Reaping in Joy

The Jubilee reunion in Jerusalem of the Student Zionist Organization of North America.

The atmosphere was one of commitment fulfilled, of inspiration galore and of joy deeply felt for the 70 graduates of the Student Zionist Organization. They had come together from all parts of Israel, be they industrialists, academicians, merchandisers, doctors, rabbis, lawyers musicians, writers, artists or politicians, for a few hours, to celebrate the Jubilee Reunion held at Beit Maeisdorf on the campus of the Hebrew University, Mount Scopus.
I was fortunate to be one of the participants at the event on Sunday, August 1.
We ranged in age – mostly 60s and 70s though the senior couple present were in their 90s, veterans of the War of Independence. We came without our children so that we could reminisce easily with people, some of whom we had not seen for 50 years.
Annette and Butch Cohen, 49 year Israeli veterans of Haifa and Joe and Zelda Colodner of Jerusalem were the key motivating forces in planning the gettogether and making it both meaningful and yes, unforgettable.
The history of student Zionist associations in the United States begins in 1905, in the first decade of the Zionist movement. By 1915 an Intercollegiate Zionist Association existed - succeeded by Avukah in 1925.
This organization grew to 56 college chapters before World War II. In 1946 the Intercollegiate Zionist Federation of America was established. In the two years prior to the birth of Israel, IZFA’s membership grew to 10,000 and then its numbers dropped dramatically.
In 1955, as explained by the first president of the Student Zionist Organization, Professor Bill Rosenbaum, who had flown in from New York for the day, it was necessary to create a new campus arm for American and Canadians – SZO came to be. For the next 12 years SZO was quite active, having at its peak 2500 members. Many are known to have made aliyah.
The program included brief presentations from several people. One was Professor Hanoch Gutfreund, President Emeritus of the Hebrew University. Recently Gufreund made the news when he raised the cultural level on Israeli trains by participating in an initiative to deliver lectures to train passengers.
“My involvement with American students began in the 1957-1961 period when I was a madrich for SZO groups here in Israel for different lengths of time, both for studying and for touring. Even though I took that job to pay my tuition, it has given me special satisfaction to maintain contact with these students in the last fifty years. In Biblical terms ‘a goodly portion’ of them have made aliya – some are here tonight.
It was there I met my wife, who was an Israeli madricha on the program.
Gutfreund continued in this fashion.
“Looking back 50 years, I recognize how the pioneering spirit of American Jews, aged 20 and 30, was transformed into a very full life in Israel.”
He drew this conclusion: “I sensed that just being born a Jew was not enough. Initially, there were those like you who identified with a Young Judea, SZO and similar groups. Then that framework aided you in making a Jewish choice for life.
Of course, I mean aliya.”
What made the gathering even more successful and memorable were copies of the “Zionist Collegiate,” SZO newspapers from the ’50s and ’60s copied by Bill Levine, national director before his aliya.
Members from that period also loaned program guides and informative brochures. Annette prepared a booklet which includes names, addresses, e-mail addresses plus short biographies composed by the attendees and those who could not be in attendance.
The highlight of the reunion, aside from the personal conversations, were the pictures assembled from 1957-1965.
Presented as a power point presentation by Butch Cohen, (prepared by his grandson, Gilad) the photographs taken in Israel, the United States and Canada, elicited quite a cathartic reaction. I have been a part of visual presentations of this nature, but the SZO one was different.
As I watched the faces of those present and I listened to their vocal response, I understood that these images of the past had been transformed into dreams come true. To be sure, there had been difficulties but as the Psamist tells us, “ they who sow in tears will reap in joy.”
Sunday night our joy was the state of Israel, our joy were our children and grandchildren (already over a 100), our joy was believing that there could always be a better future.
The wonderful community singing led by Cyrelle Forman and the folk dancing she led later helped in creating the warm, emotional atmosphere shared by the participants.
For many years SZO participated in annual year courses in Israel, summer trips to Israel and special leadership courses in Israel.
In the United States, various chapters ran ulpanim, Shabbatonim, lecture series and provided exposure to noted Israelis and Zionist thinkers. While the funding was meager, the programming was superb. One noted graduate, who did not make aliyah but who did make an impact in Jewish thought, was Rabbi Harold Kushner.
He was the third national president of SZO in the 1950s. A Canadian SZO’er who participated, was Irwin Kotler, who became Canada’s justice minister and attorney general and is currently an MP.
Fifty-three years ago, Professor Emeritus David Macarov of the Hebrew University, who was present with his wife at the reunion, spoke at an SZO convention.
His words then to the members continue to resound today.“SZO has to guide its members to steep themselves in Jewish learning, to study Hebrew as a second language and to go to the original sources of Jewish and Zionist philosophies.” Macarov was prophetic back then in 1957 stating that an SZOer must set a fine example and participate in all Jewish endeavors.
“A Zionist,” he stressed, “is a person who not only helps Israel but considers making Israel one’s home.”
For those graduates of SZO who have made aliyah, it is important to see what the professional leaders in North America have done. The 2500 SZO members in the 1960s were led by Bill Levine, national director.
Levine made aliya in 1972 after a distinguished Zionist career in America and Canada.
In the first period of his life here, he rose to become the director-general of the Organization Department of the WZO. After retiring, he was called back to become the Chairman of the Youth and Hechalutz department of the WZO. He and another SZO director who proceeded Bill to Israel, Reuven Surkis, have both demonstrated that SZO was a vibrant organization because of its grassroots and professional leadership.
Levine told us that we all had reason to celebrate at this reunion because “our aliya, encouraged by SZO, is the Shabbat of our lives.”
Anyone who wants to be placed on the SZO alumni list may contact Annette Cohen at