Religious Affairs: For the love of the land

Religious-Zionist youth have had to deal with hard questions for which their leadership doesn't always have answers.

The decorations on the Hyundai parked outside Bnei Akiva's headquarters in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood tell you quite a lot about where Israel's second largest youth movement came from, where it is now and where it's headed. Stuck onto the rear window is a sticker reading: "Follow Me to the Paratroopers" - an iconic Israeli message borne of the famous Paratrooper captains' battle cry in 1967. On the rear bumper is a more recent catch phrase - "No Soldier is Left Behind in the Field" - tied to kidnapped soldiers Gilad Schalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Hanging from the rearview mirror is an orange ribbon - the symbol of the campaign against the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria that constituted the 2005 disengagement. The car belongs to Neriya Meir, Bnei Akiva's Jerusalem District coordinator. Meir is a resident of Eli, a settlement north of Ramallah - an area Bnei Akiva teaches its kids is the Jewish heartland. The 26-year-old father-of-two ("They keep me up at night"), whose wife's photo is his cell phone's screensaver, is a combat soldier in the reserves. Even in civilian life, he carries a handgun with him at all times, however, because he and his family live deep in the West Bank. At night, when the kids finally fall asleep, Neriya opens his law books and studies towards his degree. A family man and an ideologue - who loves the land and its people and is willing to defend them - an Orthodox Jew, but tolerant of others' religious choices, Neriya is the archetypal Bnei Akiva graduate. He is a shining example of the movement's success in instilling values for the past eight decades - tenets which have made a significant impact on Israel's history. Starting on Monday, the movement, which counts about 60,000 members in 350 branches, from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat and beyond the Green Line, will be holding a four-day conference in honor of its 80th birthday. The conference will kick off with a huge celebration in Latrun. During the conference, 500 Bnei Akiva leaders of all ages, from Israel and abroad, will take a long, hard look at what has been achieved since their last conference four years ago, and where the youth movement is headed. The main focus of the last conference was on finding ways to increase programs for the 15-18-year-old members. It ended with an emotional plea to the Ariel Sharon government not to go through with the division of the Land of Israel. Since then, many things have happened in the country, disengagement prominent among them - though you will never hear anyone from the movement use that word to describe the event. You are more likely to hear the withdrawal referred to by Bnei Akiva members as "the expulsion," "the disaster" and "the catastrophe." But, whatever it is called, the pullout caused a huge schism between the religious Zionists and the state, and even between different groups within the religious-Zionist community - with some advocating a disassociation from the state altogether. Religious-Zionist youth, many of whom belong to Bnei Akiva, have had to deal with the hard questions which arise as a result of this reality - questions for which their leadership doesn't always have answers. Other such events abound: the violent evacuation of the illegal outpost at Amona (during which many Bnei Akiva youth found themselves in frontal confrontations with security forces), the Second Lebanon War and the massacre at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, the flagship learning institution of religious Zionism, and closely tied to Bnei Akiva. These and other issues will be discussed and argued at the conference, but one thing is certain, says Meir, and that is that Bnei Akiva will not adopt a policy to "disengage" from the state of Israel and its institutions, as some of the movement's more ideologically extreme graduates in outposts seem to be doing. On the contrary, he says, the Bnei Akiva mainstream is made up of young people trying to find ways to connect more deeply with Israeli society, in all its shades and persuasions. To this end, it has a an outreach committee that has initiated leadership programs among Ethiopian youth, an up-and-running program - the Yuval Tribes - that sees its members paired up with special-needs children and programs aimed at bringing the religious and secular communities closer together in Tel Aviv. The Yuval Tribes program, says Meir, is particularly challenging and appealing for young Bnei Akiva members, as they work with municipal social workers to incorporate Downs Syndrome children, many of them secular, into all of the branches' daily activities. The idea is to inculcate a sense of volunteerism and purpose of mission into the young members - not to shy away from difficulties, but to embrace them. On a tour of a Ma'aleh Adumim branch of Bnei Akiva, Meir points out a young girl spending time with a Downs Syndrome child and asks where else in the country one would see such young volunteers. "How much TV can you watch, and how many lazy hours can you spend at the beach?" the young Bnei Akiva member asks the special-needs child she is escorting around the branch. She answers her own rhetorical question: "Doing nothing doesn't help people, and life isn't just about having fun," she asserts. It is largely this kind of volunteering spirit that has earned the youth movement such respect among local authorities across the country, even in largely secular