Created: 19 March 2012
Habonim in Oxford
by Harold Pollins
In his history of the community, The Jews of Oxford, David Lewis, in referring to the activities of Jewish youth organisations in the city during the war, mentions the existence of Habonim, but adds ‘of which we know little.’ As an old member of Habonim I was interested in this and when I had the opportunity recently to do some research at the Bodleian in the wartime Jewish Chronicle I decided to note any references to Oxford Habonim and. I found some in the issues up to the end of 1946, the period I was researching. (Now augmented by the JC being available on the Internet.)
David Lewis makes the point that as the blitz on London set in, in September 1940, there was a second wave of evacuation (the first having been at the start of the war). Not all the newcomers came to live in the city and a number of smaller places found themselves with Jewish residents for the first time. Moreover, temporary, wartime, congregations came into existence in such places as Newbury and Thame. He describes how at an Extraordinary Meeting of the congregation in October 1940 various decisions were made to deal with the influx including the provision of kosher meat and of cultural activities. One of them was the establishment of Habonim for the children. But nothing seems to have been done,
The first mention that Habonim had got off the ground was in the JC on 16 January 1942 when it was stated that Habonim met at the Communal Centre. The Centre had been set up in late 1940 at 95 Walton Street (strangely David Lewis says it was at number 94.) The group were certainly up and running and in July 1942 the JC carried a statement that Oxford Habonim would be in summer camp in Wiltshire along with the information that the Rosh Gedud was Esther Trilling. The first appearance of her name had been in the JC of 30 May 1941 at the bottom of a letter stating that a class in Jewish History was being run under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association. It was held at Rewley House in Wellington Square and was under the direction of Mr J. Ben Jacob of Palestine. The class already had 20 members and would be glad to have more. She signed it in her capacity as secretary of the class.
Her name appears again in October of 1942 as the chairman of the newly-formed Oxford Jewish Youth Council, set up to co-ordinate the activities of the various youth organisations. Other announcements in 1943 merely state that Habonim was part of the audience in sundry meetings. There are no references to Habonim during 1944, but this does not mean that it did not exist. The notices in the JC depended on who was sending details of Oxford Jewry’s activities to the newspaper.
The final JC reference in the period I looked at was in December 1945 when Habonim, presumably in the form of a representative, was present at a meeting of various organisations for a presentation to Mr and Mrs Walter Ettinghausen, University lecturer in German and sometime Treasurer of the congregation, who were leaving Oxford to settle in Palestine.
These references did not amount to very much but then I remembered that in an old copy of Kol Vatikei Habonim, the journal of the organisation of former members of Habonim, there had been a reference to Oxford. I had temporarily forgotten it and I located it again. It proved to add more to my JC references or at least to confirm them. The author stated that at the end of 1940 she had asked Mrs Neville Laski, on the Committee of the newly-formed Communal Centre, to form a group of Habonim to meet at the Centre. This is in conformity with the statement of David Lewis. The names of several members (Bonim) are mentioned in the article of whom one will be well known, that of Donald Silk.. The author confirms that the group attended the first wartime Habonim summer camp in Wiltshire but she went back to London in 1943 ‘and by the end of the war the Community Centre and Oxford Habonim had ceased to function.’ Neither this article nor the JC throws any light on what happened to Habonim between late 1940 and January 1942. However the reminiscences of three women, who were children during the war, refer baldly to the fact that Habonim met on Sundays and the children joined it; however no dates are given. These reminiscences are in Freda Silver Jackson's Then and Now; A Collection of Recollections.
Who was the author of these memoirs in Kol Vatikei Habonim? The name at the end of the article was none other than Esther Lucas (Trilling)! She ended up after the war with her new husband in Kfar Blum, the first kibbutz established by British Habonim. But she appears to have been wrong about Oxford Habonim disappearing at the end of the war. In the book compiled by Freda Silver Jackson , Tessa Brodetsky describes Dr Isaac Berenblum and his family who lived in Oxford during the war and were active in communal life. Tessa quotes a daughter, Terry, that ‘After the war I took part in Habonim activities at the hostel for Jewish refugee boys,’ the hostel being in Linton Road.
How many members did Habonim have? There are no statistics and one wonders if there was competition from other youth organisations in Oxford. One of them was a youth club called Achduth which was formed in the spring of 1941. It had programmes of studies and social events. Dr Stein led a Bible class and a choir was formed and - and this is especially important - a new section for boys and girls aged 10-16 was being set up, just the age group of Habonim (JC 16 May 1941). Moreover, a reference to Achduth six months later, on 21 November 1941, described is as the Oxford Zionist Youth Society, and Habonim was also a Zionist body. But there are no further references to Achduth.
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