Beginnings in Israel
Bnei Akiva was established in Israel in 1929, as the youth movement of the Religious Zionist Mizrachi organisation, by Yechiel Eliash. The official founding date was set for Lag B’Omer 5689 (28th May 1929), a date associated with Rabbi Akiva and the belief in a Jewish homeland through the story of the Bar Cochba Rebellion. From small beginnings, it became a world movement, comprising over 140,000 members in over 30 countries, one of which is Bnei Akiva of Great Britain and Ireland.
Beginnings in the UK
In 1936, a small Bnei Akiva group met in the Sklan family house on Woodberry Down, near Manor House station in London. The group was set up by Cecil Sklan and Binyamin Pollak, and when it grew out of the Sklan basement, it moved to the New Synagogue in Stamford Hill. Bnei Akiva quickly spread to North West London with groups starting in Brondesbury Park, Hendon and Edgware.
When the war broke out, Bnei Akiva adapted to the fact that many of its members lived in the countryside. Arieh Handler, who was sent as a Shaliach to increase Religious Zionist activity, worked full time for Bachad and deepened the ties between the two movements. Arieh organised the first ever Kinus (gathering) of Bnei Akiva in the UK, called ‘The Pegishah’, in December 1940 at Gwrych Castle, North Wales. Gwrych Castle was the first Hachsharah Centre, set up by Arieh to house children from the Kindertransport and to train them to be religious agricultural pioneers in Eretz Yisrael.
In 1942, Bnei Akiva ran the first summer camps, and this became a regular feature of the movement ever since. For decades, Bnei Akiva Winter and Summer Machanot (camps) have become famous for young people spending time together in a Religious Zionist environment, where everyone learns, has fun and develops their identity in a way that only Bnei Akiva can create!
Running the Movement
As Bnei Akiva became more formalised and spread around the country, it had to be run by a dedicated team. The head of the team is known as the Mazkir, which translates as ‘secretary’. The first Mazkir was Ephraim Gastwirth, followed by Asher Kaufman, Yehuda Avner and Asher Cailingold.
Building the Land
Chaverim (members) were always encouraged to make ‘Chalutzik Aliyah’, which means pioneering after their Aliyah. Our message is that it is not enough simply to move to Israel, but one must contribute to society there, which for many decades meant physically building the land. As a result, Kibbutz Lavi in the Galil (north Israel) was established in 1949 by a group from Bnei Akiva in Great Britain and Ireland with others following.
Until the early 1960s, Bnei Akiva would encourage all chaverim to move to Thaxted, the Bachad Hachshara Centre, where they would learn agricultural skills in preparation for Aliyah to Israel. When Thaxted was sold, Hachshara moved to Israel and became the Bnei Akiva gap year scheme which continues today, comprising the Torani and Lehava tracks.
Bnei Akiva has always been based at the Bayit, meaning home, which comprises offices, space for learning (a Bet Midrash) and rooms for young people to spend time and run events. The London Bayit, based in many years in Willesden, moved to Temple Fortune with the opening of the Alexander Margulies Youth Centre in January 1983. The Manchester Bayit has been located in Singleton Road, Salford in three various forms, with the current youth centre, called Hamburger House, opened in 1991. Glasgow and Leeds previously hosted a Bnei Akiva Bayit, which was a youth centre, and there were many other residential Batim for Bnei Akiva Shlichim and Bogrim around the UK.
National Weekends were always a part of Bnei Akiva – but they became landmark events once they were opened up to the whole family! The first was in 1989 at Perrin Sands, followed by 1996 in Caister, 2001 in Hafn-y-Mor, and back again to the same North Wales site in 2006. The last National Weekend attracted over 1300 people and the Shabbat services were thought to be the largest single minyan in the UK!
In October 2002, Bnei Akiva Boger Yoni Jesner was murdered in a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. After a period of intense mourning, Bnei Akiva ran a series of events to raise money for an ambulance for Magen David Adom in Yoni’s name. The money was successfully raised and the Bnei Akiva UK ambulance is still saving lives in Jerusalem to this day. A Sefer Torah was also dedicated in his memory, and is now used at Bnei Akiva camps in the winter and summer.
Bnei Akiva has grown to become the UK’s largest Jewish youth movement with over 2000 people involved each year. Apart from running local and national events, Bnei Akiva has expanded to cater for more people who want to be involved. The Kaytana project, started in 2005, takes 17-year old Madrichim to Israel for two weeks volunteering in an Ethiopian absorption centre, where they teach English as well as Jewish values to the youngesters. Yachad Machane was started in 2006 to cater for children with special needs who want to come on Machane but require extra attention and care, and the partnership with Camp Simcha for Machane Keshet followed. The Bet Midrash Programme was launched to increase the level of Torah learning in the movement. In 2011, Machane Cadur Regel was launched to allow children from aged 8 to experience a Bnei Akiva camp.
Bnei Akiva Today
Bnei Akiva in the UK has always prided itself on leading the way for the Anglo-Jewish community, moving with the times yet never forgetting its roots. It has encouraged over 5000 Olim and has profoundly changed the State of Israel in a positive way. At the same time, its impact on Anglo-Jewry has also been remarkable, with families and communities infused with ideology, passion and commitment to Israel. Bnei Akiva’s unique ability to continue, grow and improve whilst still being run by the youth for the youth is what ensures it continues to enjoy the success that it has.