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Bnei Akiva’s Existential Crisis

In 2000, thirteen buses took hundreds of students on what has now become a ubiquitous feature of Modern Orthodox education: Mach Hach Ba’aretz. This year, there will only be five.  It’s not the only problem facing Bnei Akiva. In-group bickering, a lack of organizational momentum and a lack of fresh vision have created an organization as stale as the candy they distribute on Shabbat afternoons.

My memories of Bnei Akiva are for the most part, thanks to licorice and bazooka gum, rosy and sweet. I remember the long summer afternoons running around our synagogue parking lot, the comical inserts to the Shirah and the formal footwork of amod dom, amod noach. I remember when I got to hold the Israeli flag.

Yet when I began to wipe away my sugarcoated memories, a different picture emerged. The Bnei Akiva of my youth seemed juvenile and innocent. The messages pumped into our programing were monochromatic in its presentation of Israel: Religious Zionists built Israel. Israel should be a religious state. Israel was a land only for Jews. A nation of Israel, in Israel, according to the Torah of Israel (and never mind the Israelis who think otherwise). Oh, and I almost forgot, Make aliyah!

I started to remember the arguments with my parents who wanted me to go to Shabbat afternoon programming. I remember the same events week after week. The same divrei Torah. The same amod dom, amod noach.

But I wasn’t alone. I spoke to many students. Some were madrichim (counselors) in their local snifim (branches). Others attended Bnei Akiva camps for 12 years. Some had only vague memories from their youth. Others had fresh memories, tens of friends and hundreds of pictures from Mach Hach. Most had amazing and life changing experiences with Bnei Akiva, whether on shabbatonim, trips or other programming.  But behind their fondness for their experiences lies shared frustrations about the organization: a lack of organization, disjoined leadership and a boring, repeated and hollow vision.

“The message is almost always lost,” said one student. “Our efforts are concentrated on getting kids under the umbrella of Bnei Akiva, but once they are there, leaders don’t have enough energy to create meaningful programming.” A veteran Mazkir from the New York area said, “it’s the perfect tradeoff, we schlep these students out to synagogue and pump them full of candy while parents get to sleep.” These are “glorified youth groups” some students said. Many students used the word “bribing” to describe the recruiting methods of Bnei Akiva.

Of course, some of the larger cities have achieved a critical mass of young participants. Relationships with parents and synagogue leaders are exceptional and leadership training is superb. Teaneck, Cleveland, Chicago and parts of Los Angeles seemed to have outstanding snifim. But among smaller snifim, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, a different story emerges.

One student spoke of Bnei Akiva as “forcing itself into small communities with established Shabbat programming” and “failing to connect with the community and failing to see eye-to-eye with parents.” Others spoke of a lack of leadership training for the staff members, who feel overworked and underappreciated. All of these reasons factored into a number of failed or failing “outpost” snifim throughout North America.

The most troubling pattern to emerge from speaking to leaders is an endemic lack of organization. “Programs are put together last minute, and it shows,” said a leader who had been in Bnei Akiva “for as long as he could remember.” He continued, “it’s not a lack of passion, it’s a lack of commitment.” Leaders are taxed with school, dating and other extra-curricular commitments and often put Bnei Akiva on the backburner. Those who prioritize Bnei Akiva high up on their to-do lists must often pick up the slack from less-committed leaders, creating frustrations and factions between those who “do” and those who “don’t.”

It is thus no wonder that people associate Bnei Akiva with simplistic programming. Its leaders have little time to develop meaningful and refined programs. They are forced to rely on pre-packaged programs and take inspiration from programming in the past. However, some use past programming not out of lack of time or creativity but because “that’s the way we did things, and that’s the way we’re gonna do things in the future,” a Mazkir told me.

An organization-wide skepticism regarding new ideas and disinterest in hearing dissenting views means that the organization has remained static, if it hasn’t regressed towards insignificance, and it shows (the fact that all the students interviewed for this article wished to remain anonymous is quite a telling feature of the organization).  Recruitment is down for programming geared toward older kids, many chapters are smaller than they were ten years ago, and trips and shabbatonim suffer from a lack of reliable and consistent funding. It no longer runs solidarity missions to Israel.  Its Torah V’Adovah Institute (TVI) is almost virtually unknown, even among Bnei Akiva’s elite members.

Room for improvement in terms of organization is a feature of every institution. What Bnei Akiva faces is a much more sinister and creeping issue. It is an issue that requires honesty and open dialogue where no one is afraid to speak out. It’s going to be a difficult conversation.

Bnei Akiva faces an existential crisis. It is a crisis 30 years in the making. In the 1980s, Bnei Akiva shifted its emphasis from a socialist message emphasizing Garin Aliya to kibbutzim to a more apolitical organization geared toward the entire religious Zionist community. This shift in modus operandi meant that Bnei Akiva would no longer be the one described in Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers – an organization that brought him to Palestine in 1947 and taught him to fight, dig trenches, drain marshes and establish kibbutzim. Over time, the organization became diluted and its message became less relevant as Israel’s identity and challenges changed.

Its educational component suffered and continues to suffer tremendously. Its North American branch has become an organization associated more with catering to middle school children in communities and young teenagers in sleepaway camps than to a cadre of young, talented and ideologically driven youth of the organization’s yesteryears.

Possibly the most pernicious and widespread consequence of this shift is a decrease in the quality of its educational component. One student said “At [Camp] Moshava it was overkill; just aliyah, aliyah, aliyah.” Another student who had attended Camp Moshava every year he could said, “the message I got was that Israel is wonderful and come live in Efrat. Come live in Chashmonaim.” One student went so far as to call Bnei Akiva a “propaganda machine for Israel.”

In some sleepaway camps, the only educational component is “a clip of Ben Gurion announcing the establishment of the state, [shown to us] on the first night of camp.” While this may not represent all Bnei Akiva camps, there seem to be a common theme throughout; a simplistic message is favored over a rich commitment to Israel, its diverse people and its diverse challenges. An articulation of responsibility to Am Yisrael, an NYU student told me,included going to the army, and that’s about it.”

Bnei Akiva has reached a turning point. It can no longer sustain itself as an organization “pushing aliyah without tact.” It can no longer stay relevant when it fails to have frank discussions about what Israel really is—not some romanticized, diasporic, religious Zionist vision. It can’t sustain itself if under the cute blue-and-white shoelace shirts bubble the closeted frustrations of overworked, unrepresented, underdeveloped and underappreciated leaders.

Bnei Akiva is already suffering from historically low numbers on programs, in camps, and in some local Shabbat activities. Its national board needs to listen to voices advocating change. It needs a fresh vision.

An organization that advocates aliyah without inculcating a deep, nuanced and complex relationship with the State will ultimately lead to disenchanted and disillusioned citizens. For the students who eventually make aliyah, the “truth” about Israel being a real country with real problems and real bureaucracy will come out. Most importantly, an organization unwilling to listen to fresh ideas and if necessary, to make radical change, will eventually run out of momentum.

Is there a place for a Zionist education for young 21st-century Jews? There is. And from the sampling of students I spoke with, the consensus seemed to be that there was no time more important for Zionist education. But the response can’t be childish messages. It can’t be last-minute programming. Our times require Zionists to be thoughtful and well informed, open-minded and ideological. A new message of Torah and Avodah must be ready to face the new challenges facing Israel.