detroiters with whom I have any contact are ex-Habonim members and my ties with the rest of the Habonim network, especially in Israel, if not intense, are still very real.

My parents were tolerant of all this, recognizing my need, but not encouraging. Habonim in those days, and perhaps in others, was looked upon as a bit wild; young people who did not want to accept the discipline and learn from the experience of their elders. We wanted to do everything ourselves, from building our camp (a task in which I took part with some relish even though I never attended the camp since I was not much for summer camps altogether, preferring to travel, and when I did attend camp, attended Hebrew-speaking ones), or advocating aliya in the face of an increasingly lethargic Labor Zionist movement, or simply in the way most Habonim members dressed (my group dressed more neatly, a point in their favor in my parents' eyes), and stayed out to all hours. No doubt their attitude had some inhibiting effect on the depth of my involvement. For example, they talked me out of going on the Habonim Workshop, since they were very opposed to any interruption of my studies.

By and large, my Habonim experience was confined to Detroit. However, I did maintain close contact with the group in Minneapolis, my native city, since I was back there frequently. There I played a modest leadership role, more so than in my own city, working closely with Jonathan Paradise who was reorganizing local Habonim, helping him with educational materials and programs.

By the early 1950s there was a great dampening of sentiment for aliya and the kibbutz in Detroit and Habonim began to grope its way toward different goals. It was then that I went away to the University of Chicago. In Chicago I had limited connections with Habonim and ex-Habonim. I found my time absorbed by another network, that of my friends from Camp Ramah.

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