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Bnei HaMoshavim Leadership Seminar Moves to Tel Aviv, Adjusts for Wartime Reality

650 rising 10th graders were trained to be counselors in moshavim throughout Israel, including 150 from communities that have been evacuated due to the ongoing war | Idit Tidhar, Bnei HaMoshavim director: “The sense that we’re counting on them will strengthen the community in the coming years”

סמינר מד"צים של חטיבת בני המושבים בנוער העובד והלומד (צילום ארכיון: כדיה לוי)
10th graders participate in Bnei HaMoshavim's leadership training seminar (Archive photo: Cadia Levy)
By Michal Marantz

"They told me, 'We trust you to be responsible for the children,' even though I'm only fifteen years old," said Inbar Reuveni from Moshav Betzet in the Western Galilee. Reuveni had just completed the annual teen leadership training seminar run by the Bnei HaMoshavim division of the HaNoar HaOved v’HaLomed youth movement, along with 650 other rising tenth-graders hailing from moshavim (small collective villages) around Israel.

Reuveni first gained experience as a youth movement leader during the year, but decided to attend the seminar for more extensive training.

"My moshav is small and there were no youth movement counselors this year, so I led a hike where the children of the moshav came together for the first time in four months,” she explained. “It was difficult, but I think I did a good job.”

Over the course of eight days, Israeli teens were trained extensively on how to become youth leaders in the youth movement. 150 of the participants were from evacuated communities in the north and south, and 15 of the participants had experienced a loss in their immediate family.

For the past six years, the seminar has been held in the Kfar Horesh forest in the north. This year, it was held in Bereshit Forest in Tel Aviv due to security concerns.

"We decided that we didn’t want to take any risks," said Idit Tidhar, the director of the Bnei HaMoshavim division, who explained that the decision to move the seminar to Tel Aviv was made in December. "We assumed that the situation would not improve during this period and we wanted to prepare accordingly."

Tidhar says that the decision to hold the seminar in the midst of an ongoing war is in line with the youth movement's modus operandi since day one of the war.

“Throughout the year, we have been busy adjusting the annual calendar of movement programming to the existing reality,” she said. “We understand that a youth movement is a symbol of normality and develops resilience, so we try to keep it going in any way possible. Throughout the year, we have only seen programming increase. The teens, the parents and the entire community need the movement and are asking for it.”

Idit Tidhar, director of the Bnei HaMoshavim division of the HaNoar HaOved v'HaLomed youth movement (Photo: Cadia Levy)
Idit Tidhar, director of the Bnei HaMoshavim division of the HaNoar HaOved v'HaLomed youth movement (Photo: Cadia Levy)

At Bereshit Forest, the teens sit in circles in areas marked off by wooden posts,deep in conversation about how to formulate their stances towards society. They are divided into “chugim,” or mixed groups with teens from all over the country, and these groups are sorted into three larger camps: “Egoz” (Nut), “Rimon” (Pomegranate) and “Shesek,” (Plum).

The "Rimon" camp at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Archive photo: Cadia Levy)
The "Rimon" camp at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Archive photo: Cadia Levy)

At night, they sleep in an enclosed classroom area, boys and girls separately. After lights-out in the campsite, the camp remains lit up from the nearby buildings in the city. Loud trance music continues into the night from a nearby party in memory of the victims of the Nova massacre. These are just some with the many challenges that come with holding the seminar in Tel Aviv instead of a remote wooded area.

"We are a rural movement of moshavim, and operating in the city is not in our nature," Tidhar explained. "The characteristic separation between the youth movement world and the outside world does not exist here."

Leading the Youth Movement in Wartime

In normal circumstances, the ninth-graders would have opportunities to try out leading on their moshav throughout the year before committing to lead fulltime in tenth grade. But the circumstances are not normal, and like Reuveni, many of the teens stepped up and began leading regularly this year.

Bnei HaMoshavim operated a leadership and resilience training institute in hotels in Eilat for evacuated teens just a month and a half after the war broke out. Ma’ayan Kadosh, from Moshav Pri Gan in the Eshkol Regional Council in the Gaza Envelope, is one of the graduates of this institute.

Ma'ayan Kadosh at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)
Ma'ayan Kadosh at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)

"At the beginning of the year, I didn't know about the seminar or about Bnei HaMoshavim at all," Kadosh said. “When we were evacuated to the hotel in Eilat, the ‘garinerim’ (service year volunteers of Bnei Moshavim) started coming every week, and I saw how much the activities they ran helped me and my friends and the younger children. They reminded us that it's okay to smile, to disconnect from the difficulty."

Kadosh realized that the younger children of the moshav needed stability and routine. "The ‘garinerim’ would switch out every week and I saw that it was difficult for the children. I felt that they needed someone who would be there and understand them and I realized that it could be me. I told myself that if I was already stuck in a hotel with them, I would lead them."

Attendees of the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)
Attendees of the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)

In Tidhar's opinion as well, leadership is an important component of building up damaged communities. “Youth movement leadership builds the resilience of the children, and the resilience of the teen leaders no less,” she said.

Tidhar told about evacuated youth leaders who had already left the hotel, but continued to travel to hotels in Tiberias to run regular programming for children of their community. She also mentioned recent high school graduates from the northern town of Metula, who signed up for Bnei HaMoshavim’s service year program, who recruited ninth graders to the leadership seminar.

"I think about the 9th grader who attends the seminar and the 12th grader who recruited him, the feeling that they are being counted on to lead the children in their communities that are in very difficult situations,” she said. “I believe that this feeling will restore Metula, and that this is part of our job.”

