Kimberley, South Africa



Written by Leon Chonin (August 2017)

Habonim was founded in the United Kingdom in 1929 and over a period of years spread to all English speaking countries including South Africa where it was established by Norman Lourie a co-founder of the movement in 1930. I don’t believe there are records identifying the exact date the movement was established in Kimberley. The mission of the youth movement was to reach young children up to the age of 18, teaching them Modern Hebrew, along with songs, dances of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, Jewish history by using games and concerts. The aim of the group meetings was to attract and educate the youth of immigrants from Europe about their Jewish heritage and culture trying to instill in them the love of Zionism. One of the most publicized events was the annual machaneh which originally was located in Leaches Bay, East London before being moved to Onrus outside Cape Town.

The weekly meetings in Kimberley were held on the shul grounds on Memorial Road generally under the palm trees that offered shade from the Kimberley heat. The dress code was the official Habonim uniform that was introduced to model the movement on the Boys Scouts in the United Kingdom. The meetings took place on a Sunday morning after the chaidar classes were finished and were for no more than an hour or two. There was generally a formal opening and closing ceremony that took place in a formation.

The first leaders, Madrichim I also don’t believe have been documented. I took over from Valerie Stein in about 1961 until I left Kimberley in 1963 for Johannesburg to attend university. Pamela Hotz took over from me as Rosh Madricha in 1963. Again I don’t believe we have the exact date that the movement ceased activities when the Jewish population declined in numbers to such an extent that there were too few children to carrying on conducting regular meetings. There was no formal training of the madrichim but I was fortunate to have been schooled by Rabbi Ben Isaacson, the Bloemfontein Rabbi. Rabbi Ben Isaacson was installed as the Rabbi in 1962. He was a charismatic, energetic, spiritually enriching young Rabbi who was a dynamic youth leader. He took immediate interest in the Habonim movement becoming its official head and served on its national executive. He was at the time described as a maverick Rabbi and continued to attract public controversy because of his outspoken criticism of the government’s racial policies becoming an anti-Apartheid activist. He became an embarrassment to the Jewish establishment who preferred to steer clear of sensitive political issues. He was however Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz protégé who tried to protect him and his harsh criticism from the pulpit. I regularly attended his meetings in Bloemfontein where his leadership provided me with my foundation in Jewish culture and Zionism.

Rabbi Benjamin Isaacson

To my knowledge only two of us from Kimberley ever attended Machaneh at Leaches Bay near East London, Leslie Goldberg and myself. It was an incredible experience living in tents in sleeping bags placed on ground sheets, eating around a fire at night and singing popular Israeli songs. I recall participating in a hike where we had to sleep over night in the open fields but the heavens opened up and the rain saturated the whole area. We had to be rescued by buses that returned us all back to base camp. Perhaps it was intended to toughen us all up for the Israeli army.

Habonim meetings were for many who did not attend chaidar the only forum where they had exposure to some Hebrew, Jewish history and Zionism. During my period as Rosh Madrich I can recall many individuals who participated in the movement; Josie Shapiro, Delia Brown, Shelley Hotz (Pamela’s sister), Madelene Hammar, Jock Awerbuck and from shtilim Neil Odes who lives in Toronto. He often reminds me about our days at Habonim when I visit him at his South African store. There were some who chose not to attend Habonim because it was affiliated to the Labour Party in Israel and it may have been their preference to attend Beitar which was the Revisionist Party youth movement. The Jewish youth from the Northern Cape area who lived at the boarding schools also did not attend Habonim because of their restricted freedom chose to leave the hostels on Shabbat to attend shul. The picture of a Habonim meeting taken around 1958 shows some of youth who regularly attended the youth movement. Some of the young boys were Jock Awerbuck, Stanley Ebelin, and could be Leonard Hammar; the girls were the Garsh sisters Gill and Brenda. The names of the madrichim escapes me.

I believe Habonim provided the youth of our time with a passion for Zionism as I know of two families, Marshall Hotz (Pamela’s brother) and Leonard Hammar (Madelene’s brother) who made Aliyah to Israel. Yet Milton Jawno, a very close friend, who did not attend Habonim also made Aliyah.

Habonim today is no longer the movement of the previous generation because it seems to have taken a sharp turn to the left becoming sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. I believe even Rabbi Ben Isaacson who was a liberal thinker has aligned himself with the Trump ideology of intolerance for the Arab position because of their extremism, terrorism and lust for murder of innocent civilians. Although he remained a member of the ANC I understand he has become disillusioned with the movement under its current leadership.


These pictures were taken in 1960 when I attended the Habonim camp in Leaches Bay. I am the only person from Kimberley. Most were from Johannesburg and a few from Bloemfontein.