A trip down Zionist lane: Young Judaea alumni celebrate a century of youth empowerment

In 1959, two Israeli emissaries moved to Oakland. They came with Young Judaea, an international youth movement, which at the time was merely a whisper in the Bay Area.

The shlichim came to town and they said: We’re going to have a camp. For one week. In Yosemite. The long-term goal? To revive Young Judaea’s presence in the Bay Area.

Upon hearing this, Fran Alexander, an Oakland native and Berkeley resident, signed up her oldest daughter, Irene. After all, Fran had been a member of Young Judaea as a teen in the late 1930s, before Israel became a state, and she was still grateful for how her involvement shaped her Jewish identity.

Irene agreed to attend. So did her best friend and her best friend’s sister. Seventeen other kids also signed up.

“It was an incredible camp for one week in Yosemite,” Irene Resnikoff recalled.

The 20 campers stayed in tents in the Yosemite valley and hiked every day. The shlichim led the kids in Israeli scouting activities. They celebrated Shabbat, learned about Zionist leaders and Israeli history and discussed what they learned.

“The intellectual part really intrigued me and drew me in. And that was it. I was hooked on Young Judaea,” Resnikoff said. “It was a time when youth movements were something teenagers could get passionate about. And it became my life.”

Though it’s now an organization few Bay Area teenagers know about, the roots of Young Judaea run deep and continue to grow as the organization turns 100 this year. In celebration, regional and national reunions are planned throughout the country.

For Bay Area alumni, a reunion is set for Sunday, Aug. 30, at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. About 100 alumni — from ages 19 to 88 — are expected to attend. The reunion is for both alumni who grew up in the Bay Area and also those who did not but live here now and were involved in Young Judaea elsewhere.

Joel and Irene Resnikoff met through Young Judaea’s Berkeley club. They married after going to college at U.C. Berkeley, then made aliyah to Israel, where this picture was taken.

The reunion is also a fundraiser for Camp Young Judaea West, once located in Napa Valley and now in southwest Washington. The camp is in danger of closing after 50 years if it cannot raise enough money to replace the funding lost when Hadassah announced it could no longer afford to sponsor the camp.

Alumni agree Young Judaea is still critically important for young Jews and for their Jewish communities.

“When I meet [a Young Judaea alum], and it doesn’t matter if they were trained in Young Judaea 50 years ago or a short time ago, we always have something in common,” Resnikoff said. “The way we think about being Jewish and about education is different than other people.”

The Zionist youth movement began slowly in 1904, the year Theodor Herzl died. Many young Jews were inspired by his life’s work and wanted to carry on his Zionist ideals.

By 1909, several Zionist youth societies had formed around the country. In June of that year, 50 teenagers gathered in New York for a conference to establish a new youth movement.

Young Judaea, they agreed, would advance the cause of Zionism, promote Jewish culture and ideals and inspire Jewish teens. By 1919, there were 14,500 members in 715 Young Judaea clubs around the country, most of them in the Northeast and a few in the Midwest.

The Depression years of the 1930s were difficult for Young Judaea, as finances and membership began to dwindle. But with the rise of Hitler and the increased awareness of Zionist goals, membership picked up.

Young Judaea West campers in 1970 in St. Helena.

Fran Alexander, now 88, was active in Young Judaea at that time. Her family belonged to Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob, then located in West Oakland.

“As a girl, I didn’t have much participation in shul activities, whereas in a youth movement, I was a part of something Jewish where I could be a leader, and that was a big thing,” Alexander recalled.

After Israel became a state in 1948, Young Judaea began to run summer trips to Israel, and in 1956 established its Year Course Program, which still flourishes today with more than 400 participants annually.

The 1960s saw an increase in social action and activism by Young Judaea members, reflecting a highly charged political awareness by young people throughout the country.

In 1963, Young Judaea became the only Jewish youth group to send an official delegation to the civil rights March on Washington. Later in the decade, Young Judaeans raised funds for starving Biafrans in Nigeria, and became actively involved with the plight of Soviet Jews.

The movement resonated with Jewish teens because it offered them a chance to be a part of — and at times even in charge of —  something meaningful, Resnikoff said.

“Even though I was a good student in high school, high school was a blip. My real life was Young Judaea,” Resnikoff said. “I think it had to do with meaning, which was what the ’60s were about — people looking for meaning and control.”

Also in the ’60s, Hadassah became the sole sponsor of Young Judaea, offering financial support that further helped the organization develop and grow.

Alexander, who was Central Pacific Coast regional president of Hadassah in the 1960s and ’70s, helped establish a Young Judaea camp on the West Coast. After that first summer in Yosemite, she and Sandra Jaffe, a fellow Hadassah member, helped locate a spot where camp could run for the duration of the summer.

“We started the camp with 35 kids. We ran the camp, brought all the food, cooked for the camp, did it all,” she recalled. “It was a small camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That’s all we could afford.”

Soon, as the camp grew in popularity, organizers were able to secure a more permanent spot in St. Helena. Today, Camp Young Judaea West is located on the Washington coast, not far from the Oregon border.

Young Judaea Year Course participants wait at the Ben Gurion Airport to greet olim from the Soviet Union in 1990. Los Altos

“Everybody — whether they were Conservative, Reform, Orthodox or secular — learned how to experience being Jewish at camp,” Alexander said. “I think my children probably felt more Jewish at camp than anywhere else.”

But while Young Judaea flourished in the 1970s — even establishing a kibbutz in Israel in 1973 — membership shrank to just 4,000 in the 1980s.

Thanks to a rising number of parents who wanted more Jewish and Zionist activities for their third- through 12th-grade children, Young Judaea gradually rebounded. By the end of the ’90s, there were 10,000 participants nationally.

