The kibbutz movement was founded in 1909, combining Europe’s growing socialist movement with the new and exciting ideology of Zionism, billing itself as a new way of Jewish living. The movement spread like wildfire, with thousands of young people from around the world moving to British Mandate Palestine to create kibbutzim, where people pooled their resources to overcome the hurdles facing new agricultural towns in the future Jewish homeland.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a copycat community was created to foster Zionist spirit among young Jews and encourage immigration to Israel.
From 1945-67 an Australian kibbutz was in operation, officially known as the “Hebrew Training Farm” but more commonly referred to as “Hachshara.” Located in Toolamba, a small farming community about 100 miles north of Melbourne, the kibbutz was owned by the Zionist Federation of Australia and was operated by idealistic Jewish youth movement leaders of the Australian branches of Habonim and Hashomer HaTzair.
On Hachshara, young Aussies spent a year or two learning Hebrew and agricultural skills with the aim of inspiring socialist Zionists to take the plunge and move to Israel.
“My father, Aharon Kaploun had an orchard in Toolamba; he sold it to the Hachshara in 1945 … it had pears, peaches, apricots, and plums, and a horse called Sandy,” recalled Aviva Oberman, an 87-year-old Australian Israeli who now lives in the Jerusalem Hills. “I was a kid then, maybe 12 or 13 years of age, and Toolamba was this little township of orchards. After he sold the orchard, my father stayed on for a few years … to teach the [participants] agricultural skills.”
For 22 years, this orchard and property would serve as the pinnacle of Zionist activity among Australians and New Zealanders, the vast majority of whom ended up settling in the new State of Israel.
Selina and Jack Beris, an Australian Israeli couple married for 62 years, now in their 80s, were both members of the Habonim youth movement in Australia. After spending time on Hachshara, they moved to Israel in 1961.
Joining a group of 17 Aussies, all members of Habonim, Selina arrived on Hachshara in 1957; Jack arrived 12 months later. “We used to get up about 6:30 in the morning, we had Ivrit [Hebrew] lessons—not that it did me much good!—and, after, we would go to work in the orchards, picking fruit,” she said. “We also had cows and chickens. Later, the group would have lunch and dinner together.”
The conditions on the kibbutz were poor, with fibro sleeping huts and outdoor sheds for showering. Despite these tough conditions, the months spent on Hachshara were great fun, with many of the original crew that Selina and Jack met there remaining lifelong friends.
“When we went on Hachshara in Toolamba, we were innocent young Zionists, we were totally absorbed in learning about how to build up the state of Israel,” Selina said. “Even though some [of the original Hachshara immigrants] went back to Australia, a lot are still here in Israel and whoever is here, we still get on really well with from those days.”
By some measure, the project was a success. According to data compiled on immigrants from Australia to Israel that was reported at a 1958 Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand annual general meeting, of the approximately 166 Australians and New Zealanders who had moved to Israel between 1946 and 1956, 106 had been on Hachshara.
When asked whether it was surprising that so many young Australians had decided to spend a year or two of their life training on a kibbutz in regional Australia to prepare them to move to the State of Israel, despite the prohibitive distance and difficult conditions, Yossi Aron, the religious affairs editor of the Australian Jewish News, reflected on the strong Australian Zionist spirit. “In Melbourne, there has always been a very strong Zionist flair, from Habonim in particular and also Bnei Akiva [another Jewish youth movement],” he said. “So many of their graduates now live in Israel.”
Josie Lacey, an 87-year-old Sydney resident remembers visiting the Hachshara about 70 years ago, when she was 16 or 17 years old, along with a small group of friends over the Australian summer. She was a member of Habonim. “We were there to do fruit-picking,” she said. “I remember picking the apricots off the trees—it was rather exciting to be there, playing kibbutz.”
Lacey did not end up making aliyah, but many of her friends who spent a year or two at Hachshara moved to Israel. “They were amazing people, the ones who went,” she said.
Though it may seem unusual that a kibbutz to train and prepare youngsters to move to Israel was established in Australia, Lacey thinks that it reflected the time. “In those days we did strange things to prepare ourselves for aliyah,” she said, giggling. “In Habonim we would use a rope to cross a gully with heavy backpacks to prepare ourselves.”
While Lacey remembers picking apricots, and many Hachshara participants learned orcharding skills, these skills were not particularly useful in Israel, where similar types of stone-fruit trees do not grow. However, as the overarching purpose of Hachshara was to prepare Australians for life in Israel, one where they would live in difficult conditions, work, and study together, and engage in regular agricultural labor, the fact they were learning skills that were not necessarily directly transferable was inconsequential to fostering their Zionist spirit.
Throughout the 22-year period Hachshara existed, some of the best and brightest Jewish Australians spent time there.
Jack Cohen was in the final group of young Aussies to spend time on Hachshara, from 1965-66. A technician by training, he undertook various roles including works manager, treasurer, and maintenance, as well as cooking. “In the 1960s, for people living in Australia, leaving home, and living 100 kilometers away from Melbourne, in very poor conditions, that was one of the purposes of the kibbutz,” he said. “We learned how to live communally, and the poor conditions prepared many of us for the conditions we met when we moved to the new State of Israel.”
Cohen believes that Hachshara finally closed in 1967 due to a confluence of factors. “Over the entire time it operated, the Hachshara could never make a profit, so essentially, it financially imploded,” he noted. “The Zionist Federation of Australia were eager to sell it.”
Another challenge that contributed to its demise was a shift in Australian government policy in the 1960s, which made university free for any student. “Most of my friends who would have come to Hachshara took advantage of this and went on to university to study and become doctors and lawyers, because the degree was free,” Cohen said.
Jeremy Leibler, the current head of the Zionist Federation of Australia, reflected on the importance of Hachshara in Australia. “Over many decades, the Zionist youth movements in Australia have used immersive, group experiences to develop knowledge, leadership skills, and commitment to Israel and the Jewish community,” he said. “As international travel became more accessible, this local Hachshara program was replaced with shnat [yearlong] programs in Israel. Generations of youth leaders have participated … as current youth movement leaders still do.”
Despite the closure of Hachshara in 1967, Habonim remains a popular choice for young Jewish Australians, with Gabriel Freund, the current federal mekasher of Habonim Dror Australia noting that it is the largest nonreligious Jewish youth movement in Australia. Freund reflected on the history of Habonim’s involvement in Hachshara with a sense of pride: “The Kibbutz Hachshara is one of the proudest chapters in Habonim Dror Australia’s history. The stories of those pioneering members who attended Hachshara and went on to make aliyah and live on kibbutz in Israel continue to inspire new generations of Habonim members today.”
Jack Cohen made aliyah shortly after he finished up on Hachshara. He and his wife both lived in Israel for 50 years, before returning to Australia around eight years ago, after one of their Israeli-born daughters decided to immigrate back. In 2009, he took a group of current Habonim leaders back to Toolamba to see the original property that housed the Hachshara kibbutz. The fibro huts that the participants used to sleep in were still standing, although the property had long been sold to new, non-Jewish owners.
Despite being one of the last participants on the Australian Hachshara Kibbutz, Cohen thinks of his time fondly. “Going to Hachshara broke the mold of how you lived in Australia,” he said. “It was great, and it was definitely character building!”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.