Photo Credit: Bnei Akiva

The plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ended on Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Akiva is famous for his teaching, “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ – this is a great rule of Torah” and for his support of Bar Kochva’s rebellion to liberate the Land of Israel from the Romans. (Hence the once popular custom of children playing with bows and arrows on Lag B’Omer.)

Rabbi Akiva’s love of Torah and devotion to Eretz Yisrael find expression in the international youth movement founded and named 90 years ago after him: Bnei Akiva.

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“One of the most important teachings which Rabbi Akiva bequeathed to the Jewish people is never to succumb to despair,” said Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads Bnei Akiva’s network of 70 high schools, yeshivot, ulpanot, pre-army academies, and colleges. “Our Sages inform us that upon the death of Rabbi’s Akiva’s students, the world was left barren of Torah. Everything seemed lost. But Rabbi Akiva didn’t give up.

“He took five students and started all over until the Land of Israel was once again filled with Torah. We learn from this what one man and a handful of followers can do when they dedicate themselves for the sake of Hashem!”

Rabbi Druckman told The Jewish Press that Bnei Akiva can boast of a similar accomplishment. “Ninety years ago, when the movement began, the Land of Israel beyond Jerusalem was barren of Torah. Through hard work and infused with the spirit of Rabbi Akiva, the movement established Torah academies, religious schools, and Religious Zionist youth chapters all over the country – and throughout the Diaspora as well.”

The Bnei Akiva emblem features the Ten Commandments surrounded by agricultural tools and wheat stalks, symbolizing the two guiding principles of the movement: Torah and building the land.

From its inception, under the spiritual inspiration of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook and his student, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, the organization – which now has 125,000 members in 42 countries – has actively promoted aliyah through its Torah Zionist curriculum, “hachshara” pre-immigration programs, and projects in Israel.

Yair Shakal, director of the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement in Israel, told The Jewish Press that the Religious Zionist youth movement has doubled in size over the last decade. “For many teenagers who would otherwise drift away from Torah observance,” he said, “Bnei Akiva provides a haven of idealism, a feeling of family attachment, and a meaningful bond to the eternal traditions and continuity of Klal Yisrael.”

In his office in Jerusalem, world Bnei Akiva director Roi Abecassis told The Jewish Press, “A pillar of our ideology is Rabbi Kook’s teaching that living in the Land of Israel isn’t a bonus mitzvah, but a central foundation of Torah. Our shlichim in Jewish communities throughout the world strive to instill young people with a respect and living attachment to Judaism, and with the understanding that the future of the Jewish People is here in Eretz Yisrael.”

“Today,” he said, “we have many communities around the Diaspora who request shlichim from Israel, and we can’t meet their need.”

While the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement has enjoyed great success, its co-ed activities have been criticized by charedim and even some datileumi Jews who have established the Ariel Youth Movement in Israel as an alternative to Bnei Akiva.

In an interview with The Jewish Press, Rav Shlomo Aviner, a leading halachic authority in the Religious Zionist world known for his strictness in the laws of tzniut, said “mixed social activities are forbidden.” He added, though, “We have to consider the alternative. We don’t say: ‘All or nothing.’ Similarly, we don’t say: ‘Either Medinat Yisrael with Mashiach or reject the state and stay in galut.’ This is not proper reasoning.

“Rather, we do what we can to correct things without throwing everything away immediately in the garbage. In general, we judge matters by the majority of the matter, and certainly the educational achievements of Bnei Akiva in connecting Jewish youth to Torah and to a love of the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel far outweighs any of its shortcomings:

More of our interview follows:

The Jewish Press: Some people argue that holiness and modesty are foundations of the nation that must be guarded at all costs.

Rav Aviner: If a young person has to choose between a mixed religious youth movement and a movement where boys and girls meet separately, he or she certainly should choose the latter. If a young person has to choose between a mixed religious youth movement and a mixed secular one, obviously he should choose the religious one. And if the decision is between joining a mixed religious youth movement or hanging out on the street and being drawn to delinquent and criminal activity, of course the mixed religious youth movement is preferable.

Not every Jew grows up in a strict Torah environment. In many Jewish communities throughout the world, no one learns about the laws of modesty. What is better – to belong to a Jewish youth group that fosters a love and vital connection to Jewish heritage or to intermarry?”

Is there a halachic source for this way of looking at things?

Certainly. The Gemara (Sotah 48a) deals with a similar question. In a choir with men and women, what is better – for the men to sing and the women to answer “Amen” or for the women to sing and the men answer “Amen”? Since both are forbidden, why ask the question? The Gemara replies that we do away with the worst of the options. Rashi explains that in a situation where [doing away with] both prohibitions won’t be accepted, the worst option should be rejected.

The Seridei Eish allowed a mixed youth movement in France to prevent assimilation, citing the dictum, “A time to act for Hashem, they have broken your Torah.”

The Bnei Akiva Youth Movement has done wonderful things in bringing myriads of young Jews closer to Torah and a fervent connection to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.

As a young person in France, I was a member of Bnei Akiva and a counselor and group leader, and eventually the head of a branch and a national director. Many former members of the movement became respected Jewish educators and outstanding contributors to the nation in many fields of endeavor in Israel. The great majority marry Jews and raise their children in an Orthodox fashion.

With all due respect to the rav, if an activity is forbidden, isn’t it forbidden, period?

No. As we learn from the Gemara in Sotah, things are not just black and white. Life is more complicated. We don’t say to someone, “Keep all of the Torah, with all of its details, and if not, whatever commandments you do are worth nothing at all.”

There are very positive things about Bnei Akiva’s youth movement, and there are matters that need to be fixed. Once again, to make the point clear – we don’t disband Tzahal because there are problems with Torah observance in certain areas. It is our duty to do what we can to influence, to improve, and to correct, without damaging or rejecting the good that exists.

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