"If anyone knows what it feels like to be 80, it's me," President Shimon Peres told 1,000 Bnei Akiva members in Beersheba on Sunday.
The gathering took place in celebration of the youth movement's 80th birthday.
Bnei Akiva is the largest religious Zionist youth movement. We have more than "54,000 members outside of Israel, around the globe," said Ze'ev Schwartz, Bnei Akiva secretary-general.
Peres, who celebrated his 86th birthday on Sunday, competed with youthful cheers of "Shimon! Shimon!" as he likened the members of Bnei Akiva to the life of their role model, Rabbi Akiva.
Akiva's life can be split into three distinct parts, explained the president. First, he started adult life as a shepherd; then he became a student; and later he was a teacher, giving back to the community.
So, too, membership in Bnei Akiva is a lifelong commitment, Peres said. Members of the youth movement pass through the stages of participant, aged six to 16; a leader, aged 16 to 22; and finally an oleh or an active community member, who combines, "Torah v'avodah," combining Torah learning and observance with active contribution to the Jewish people and society, to bring about the rebirth of the Jewish nation on its land.
The movement was founded under the British Mandate in 1929 by Yechiel Eliash, an officer of the National Alliance of Torah and Labor. Eliash suggested the establishment of a religious youth movement whose core purpose would be to strengthen the spirit of the Jewish nation.
Bnei Akiva was formed as the youth wing of the Mizrachi movement, which works to bridge the gap between religious and secular Zionist Jews.
The early leaders of Bnei Akiva sought to create a new philosophical perspective within the ideology of the modern Orthodox world. The perspective became epitomized by the movement's motto which continues to be emphasized today: "The Land of Israel, for the People of Israel, according in to the Torah of Israel."
Since that time, Bnei Akiva has become involved in all aspects of life in Israel, both religious and secular.
On Sunday, members of Bnei Akiva summer programs to Israel, from all over the world, convened in Beersheba to celebrate the movement's 80th birthday.
"We chose Beersheba because it is the center of Israel and we see our work and ideology as being both central to religious Zionist youth all over the globe as well as to Israel," explained Schwartz.
Bnei Akiva has more members making aliya than any other youth movement. This point was emphasized by Peres during his speech on Sunday.
After the president's speech several, other tributes were delivered to Bnei Akiva, including recorded video messages from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, rap group Hadag Nahash and musician Idan Reichel.
The prime minister's message, which lasted approximately 10 minutes, reviewed a brief history of Bnei Akiva and concluded with two messages for its members: First, said Netanyahu, "Uphold the values of Bnei Akiva," and second, "Come on aliya."