Habonim: the Zionist club that became a factory for creativity

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The Independent Online

For the internationally acclaimed film-maker Mike Leigh, it was the place that he learned to be a leader. David Baddiel looks back on his time as a chanichim on camp as a vital training ground for a career in comedy. Ditto Sacha Baron Cohen – creator of Ali G –, Seth Rogen and a host of writers and producers behind some of the biggest names on British television and in Hollywood.

For decades, the Habonim movement, with its emphasis on high-minded ideals, collective decision making and outdoor activities, was the leisure activity of choice for the offspring of Britain's left-wing Jewish families. Committed to the ideals of socialism, collective strength and Zionism espoused at Sunday night meetings in London, Manchester Leeds and Glasgow, its aim was to found and inhabit Kibbutzim in Mandatory Palestine, later Israel, with people of unique and admirable qualities.

Today however, thanks to some very public praise from some of its old members, the Habo, as it is known among fellow chaverim or comrades, is being hailed as an unlikely talent factory for some of the hottest media talent to have emerged from these shores in recent times.

The recent relocation of the Habonim from its London headquarters has prompted an upsurge of interest and affection for the movement, founded in 1929 by Wellesley Aron and Norman Lourie along the lines of the Wandervogel groups of pre-Nazi Germany.

Bafta-winning director Leigh, a former leader or madrich at North Manchester Ken, this week recalled the spontaneous artistic outbursts of his days as well as the serious-minded ideals. The experience has had a profound impact on his work and beliefs despite having "walked away" from Jewish life when he went to RADA in 1966.

"The way I conduct things – people get together and we talk very openly and have discussions, and everybody's equal – absolutely comes from being in the movement. It's the spirit of how I work and the atmosphere of my rehearsals. Everyone has input, it's a real democracy," he told the Jewish Chronicle this week.

Baddiel, one half of one of the 1990s' most successful comedy duos, now admits that he was never really into the ideology. "Habonim was my social life for my early teenage years. It introduced me to girls, sleeping under canvas, and to a couple of friends who are still close. I never quite bought into either Zionism or the socialism, although I did have the blue shirt with the laces in the neck hole," he told the newspaper.

The comedian believes the extraordinary quality of the alumni is down to the fact that the "lefty boho" philosophy appealed to the children of naturally creative urban progressives who preferred their children to be rubbing shoulders with like-minded spirits at Habonim rather than some of the more conservative Jewish youth clubs.

Publicity comes at a welcome time for the movement as it relocates in the wake of declining popularity worldwide. In 1982 it merged with the Israeli Dror movement but ongoing disquiet among the left at the behaviour of the state of Israel and the decline of the Kibbutzim movement over the last two decades has raised concerns that it may no longer be relevant.

Not so, said Daniel Conn, a 22-year-old education worker from Hendon, north-west London and a current member. He says that despite falling numbers the movement gives the same moral and philosophical underpinning to young people as it ever did – a kind of confidence described by the journalist, broadcaster and former member Jonathan Freeland that you would normally only get from going to Eton.

The movement, which has headquarters in 21 countries, has also sought to refocus on new issues that emphasise a global social conscience, recently leading a delegation to the World Day of Action for Darfur. "It has given me my values and shaped the way I see the world. It has helped me become the person I would wish to be and learn how to work with people. At the end of the day it is all about trying to make the world a better place," said Mr Conn.