Young Judaea continued to have a presence in the Bay Area through the 1990s, albeit smaller than in previous decades, until it fizzled. Today, there are no local chapters.

Still, local kids and teenagers do participate. One organizer estimated that about 100 Bay Area youth annually attend Young Judaea summer camps, national conventions and programs in Israel.

“The reason why Young Judaea was, at a time, so successful here is because parents were very involved,” Alexander said. “I think the only way it will come together again is if there are some parents who are willing to give up the time to see their kids become active in this kind of movement.”

Bay Area Young Judaea alumni hold dear to their memories of summer camp and Israel trips, and say those experiences have deeply affected them as adults.

Rabbi David White, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, first attended YJ’s national leadership program, Camp Tel Yehudah, in 1965.

“Because of Young Judaea’s influence, I decided to head toward the rabbinate,” he said.

Resnikoff echoed that sentiment. “There is 100 percent absolutely a connection between Young Judaea and my current work” as education director at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, she said.

“I try to make Judaism meaningful and Israel come alive for families and children I work with, and I learned how to do that in Young Judaea,” she added.

Dan Schifrin, director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, feels similarly.

“The approach I take in curating cultural programs here is connected to the culture of Young Judaea, which is conversational, democratic, collaborative and improvisational,” he said.

Rabbi David White today

After his days as a camper in the 1970s, Schifrin became a Camp Young Judaea counselor and helped improvise a weekly puppet show known as Torah Zone. Modeled after the Twilight Zone, the puppet show was a staple of Saturday morning Shabbat services.

After campers went to sleep, counselors would meet late Friday nights to write out scripts based on that week’s Torah portion. The next morning, counselors draped blankets over a table to create a puppet show stage.

Schifrin said campers would talk about the puppet show all week.

“There was a sense of unbelievable excitement about learning I hadn’t experienced anywhere else,” recalled Schifrin, 41. “It was the first time I saw how collaboration, improvisation and creativity could be brought to Jewish study and learning.”

The experience stuck with Schifrin, who grew up in Los Altos and now lives in Berkeley with his wife and two children, and has followed him to the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“There was a fearlessness and boldness of Young Judaea’s educational approach that I didn’t see in other places, and that was really liberating for me,” he said. “That sense of boldness and innovation stayed with me as something not only possible but useful for Jewish cultural and educational programming.”

When White attended Young Judaea’s New York summer camp in the mid-1960s, the boys in his bunk nominated him to be the head of their cabin. He also worked at the camp’s radio station, announcing the daily news headlines.

For White, camp was a transformative experience: “It was very intellectual. This was not a fun and games camp. It was a major leadership training program. And it was just magical.”

This feeling of enthusiasm was significant for White, who, as a rabbi’s son, was turned off to Judaism as a young boy. His father is the late Rabbi Saul White, who was the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for four decades.

Rabbi David White at a Young Judaea club meeting in 1968 in San Francisco.

After that first summer at YJ’s leadership camp, he returned to San Francisco and started a Young Judaea club for middle schoolers, which he led for several years.

“The responsibilities I enjoyed [with Young Judaea] gave me a positive orientation to Judaism I didn’t have growing up as my dad’s son,” White said. “Young Judaea got me turned on Jewishly and motivated me to go to rabbinical school.”

As a rabbi at Kol Shofar, he drew heavily from his experiences with Young Judaea. For instance, he encouraged a “horizontal” structure where congregants took on a number of leadership roles so that there was more participation and a sense of shared responsibility.

That philosophy originated in peer-led Young Judaea, White said.

“Things happened because you made it happen — you were part of the process rather than there to be entertained,” he said. “Those experiences stick with you. They created and shaped your Jewish values and identity.”

Many Young Judaea alumni make aliyah — Irene Resnikoff and her husband, Joel Resnikoff, met each other in Young Judaea, married after college and moved to Israel in 1973.

“We were extremely passionate about Israel,” she said.

They lived in Haifa for six years, during which they had two children. Joel also served in the Israeli army for three years before the family decided to return to California.

Those who don’t make aliyah have many friends who do, and those international friendships create a lasting connection between American and Israeli Jews.

Sharon Papo, 30, of Berkeley went to Young Judaea camp for six summers, as both a camper and counselor, and even though that was more than 10 years ago, she still communicates with and visits a number of Young Judaea friends in Israel.

Ultimately, it is the strength of those friendships — domestic or international — that is the most enduring element of a Young Judaea experience.

“At my elementary school [in Cupertino], I wasn’t the most popular kid and I didn’t have the best social circle, so to go to camp and have a new start, to recreate myself in a wonderful, supportive and safe environment, was instrumental,” Papo said.

Her fondest memories: a first kiss courtesy of Spin the Bottle, making an ice cream sculpture of Israel and the ensuing ice cream fight, and sending letters daily to her best camp friend during the non-summer months.

“We’d count down to the first day of camp,” she recalled. “It was that focal.”

Papo also was involved in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and Schifrin dabbled in United Synagogue Youth.

Yet for both, Young Judaea was their most compelling and enriching Jewish outlet.

“There was something very collaborative and creative about the leadership within the movement that allowed me to get over some of my shyness as a kid,” Schifrin said. “I felt at home.”

Both are looking forward to returning “home” at the Young Judaea reunion in San Francisco.

“I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, laughing and swapping stories,” Papo said. “And to find out what the heck happened to some of these people.”

Young Judaea 100th anniversary reunion, 1 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 30, Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. Alumni who grew up in Northern California or currently live in the region are invited. $30. Proceeds to benefit Young Judaea.


Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.