Raising the Flag
BY OHAD TAL
In 1929, Yechiel Eliash founded Bnei Akiva, “a youth movement of Torah and Avodah (work) that aims to educate a healthy and brave Hebrew generation, dedicated and loyal to its People, its Land and its Torah.” A young yeshivah student who immigrated to Israel from Poland, Eliash was active in the Mizrachi Movement and sought to spread the Torah and Avodah mission. “In my vision, I saw before me a proud religious Judaism, which creates and shapes the image of the Jewish state along the way.”
Eliash’s great vision has repeatedly encountered many objections, both at home and abroad. In those days, many religious Jews considered a youth movement – even a religious one – to be a fundamental contradiction to religious-conservative values. But Eliash did not give up and, with great effort, succeeded in fulfilling his vision and establishing Bnei Akiva, an extraordinary movement that has succeeded in inspiring young Jews all over the world to proudly raise the flags of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
The late Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria wrote: “The Bnei Akiva movement will be considered one of the great wonders of the generation. No ‘decision from above’ motivated these youths. Not the decision of a party and its leaders, the Histadrut and its doers… but rather אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח, ‘truth springs up from the earth’ (Tehillim 85:12)… Bnei Akiva was not a ‘free gift.’ It has been achieved through years of effort, efforts that have not stopped to this day.”
I did not grow up in the religious world. I was born in Eilat to a non-religious family and only when I reached third grade did my family start to become religious – we began keeping Shabbat and going to shul. Step by step, I got on the “path” – I went to Bnei Akiva, yeshivah and the army.
I did not inherit my Religious Zionist identity; it is an identity that I chose independently, for I believe that there is no better or more correct path. I believe that the three great flags of Religious Zionism – Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael – are the truest expression of Judaism.
A few years ago, I went on shlichut with my family to the Netherlands on behalf of World Bnei Akiva, where we found a warm community struggling with many challenges. In particular, we saw that Bnei Akiva alumni who stayed in the Netherlands for their college studies did not have a Jewish-Zionist community to be a part of, without which many could be lost. And so we set up a framework specifically for this age group: Shabbat meals, evening activities during the week, Hebrew lessons, holiday gatherings and more.
It was in this context that one of my most exciting shlichut stories occurred: In our second year of shlichut, in preparation for Chanukah, we decided to hold a “Chanukah Caravan” – traveling from city to city and from campus to campus all across the Netherlands with guitars and doughnuts, running Chanukah parties and activities for Jewish communities and young people.
On the first night of Chanukah we held a large party in Leiden, and on the second night we came to The Hague. At the end of the community candle lighting in The Hague, an elderly lady approached me. She asked: “Are you the ones who hold activities for Jewish students in Amsterdam every Saturday?” I answered: “Yes.”
“You were in Leiden yesterday?” she continued. Again, I answered: “Yes.”
“You do not know what you are doing to my life,” she said.
I did not understand; I had never met this lady before. “How are we impacting your life?” I asked her.
“You know, I do look Dutch but the truth is that I am a former Israeli … I lived on a kibbutz in the north, but 30 years ago I decided to leave Israel, I did not want to be connected to Jewish life in any way. I came to the Netherlands, married a non-Jew and we lived together. The towns here have no Jewish community at all. A son was born to us. This son is now a student and in the last two years, he has started asking me all kinds of questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? What does it mean that we are Jews?
“To tell you the truth, I did not know how to answer him. A year ago, he heard about your activities for Jewish students, and every Saturday, he comes to you in Amsterdam to see what it means to be a Jew and to hear a little about Israel. Yesterday, he even gave up the tickets he had for the Ajax (football) game to go to your Chanukah party.”
Then she said something that I will never forget: “You should know: you changed his life and you changed my life.”
To this day, this story resonates with me as it captures everything that Bnei Akiva symbolizes.
Some time ago, World Bnei Akiva decided on a key motto: “to be a movement of the people,” a movement that takes responsibility for all parts of the Jewish people, humbly and without a hint of condescension, out of great commitment to the future of the Jewish people. This motto represents our movement’s commitment to act with all its might to strengthen the Jewish and Zionist spirit of our people and to reach out to every Jew, wherever they may be.
It is possible that if that young Jew in the Netherlands had not been exposed to Bnei Akiva, he would still be living without any connection to his Jewish-Zionist identity, and ultimately be lost to the Jewish people.
The challenges our movement is working to address are not simple. In today’s world, the younger generation is greatly impacted by modern culture’s extreme individualistic values and a general indifference to religion – a culture that has distanced so many of our young people from Judaism and the Jewish people. At the same time, we face significant competition from other movements and well-funded movements who seek to attract the support of world Jewry. Some are Jewish but not Zionist movements, while others are Zionist movements with a problematic approach to Jewish identity. And many of these organizations work to advance various political interests. Unlike us, most of them are heavily funded by stakeholders. None of these organizations, however, are raising all three flags of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
To meet these challenges, we must join forces with all local and global organizations that are committed to our values. We are therefore proud of our long-standing partnership with World Mizrachi, and will work to strengthen it so that together we can most effectively uphold the vision of the founders of our movement: to assist every community and every Jew, and to “educate a healthy and brave Hebrew generation, dedicated and loyal to its People, its Land and its Torah.”
Ohad Tal is the Mazkal (Director) of World Bnei Akiva.