The new Palmah

Shomrei Ha’am has a unique way of teaching youths from all streams of Judaism, the same values that made those who fought for the establishment of the state exemplary role models of the Jewish people.

AVI SCHWARTZ with one of his students 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
AVI SCHWARTZ with one of his students 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The battle cry of the Palmah, the elite military force of the Hagana – the underground army of the Zionist Jewish community established in 1941 during the British Mandate of Palestine – was “aharai,” or “after me.” It refers to commanders setting the example by leading their troops into battle instead of watching from the rear and was adapted as an IDF combat tactic but more so as a philosophy after the establishment of the state in 1948.
It’s that battle cry, along with the other Zionistic, Jewish and important life values embodied by the 1948 fighters that led Rabbi Avi Schwartz, a New York-based Orthodox “yeshivish” rabbi and filmmaker to establish a youth movement called “Shomrei Ha’am,” whose mission is to instill that Palmah spirit into today’s generation of young Jewish leaders.
Two years ago Schwartz decided to found a center in Brooklyn for teens and college students from all streams of Judaism, to teach them the values that made those who fought for the establishment of the state exemplary role models of the Jewish people. He was inspired by his father, Mordechai Schwartz, the legendary Palmah commander in the War of Independence known as “Motzik HaGraza,” or “Motzik the Axeman,” who led a Palmah platoon into battle and succeeded in capturing Mount Zion.
What’s unique about Shomrei Ha’am is that while the Palmah was mainly known as a more secular, leftwing or socialist-leaning group, Schwartz, who wears a black hat per his “yeshivish” custom, seeks to combine the Palmah’s philosophies with a strong emphasis on the Torah and Jewish texts as part of his goal of strengthening the Jewish character of the next generation.
Shomrei Ha’am now boasts a membership of 100 active high school and college students. It hosts regularly scheduled events in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, which focus on understanding the Palmah ideology, learning about Jewish history and the study of Torah.
Schwartz says that some of the most meaningful gatherings are events centered around his father and other members of the original Palmah, who spend time with the youngsters in order to transmit life lessons based on their experiences as founders of the state.
Other Shomeri Ha’am programs include sessions on leadership training and team building, vocational training and Krav Maga (originally known as Palmah Kapap). The group also offers a volunteer program where members are offered the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations within their community.
“Shomrei Ha’am emphasizes four pillars embodied by the original Palmah fighters, which we want to transmit to today’s youth in order to create extraordinary Jewish leaders,” Schwartz says. “Those include the Torah, Jewish history, recognizing and combating persecution, and the overall spirit of 1948.”
While some might believe there is a contradiction between secular Palmah ideology and the group’s focus on Torah, Schwartz says that while the Palmah wasn’t considered “religious” they were by no means “anti-religion.” Even more so, Schwartz credits Theodor Herzl and other early Zionists, both at the turn of the 20th century and during the Palmah era, for saving Jewish spirituality and preventing assimilation which was rampant at the time.
“Herzl,” he says, “gave the Jews during that period a place [Israel] to focus their ideas, and the ability to retain their Jewish pride. In other words, Zionism saved spiritual Judaism.”
On the importance of transmitting Jewish history, Schwartz points out that “every Jew has 4,000 years of history in his or her family. We want to show commonality among all types of Jews today. Unfortunately persecution has to be a focus as well since emotionally every Jew can relate to what our people have endured over time.”
But it’s that spirit of 1948 which seems to be the main force motivating Schwartz.
“When you see the sacrifices made by the young people from that time period, whether in the Palmah or in any other of the groups fighting for the Land of Israel, it’s that passion to fulfill their dreams [of establishing a Jewish homeland], which needs to be taught today.”
Schwartz says that he feels that in the past 20 to 30 years, “the sense of selflessness amongst Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora has diminished.”
He explains that “there are too many divisions between the Right and Left, and the religious and non-religious. But all sides need to recognize the contributions made by the other. Some view the religious as ‘the enemy’ and others fail to respect the non-religious for their contributions to society, especially those who go to war for the Land of Israel.”
He adds that “our goal is to teach the next generation of Jews the Palmahnikim way – their innovation, their uniqueness, the interaction between commanders and soldiers, the equality, the sacrifices made – all of these characteristics based on that 1948 spirit, which translated into Israeli society when the state was founded.”
When asked if he is ever criticized by others in the yeshiva community for his focus on the contributions of Zionists towards the establishment of the State of Israel, viewed by some as sacrilegious, he says that “yes it’s true, I am a black-hat rabbi in the yeshiva world, but when I explain the misirat nefesh (self sacrifice) by the Palmah Jews going through fire and water for their fellow Jews, and I show them our youngsters together – both religious and non-religious, they always say ‘yesher koach’ (good work). I get a similar response when I explain our mission to weary non-religious Jews, and I stress to them the goodness of every Jewish heart [regardless of level of observance].”
This summer, for the first time, a group of 30 Shomrei Ha’am youth will be traveling to Israel for a twoweek leadership program under the auspices of the Herzliya-based “Palmah 2000 Project.” Not only will they tour the country and learn about Israel up close while stressing the Palmah’s contribution to society, but they will participate in workshops on conflict resolution, time management, self awareness as well as martial arts classes.
Ofir Ilan, who runs the Palmah 2000 Project, is looking forward to hosting the group from abroad.
“I hope that these kids will go home with a true sense of what the Jewish state is all about,” he says, adding that “Israel is at the forefront of so many fields, whether it’s biotech, start-ups, or having a great number of Nobel Prize winners. I want these youngsters to see that they too can excel and become leaders of the next generation.”
Ilan also compliments Schwartz, saying that “while he wears a black hat, he is a true Zionist – bridging gaps between all types of Jews, which is so important today.”
Another perhaps obvious but important stop on the summer program will be a visit to the Palmah Museum in Tel Aviv. Schwartz says that while his youth organization is not officially affiliated with the museum, a blurb about Shomrei Ha’am’s activities put up by the museum’s directors, including a link to their website, brought the group not only a tremendous amount of exposure, but a lot of praise from all over the world, especially in regard to the bridges being built by the organization connecting different types of Jews.
“We as a Jewish people need to focus on our commonalities and not on our differences,” he says. “The story and the spirit of 1948, must continue to be taught because it is still relevant today, and can be the ultimate tool which connects the Jewish people, and readies the next generation to serve as committed Jewish leaders, in all fields of endeavor.”