Did you ever stay up late as a child, hiding under a blanket with a flashlight, reading a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery? For my Israeli friends and myself, it was the Hasamba (חסמבה) series that kept us awake long after bedtime. Similarly to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books, the main characters in Hasamba are children who solve mysteries and crimes. Hasamba is an acronym in Hebrew for ‘an absolutely, definitely secret group’. The adventures of the Hasamba “gang” first appeared in 1949 and it quickly became one of the most popular children’s book series in the Hebrew language, having sold over a million copies. However, in the American books where a single girl or two brothers solve the crimes, in the Israeli version, a group of children fight crime together. This small detail represents a huge cultural difference.
The Israeli childhood is oriented towards group cooperation, community building, and maintaining and expanding social networks. Consequently, the “gang” (chavura חבורה in Hebrew, plural chavurot חבורות) is extremely important in Israeli culture. A chavura is a group of children or teenagers who spend their free time together. They know each other from school, extracurricular activities or from living in the same neighborhood. They walk around the neighborhood, play, in the spring collect wood for the bonfire, do their homework jointly, spend lazy vacation days together, meet up after school, and much more. These “gangs” are usually the backbone of the social networks of children ages 7-12.
There are several interesting characteristics to this Israeli phenomenon. Children all over the world form bonds and friendships at a very young age, some of which last throughout their adult lives. However, the formation of varied and complex social networks at the young age of 7 or 8 is not as common in most cultures as it is in Israel. Chavurot of children walking the streets is an everyday sight in Israel; It is a spontaneous phenomenon. Children are not encouraged to play in groups forced by their parents but tend to come together on their own accord. Israeli parents, whether by choice or by force of circumstance, allow their children to independently form their social connections. The chavura is both a mirror of and a preparation for the social life of adults in Israel. As they grow older, Israeli children form more and more social networks: they join social groups at school, youth movements, the military, at their places of work, synagogue, and so on.
In Israel, we experience a combination of formal frameworks that gather children into groups according to age (e.g. the school) and the spontaneous informal formation of other networks (e.g. the chavura). Through the chavura, children learn how to assemble, use, and value networks, give, seek, accept, and appreciate support. These groups are not just a ‘pre-stage’ or ‘imprinting’ of adult networks and supports but are significant to the life period of childhood and adolescence itself. The members of the gang go out together on missions, ones which as individuals they could not have accomplished. The single ‘I’ is multiplied to become part of the powerful social ‘I’.
It is not for nothing that the phemenon of chavurot emerges between the ages of 7-12. As Uriel Ofek, Israeli celebrated author of children literacy explains, the desire to belong to a social circle, to be part of ‘this tribe,’ is most strongly manifested when the child is approximately 10 years old. This explains the great popularity of chavura stories like Hasamba directed at and involving children between the ages 9-12. These stories serve as a reflection of the child’s own world. Not to diminish the cultural importance of books but, as we all know, nowadays children don’t usually sit at home reading books if there is a perfectly good television or connected device available. Not surprisingly, the most popular Israeli children’s TV shows nowadays revolves around groups of children. “The Greenhouse” (2012), for instance, which was lately sold to Nickelodeon and Netflix, tells the story of two opposing groups, The Ravens and The Eagles, who join forces to uncover a terrible crime. The show’s strongest messages are about leadership, cooperation, group efficiency, friendship and resourcefulness.
Being so significant in Israeli culture, you can find chavurot everywhere – in real life and in fiction. Now add to the mix also virtual gangs. Today, the most common way for chavurot to communicate in Israel is via the instant messaging app WhatsApp. WhatsApp lets you create groups of contacts and then to communicate with everyone at once like in a chat. Israeli adults and children alike are members of any number of WhatsApp groups based on social circles: the neighborhood group, the school group, class group, scouts group year 2015, 2014…, the cousins group, work group, the work group without the boss, the Israeli-friends-I-met-abroad group, etc. etc. The reason WhatsApp is so successful in Israel is because Israel already has a group structure in place. WhatsApp is just a convenient easy means through which these strong group-connections are expressed and maintained.
While we usually picture an entrepreneur as someone who prefers to work alone – in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. Entrepreneurs rely heavily on their social networks. Being able to build, maintain and leverage a social network demands complex social skills best learned in childhood. With the prominence of chavurot in Israeli culture, Israeli children are given plenty of practice in building networks throughout childhood and into adulthood. Israeli entrepreneurs then use these networks to help them found and grow their businesses.