In my capacity as a friend, I’ve always had multiple identities: to my roommates, I’m the guy who’s constantly serving elaborate dinners to invited friends; to tischers, I’m the guy who has the next song in mind; to many fellow students, I’m the guy who cuts their hair; to people I volunteer with, I’m the loud guy they turn to when they need enough ruach to bring the house down. Still, there’s a common thread: to anybody I’ve met in the past year, I’m the guy they don’t believe when I tell them I’ve never considered myself outgoing and that I often looked down upon social volunteer opportunities.
When I was in high school, a celebrated Bnei Akiva leader visited my hometown to run hadracha programming. I remember vividly how she anecdotally claimed, quite proudly, that Israel was more important than Torah – evidenced by its precedence in the order of the sisma (Am Yisrael, b’Eretz Yisrael, al pi Torat Yisrael). Obviously, this was met with much dispute and anger from most participants, who abandoned the programming feeling unfulfilled – cheated, even – by someone who had nary a basic understanding of the syntactical underpinnings of the organization’s slogan.
That was all it took to lead myself and many others to feel a sort of disregard for Bnei Akiva. How can she train us to be future leaders if she can’t even grasp ideology, let alone simple logic?
Since then, I’ve always had an immature and irrationally cynical outlook on Bnei Akiva. Even though I got involved as a Rosh Snif, I found myself propagating the same lackluster approach to snif as my predecessors, in the form of “Just play a game and conclude with a message about the unity of Am Yisrael.” It all felt robotic and contrived. And it was. We were robbing our chanichim out of the rich and fulfilling programming that we should’ve been offering through Bnei Akiva, and we were lying to ourselves about what we stood for (or should have stood for).
Over the years, apathy turned into staunch disinterest, which eventually resulted in overall bitterness. I always had a justification for my lack of involvement in the organization around which I grew up: Either I was too religious (I wasn’t); I preferred the way other organizations were doing things (but I wasn’t volunteering for them); I wanted to spend my time making money (I still had plenty of free time); or I didn’t feel I owed anything if I hadn’t ever gained anything (I grossly misunderstood my role as a religious Zionist). Truth be told, I would’ve gained plenty had I not been too holier-than-thou as to justify my rejection and mockery of it.
This past year, I hit myself upside the head and did a complete one-eighty. I thought long and hard about how easy it was to simply shun, and why I was too lazy to look for the good. So I stopped allowing myself to be bothered by everything. People who met me this year might see me as the first guy to jump on a plane across the country to bring immense ruach to a Shabbaton or someone who actively seeks opportunities for volunteer involvement where his skill set can best be served. And in this pursuit, the idea of Bnei Akiva had always been dancing in the back of my mind. So, what gives? What’s holding me back?
Bnei Akiva, like any organization, holds brand equity in people’s minds. For a college-aged individual, this helps determine where (if you so desire) you might spend time volunteering. I learned from innumerable conversations with my fellow students during my ‘time’ as a cynic – some of whom are/were actively involved in the organization – that the image projected by Bnei Akiva also promotes a fair amount of disinterest. Here are some issues I believe can be worked on:
1. “Bnei Akiva is too exclusive.”
Recruitment from organizations like Yachad, NCSY, and the like is rampant on many campuses. These organizations offer plenty of involvement without a necessary long term commitment. People don’t see the same from Bnei Akiva, and many haven’t even heard of it. Let’s give people who want opportunities to make a difference at a simple advisory level – like they can by working on a Yachad Shabbaton – the same opportunity with Bnei Akiva.
2. “All Bnei Akiva does is talk about Aliya.”
Chanichim are involved to have a good time doing something that has a chinuch-y aspect to it. We sing “Rasheinu b’imkei Toratah,” but there is a stigma that Bnei Akiva goes skimpy on the Torah component except when it’s directly related to Israel. You don’t have to be a kiruv organization to include a rich Torah component that doesn’t necessarily directly relate to Aliya, integral as Israel is to the ideology. Let’s make people who are well suited for chinuch stop feeling that their skills can be better utilized elsewhere.
3. “I just think the shirts look so bad.”
Practical as uniforms are for establishing a mindset, the tilboshet can use some updating. Just because I was a proud student of my high school doesn’t mean I had to be proud to adorn an ugly knit vest each day. Likewise, the chultzat tnua doesn’t have to be the ill-fitting, paper-thin, polyester garb my father laughed at me for wearing in order for people to be proud Madrichim. It could be more like a real shirt – something that is cut differently to flatter men and women, respectively, rather than neither. Let’s make fewer people reject the idea of a tilboshet simply because they’re unhappy with its look.
These aren’t my unique sentiments. These are a small sample of feelings from many people who will decide, in as little as ten years’ time, what type of religious programming is best suited for their young children. For whatever reason, many haven’t, themselves, participated in Bnei Akiva. We have the power to convince them to want something different for the next generation – for their own children. Let’s use it.
Aryeh Blanshay is in Shevet HaGevurah. He is a senior at Yeshiva University and a former Rosh Snif of Bnei Akiva Montreal