Bnei Akiva is 80 and going strong

This year, Bnei Akiva בני עקיבא‎ celebrates its 80th anniversary. Formed in early 1929 in Israel by Yechiel Eliash, Bnei is the largest religious Zionist youth movement in the world, active in 37 countries, with 75,000 members in Israel and 54,000 in the rest of the world, including strong Australian representation in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Ynet recently presented a snapshot of Bnei Akiva showing from other countries the different faces of Bnei Akiva

At this anniversary, it is worthwhile to learn more about Bnei Akiva and its origins, in part because it provides insight into the pioneers of Israel, and the role of religious Zionism. Bnei Akiva’s aim was to have “one total Judaism…one which retains the Torah as its soul, the nation as its body, with its place in Eretz Yisrael.” (Rav Javetz). This principle of “the Jewish people in the land of Israel living according to the Torah of Israel” lies at the core of Bnei’s beliefs.

The other philosophy of Bnei Akiva is ‘Torah v’Avodah’, a phrase coined by Rav Shmuel Chaim Landau (Shachal). Torah is viewed as not just a set of laws to which each Jew must adhere but also “the spirit of our nation, the source of our culture and the essence of our souls”. This nationalistic element of Torah is the reason for our rebirth of the Jewish people in Israel and all Zionism must stem from it. Meanwhile, Avodah is an aim to make the Jewish people productive as a nation by rebuilding the land of Israel. Rather than just being a group of individuals, Avodah calls for the nation to begin to rebuild itself through creativity and physical labour. Bnei Akiva’s twin ideals of Torah and Avodah loosely translate to religious commitment/study and work on the land of Israel.

Bnei Akiva believes in the importance of Aliya and maintains that the future of the Jewish people is tied to the state of Israel. Bnei Akiva feels that Jewish youth in the Diaspora should be educated to realize that the Israel needs them, and that they, in turn, need it. In the early years of pioneering, Avodah was clearly understood as meaning agricultural work, however in more recent years, there has driven a shift in ideology towards a broader definition of working for the development of the country. Further, up to the 1980s many Bnei Akiva members joined religious Kibbutzim in Garinim (groups). Since the 1990s a wider view of how to contribute to Israeli life has become accepted. Bnei Akiva members now typically settle in development towns, settlements etc. They are active in all areas of Israeli life including security, hi-tech, education, academia etc.

With Bnei Akiva turning 80, it is of interest to examine the time around its formation in the late 1920’s. At this period of the British Mandate, the Jewish pioneers were struggling to succeed economically and to build their homeland. However, there was another concern as well: the need to redefine the spiritual-cultural identity of the Jewish nation.

At a time when the secular labourers gaining power, the “Hapoel Hamizrachi” workers movement, part of the Mizrachi movement (established in 1901), was founded. Its goal was to organize and unify the few religious labourers into a stronger entity. The movement’s first leaders consolidated a new philosophical perspective, intended as a counterweight to the secular-socialist ideology of other workers’ groups. Hapoel Hamizrachi saw itself as the active realization of the Religious-Zionist ideals of the Mizrachi movement: “The Land of Israel, for the People of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel”. It dedicated itself to engaging in all aspects of life in Israel, religious and secular, including labour and settlement of the land.

The Hapo’el Hamizrachi movement encountered many difficulties. The Histadrut and many Workers’ Committees incited against Hamizrachi members and prevented their employment. Keren Kayemet, which was responsible for allocation of land, gave land to other settlement associations, but not to Hapoel Hamizrachi. In addition, while Hapo’el Hamizrachi met with hostility from non-Zionist religious Jews, secular society disapproved of Hamizrachi’s devotion to religion. Although the ones who suffered most from this attitude were the workers who belonged to Hapo’el Hamizrachi, it also had a decisive influence on the youth.

In the wake of the ostracism and economic difficulties encountered by Hapoel Hamizrachi members, many of their youth chose to join secular social groups. They were drawn to socialist/workers’ youth movements or others such as Maccabee and Betar. This situation presented a threat to the new religious movement.

In the beginning of 1929, Yechiel Eliash, then an officer of the Brit Olamit shel Torah Va’avoda (“National Alliance of Torah and Labor”), suggested to Hapoel Hamizrachi the establishment of a religious youth movement, with the purpose of strengthening young people’s spirit and organizing them within a proud social framework.

This proposal was met with a lack of enthusiasm. However, Yechiel Eliash did not retreat, and later stated that “we believed that a youth movement would have to engender faith in its own strength and power to erect a religious Judaism with great accomplishments. Not individual creative Jews, but organized religious Judaism. The opponents, including leaders of Hapoel Hamizrachi feared rebellion and contended that a religious movement, intrinsically, cannot be oppositional and must be traditional. Some worried that the conduct of study in school would be impaired; others disparaged young people’s ability to stand at the head of a youth movement. Impressive educators, they argued, must hold this position. However, despite all this opposition, I decided to found the youth movement…”

Concurrent with the establishment of the movement in Israel, organizations of religious youth operated in the Diaspora. Some of them adopted the name Bnei Akiva and others had appellations such as Hashomer Hadati. Twenty-five years later (1958), the Israeli and Diaspora groups merged and the Mazkirut Olamit (World Secretariat) of Bnei Akiva was formed.