Part of the fun of the seminar is meeting new friends from all over the country, Kadosh and Reuveni explain. This is a big draw in normal years, and especially during wartime when communities are more isolated from each other.

"You get to know kids you just saw for the first time, and suddenly you eat and sleep with them for a week. It's amazing,” Kadosh said. "Suddenly I'm talking to kids who are different from my friends from home, and we're telling each other how each one of us has experienced the war. I definitely have new friends, and in general this whole seminar builds my self-confidence."

Inbar Reuveni at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)
Inbar Reuveni at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)

However, these encounters are not without their challenges. “They ask me where is Betzet? Near Metula? Kiryat Shmona? And I tell them no, it's not there, but I also haven't been in my house for eight months. I tell them that we just built a new house and we still haven't had time to live in it."

Balancing Trauma and Normalcy

Like every year, the seminar staff is required to deal with the concerns of the teens’ parents, and for this purpose they set up a special hotline to receive the parents' inquiries over the course of the eight days. The staff is mostly made up of “garinerim,” the movement’s gap year volunteers.

"We were overwhelmed this year. There was an indescribable jump in calls," Tidhar said. "This is one of the phenomena we did not expect. It's much more difficult for parents to deal with the difficulties that their kids experience at the seminar, and I'm sure it's related to the war."

"The assumption is that the level of depression and anxiety among the participants would increase by at least 10-20% from previous years," she continued. “We adjusted our methods and consulted with professionals about responses to such situations."

The seminar included content related to the war as well as regular camp activities (Photo: Cadia Levy)
The seminar included content related to the war as well as regular camp activities (Photo: Cadia Levy)

The typical educational content of the seminar, which focused on youth empowerment and gaining concrete leadership skills, was adjusted to focus on the events of the war. The staff continued to make adjustments as the seminar went on, at the suggestion of a committee of teen participants.

“Our adjustments were not only on the level of content, but also in the methods: the closing ceremony looked different, there were special activities on the subject of evacuees from the north and the south, and at the request of the participants and parents, a memorial was erected in the campsite for those lost,” Tidhar said.

Along with these complex dilemmas, the seminar staff make sure to maintain an air of silliness and fun integral to the experience: they roam the campsite dressed in tutus and rabbit ears. For their part, the participants adjusted to the food and attempted to battle the suffocating heat with fans and mini sprinklers. "I'm telling you, the couscous is the best," said one participant to another while queuing for lunch in the dining hall.

Counselors wear whimsical costumes to maintain an upbeat atmosphere (Photo: Cadia Levy)
Counselors wear whimsical costumes to maintain an upbeat atmosphere (Photo: Cadia Levy)

Tidhar explained that one of the central goals of the seminar is also to strengthen the young counselors, who are preparing to recruit to the army in the fall.

“Like all of us, it was a very difficult year for them: instability, intensive programming in hotels, and some of them experienced loss on a personal level,” she said. “The seminar is an intense, all-encompassing and empowering experience in terms of values ​​and ideas. During our preparation week, we allowed a parent visitor day, something we haven’t done in previous years, to help them deal with the burnout of this year.”

Apart from the preparations in the realms of education and mental health, intensive preparation was also required in terms of the infrastructure of the campsite. Cabins and tents were specially erected at Bereshit Forest to serve as the staff meeting area, a clinic and more.

“The Kfar Horesh forest is the movement's summer home and we know how to operate there,” Tidhar said. “We had to think about all aspects of the seminar: business licensing, security, and the adjustment of educational programs. I am proud to say that the various staff teams demonstrated flexibility and strategic and creative thinking."

“I Want to Be the Best Leader I Can Be”

Reuveni has always wanted to be a youth leader. "Ever since I was in the third grade, I've loved going to youth movement activities in my moshav, because you can come home covered in flour, eggs, paint, and feel that it’s okay. It's a liberating feeling. More or less since then, I've been told I'll be a leader and I agree. I'm essentially a leader."

And she has another reason to attend the seminar. "My cousin Rif Harush fell in Gaza. Rif loved traveling, and more than that, he treated everyone he met equally, no matter who, the homeless, the disabled. I wear his necklace and bracelet. Every moment I have a hard time at the seminar, I feel that he is on my shoulder encouraging me. Sometimes I see a butterfly and think it's him, sending me a sign not to stop."

The war is present in every aspect of the seminar. "The three coordinators of the seminar were in army reserves for three or four months," said Tidhar. "For me, this strengthens everyone: the staff and participants who are inspired by those who fought for the country and defended it, and for the coordinators themselves who feel valuable and necessary in both settings."

The "Shesek" camp at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)
The "Shesek" camp at the Bnei HaMoshavim leadership training seminar (Photo: Cadia Levy)

​​Kadosh returned to her moshav in recent months. "Like in Eilat, I learned to appreciate home and family, and I know how to adapt to a changing reality,” she said. “I learned in the seminar to develop my empathy. Everyone in the seminar has a breaking point and you want to be there for them and listen. I think it teaches me to be a better leader."

Reuveni and her family moved to the northern city of Nahariya, and they travel to their nearby moshav on a daily basis to run the family business. “I want to be the best leader I can be,” she explained. "The kind that, if there is a sad moment on the hike, she will stop the hike to eat something sweet. The kind that makes you want to be a leader.”

“At the moment, I don't yet know how youth movement activities will look next year,” Reuveni went on. “If someone asked me what I want in this war, I would say, let me run one activity in the moshav clubhouse. For that, I would be willing to live away from home for another month.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Lily Sieradzki.

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