|Young Judaea marching at a Salute to Israel parade in the 1980s. Dworkin is at right.|
As the mazkir, or president, of Young Judaea from 1984 to 1985, then 17-year-old Ben Dworkin found out that being a leader wasn’t “nerdy.” In fact, he said, “it was fun.”
“In Young Judaea, you were different if you weren’t active,” said the Teaneck resident -director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and adjunct assistant professor of political science at Rider University in Lawrenceville – whose association with the Zionist youth group began at age 13 at Camp Young Judaea-Sprout Lake.
“One of the keys to Young Judaea was its ability to reshape the social setting for Jewish teenagers in such a way that Israeli singing and dancing were cool,” he said. “It was a place where you learned Hebrew, Jewish history, and identity through informal education, so that it was fun and enduring. If being a leader at home was something that made you a nerd, it was the opposite in Young Judaea, where being a peer leader was honored and expected, especially as you got older.”
Young Judaea, founded in June 1909 and celebrating its 100th anniversary, prides itself on having had “a life-changing impact on hundreds of thousands of Jewish children, teens, and young adults,” said Rabbi Ramie Arian, the group’s national director. It began its continuing association with Hadassah in 1936, when the woman’s group approved an annual subsidy for the youth cohort and urged its constituents to help develop local Young Judaea chapters.
According to Dworkin, the youth movement – “We called it a ‘movement’ rather than an ‘organization’ because we were trying to reconcile all the issues modern Jews try to deal with,” he said – has successfully carried out its mission, “building Jewish identity and Zionist commitment in American Jewish youth and young adults.”
With its emphasis on peer teaching, non-partisanship, and pluralism, “it has helped to shape so much of my world view,” he said.
Raised in Bergenfield, Dworkin was part of a strongly Zionist and Jewishly involved family. His father, the late Moshe Dworkin, was a founder of a precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and served as president of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council. His mother, author Susan Dworkin, is the managing director of Jewish Contemporary Classics (JCC), which makes audio recordings of great Jewish books of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Dworkin’s wife, Amy Winn Dworkin, is also a Jewish professional, serving as director of UJA-NNJ’s Birthright Israel division, and his brother Aaron, eight years his junior, became Young Judaea president eight years after his own term, “the only sibling relationship I know of” in the organization, said Dworkin. Today, Aaron is national program director of Afterschool All Stars, a network of afterschool activity providers for young people.
“The great thing about Young Judaea is its emphasis on peer leadership,” said Dworkin. “It provides an opportunity for young people to learn by teaching their peers.”
This skill has served him well, he said. He is a veteran of New Jersey politics with extensive experience in campaigns and elections, government and legislation, lobbying, and issue advocacy. Also, as head of the Englewood Cliffs company Dworkin Strategic Communications, the former youth leader said his Young Judaea experience has been invaluable.
“By helping to program conventions and run meetings … I became comfortable as a young person with formulating goals, implementing projects, and speaking before large groups. I’ve used these skills continuously,” he said, crediting the group with helping him develop his abilities in critical thinking, leadership, and creative programming. But, he said, even those who attended the group’s events “just because it was a great place to meet other kids,” ended up “learning without knowing it.”
In addition to developing lifelong skills, Dworkin developed lasting friendships.
“My oldest friend from Young Judaea, Arieh Fox, lives in Teaneck with his wife and four children,” he said. “Like many teenagers who go through great adventures together, we remain very close to this day.”
Dworkin’s association with the group continued far beyond his camp years, which began in 1978 and continued through 1984. Moving from the regional Camp Young Judaea-Sprout Lake to Tel Yehudah – the group’s senior leadership camp near Port Jervis, N.Y – he worked at that facility several times after being a camper there. He also served as a madrich, adviser, for Young Judaea clubs in New Jersey from 1986 through 1994.
Dworkin noted that “by its nature, YJ set an example for the Jewish community.”
Campers came from all over the country, he said. “For the first time, kids from suburban New Jersey met kids from Oregon, Alabama, and Texas to discuss Jewish identity.” This, he said, “allowed for insights and understanding” they otherwise might not have gained.
What distinguished Young Judaea from other groups, he said, “was the idea of how the Jewish community can live together.” Campers included “all different kinds of Jews who found a way to live together and strengthen their commitment to those kinds of ideals [that foster] the unity of klal Yisrael.”
The group, said Dworkin, “also emphasized the role of young people in changing the world, creating a generation of people committed to Jewish life.”
Said Dworkin, “We learned more about the issues confronting the Jewish people and the leadership skills needed to solve them by doing so much of the programming ourselves. We learned to live together with all of our diversity because we found a way to compromise and respect each other. These are skills and values that are always in need in today’s modern Jewish communities. It helped that we learned them as teenagers.”
After his senior year of high school, Dworkin took part in Young Judaea’s “year course” in Israel, spending four months on Kibbutz Ketura, founded in the Negev in 1973 by group alumni.
“It was very inspiring,” he said. “I treasured the experience. I felt that they were literally making the desert bloom.”
The youth movement also engaged him in programs of social action.
“Young Judaea taught us that we could change the world – by educating ourselves, by looking critically at the world around us and seeing what needed to be improved, by standing up for the values of unity, identity, and caring…. I was always very proud that Young Judaeans were among the initial leaders in the fights to free Soviet Jewry and then Ethiopian Jewry, at moments when these were not yet national causes.”
He said he will encourage his own child to become involved in the group, although at age 2 l/2, that remains a distant consideration.
“It’s the kind of place where you want to go back and show your kids, ‘This is where I had these experiences,’ and hope they will find it too,” he said.
As part of its centennial celebration, Young Judaea members, alumni, supporters, and their families will come together at Camp Tel Yehudah on Sunday, Aug. 16. This fall, interested supporters also will celebrate during a tour to Israel, October 18 to 26.
For more information about national and local events planned to celebrate the centennial, e-mail Susan Wilkof, firstname.lastname@example.org.