Today, the ideals of Bnei Akiva continue to emphamise the objectives of Religious Zionism – to combine the concepts of the Nation of Israel (AM Yisrael), the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), and the Law of Israel (Torat Yisrael) into one ideal.The wide range of programs are therefore designed to foster personal, familial, and communal commitment to the ideal of “Am Yisrael, Be’Eretz Yisrael, Al Pi Torat Yisrael.”

Bnei Akiva is a dynamic Religious Zionist Youth Movement run by youth for the youth, in order to keep the philosophy of Religious Zionism modern and active. It is dedicated to bringing the messages of Torah Va’Avodah and Aliyah to the Jewish youth. Torah Va’Avodah is an outlook on the world which synthesizes a religious life of Torah with the labour and production in order to bring about a national renaissance of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. For further local information, you can read more about Bnei Akiva Sydney.

We hope that Bnei Akiva continues to go from strength to strength in the next 80 years.

Rabbi Uri Dasberg also wrote further about the life of Yechiel Eliash, the founder of Bnei Akiva ..
Eighty years ago, a young man, twenty years old, woke up one morning and decided that the religious youth deserved to have a youth organization of their own. This was Yechiel Eliash, born in a small town in Poland. He had studied in the yeshiva in Lomza and then in Novardok. After he arrived in Eretz Yisrael with an immigration “certificate” obtained for him by Rabbi A.Y. Kook, he studied in Rabbi Kook’s yeshiva, Merkaz Harav.

How did he get to this yeshiva? While he was still in Lomza, Eliash saw a small advertisement asking students to join the worldwide central yeshiva in Jerusalem. He obtained a reference from his rabbi in the yeshiva, an immigration “certificate” from Jerusalem, and a loan from his father. The rest of the money that he needed he obtained by selling his coat. He then had enough money to travel to the port of Haifa. In order to continue on to Jerusalem, he obtained some money from the branch office of Hapoel Hamizrachi in Haifa. And so, in the end, he arrived in Jerusalem.

He called the youth movement that he established “Bnei Akiva.” Later on Rabbi Maimon, the leader of the Mizrachi movement (not to be confused with another movement, Hapoel Hamizrachi, which was the patron of Bnei Akiva), would claim that the new movement was appropriate for Akiva under the age of 40, before he had learned anything. But Eliash purposely choose a name for his movement that implied youth and vigor. He wrote about Rabbi Akiva: “He was a laborer, a shepherd, a national warrior, and a Torah scholar… We are the students of Rabbi Akiva, we are Bnei Akiva!” Perhaps he copied the structure, with such elements as a “sheivet” – an age group – and “chevraya aleph and bet” from the yeshiva at Novardok, where he learned ethics before he came to Eretz Yisrael.

A youth movement can be expected to have characteristics of revolution and severance of contacts with earlier tradition. For this reason, the Mizrachi opposed the new youth movement. However, only such a movement could organize a group of young people who were willing to burst onto a soccer field in Jerusalem, in order to protest the desecration of Shabbat. Later on Eliash commanded the “security detail” of Hapoel Hamizrachi, establishing the principles for setting up military units which would observe religious requirements (Shabbat, kashrut, etc). These basic concepts are still applied by the Benish yeshiva students, the Chareidi Nachal units, the Chaplaincy of the IDF, and others. All of this took place during the time of the British Mandate, when military and semi-military organizations were forced to operate in secret. Eliash established the “Elitzur” sports union, which was used as a cover for the Ha’apalah, bringing in new immigrants by boat in spite of British opposition.

The establishment of the State of Israel did not curtail Eliash’s activities in support of religious participation in the government, and he centered his activities on the Interior Ministry and the Kupat Cholim Medical Fund of the Histadrut labor union. The result was the basis of what is known as the “historical covenant” between religious Zionism and the nonreligious sector. Here is an example of this covenant: Laborers who volunteered to take part in the Hagannah could perform their military exercises on Shabbat without missing any work, but religious laborers who exercised on Friday were required to make up for the lost work with extra hours every other day of the week. But the leaders of the Histadrut insisted that the religious workers should not be forced to make up for the lost time – we put in a large effort to limit the work week to eight hours. If religious laborers are forced to work extra, all of our efforts will have been in vain!

Yechiel Eliash, the founder of Bnei Akiva, passed away on the seventh of Tishrei 5758 (1997).

Info from Bnai Akiva sites, Wickepedia and Ynet.

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