communities, to the extent that many of them have invited Bnei Akiva to open branches in their cities, and are especially interested in the Yuval Tribes program. Another program sees Bnei Akiva girls volunteering at foster homes for at-risk children in the Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. The pilot program is the first of its kind. Teenage girls from Har Homa underwent training seminars and started working with children, aged 8-13, from broken homes. The children are also incorporated into Bnei Akiva's programs, especially the outdoor treks. The volunteers are religious, while many of the kids they work with are secular. This is Bnei Akiva's way of reaching out across the religious divide, and as a result, religious messages are kept to a minimum. However, while connecting with the wider public in this respect, the youth movement is not connecting in other ways. For example, many of its girls perform national service instead of serving in the IDF, and many others choose to become teachers or social workers informally, rather than becoming part of the formal education system. HOW DOES a youth movement that encourages deep involvement in society at large deal with the increasing tendency towards individualism, secularism and political processes that could lead to further concessions with the country's Arab neighbors? Bnei Akiva leaders indicate that their movement, which has political ties to the National Religious Party, is not going to sit idly by while the center-left governing coalition makes headway in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority that would eventually see the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank. "We are part of this country. We cannot stand apart from what is happening here. But the reality is difficult," says Bnei Akiva Secretary General Rabbi Benny Nechtailer, who wears the same gray, long-sleeved work shirt as the rest of his staff. Furthermore, as is true of the national-religious-Zionist population that fills its ranks, the Bnei Akiva youth movement is becoming both more religious and more ideological. Torah study as an activity inside the branches is increasing, and for the first time in its history, the youth movement has a rabbi as its secretary-general. There are about 40,000 youths across the country who spend a significant part of their Shabbat at Bnei Akiva branches. "The movement is based on the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, and his teachings were about love - love for the Torah, love for the land and love for the people of all Israel. The movement elevates the values of personal sacrifice and lifelong commitment. It encourages the settlement of the Land of Israel, as well as in the periphery and development towns. It encourages a life according to the Torah. Torah and work - that is the message. This is the youth movement of the religious-Zionist movement, which believes in reishit tzmihat geulateinu - seeing Israel as the 'first flowering of the redemption'," says Rav Benny, as people in the movement call him. RAV BENNY will preside over the movement's national conference. He knows there will be political discussions, but he's hoping for more emphasis on practical issues, such as expanding existing programs and developing new ones. He calls the "expulsion" from Gush Katif "a loss of innocence and a slap in the face" for the religious-Zionist community. But he's asking for things to stay in proportion: "Bnei Akiva is a youth movement, not a political party. Its branches are places where children learn and play, and not become political activists. "We want them to believe in something - that is paramount - and then we tell them to lead, not to be led." Apart from the political messages to be debated and refined at the conference, Bnei Akiva's leadership will ask itself what the movement could be doing to reduce the growing socioeconomic gaps in the country, as well as how to become more involved in environmental activism, which, as Neriya Meir says, is traditionally associated with leftist movements. "We're working on changing that," he says. Nechtailer argues that instilling faith and cultivating leadership among the youth is at the core of the movement he leads, and is vital in today's society, where escapism and apathy "are the norm." It is this norm, he insists, that is allowing the country's current leadership to pursue policies the national-religious sector is dead set against - policies he says have failed, when one looks at the situation in Sderot. "The religious Zionists see the creation of the state as part of the redemption of the Jewish people, so Bnei Akiva took a decision that it is staying in partnership with the state," he says. "We never felt that the country was in favor of the Gush Katif expulsion, but we also didn't expect so many people to be in such a state of apathy. The same happened after the publication of the Winograd Report [into the Second Lebanon War] where we expected to see more people protesting in the town squares. I don't see us in a place where we are losing our identification with the country, but we are in a place where we feel the need to get people out of their apathy. "First, they were told there were problems in Gush Katif, and to stop the attacks there was a need to move. Then there were problems in Sderot. Now it's gotten to Ashkelon, and it will reach Ashdod, too. It's unreal. We are living in a land of ideological struggle, and he who doesn't see that is asleep. That's why we teach our young to be idealistic and ideological. We teach them to wake up. At Bnei Akiva, we are safeguarding the spirit of the birth of the nation."