Bnei Akiva too religious for some Israeli parents

By Nathan Jeffay, September 2, 2010

Mother-of-four Efrat Shapira-Rosenberg is apprehensive. In a few weeks it will be time for her daughter Avigail to start Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement that she, and her parents before her, attended.

Ms Shapira-Rosenberg, of Mazkeret Batya near Tel Aviv, does not want Avigail to miss out on the experience of getting involved, but is worried that since her day, religious standards have changed to a point that she considers extreme.

One of her main objections is that the 60,000-member Israeli Bnei Akiva - distinct from Bnei Akiva branches abroad which set their own religious standards - has become preoccupied with issues of tzniut, modesty.

"I think that the entire issue of tzniut has become obsessive and this is bad for the status of women - the girls always have to think how they look in the eyes of the boys, and they become objectified," she said.

Modesty is a popular theme for
education in local chapters.

In the past decade there has been a push towards separating boys and girls for activities, and in 19 of the 350 chapters, the genders are completely segregated. One of the movement's national summer camps offers a completely gender-segregated track for these chapters.

Ms Shapira-Rosenberg, 36, is one of many Bnei Akiva graduates who have misgivings about sending their own children. Some are high-profile figures, such as the modern Orthodox rabbi Donniel Hartman, whose children, the eldest of whom has just left high school, left the movement of his youth to join a religious chapter of the Israeli Scouts.

Rabbi Hartman, president of the Jerusalem-based Hartman Institute, said that Bnei Akiva was gradually turning its back on a modern Orthodox ideal of fusing secular and religious culture, in favour of a Charedi ideal of rejecting modernity.

"The easiest issues which one can use to lever a separation from modernity are dress and gender segregation - they are basically mechitzot (separation barriers) between them and the outside, while the movement was meant to be a bridge between secular and religious culture," he said.

Shira Felbert, a senior member of staff in the office of Bnei Akiva's secretary-general, said that parents who expected their children to find the movement as it was when they left it were making a mistake.

"It's a movement, moving," she said.

Ms Felbert maintained that Israeli Bnei Akiva is a broad church which represents all chapters, including those who want to become stricter. The changes do not come from the adults in the management offices, but are rather from the grass roots. Critical parents "don't accept that the change is not coming from the [central] movement but from the chapters and the youth."

Contrary to Rabbi Hartman's view, she said that Bnei Akiva's founding ideology is alive as well - its expression just changes over time.

Ms Felbert said that youth movements must empower the youth, and argued that the movement was simply enabling members to make the changes they see fit.

"I think Bnei Akiva is reflecting the Zionist public - it's not something that comes out of Bnei Akiva, it's something in Israel, the youth are becoming more extreme."

But if the impetus is coming from young members, they take inspiration from rabbinic leaders.

One of the most iconic among Bnei Akiva youth is Shlomo Aviner, head of Jerusalem's Ateret Cohanim yeshivah. He views the growing segregation in simple terms - he believes that the movement in the past did not observe halachah properly and now "slowly, it becomes according to halachah".

His view is that "according to halachah boys and girls must be separate", and believes that the movement's founders would have ideally liked to see separate boys' and girls' movements - a vision that he hopes will one day become reality.

Last updated: 11:50am, October 20 2010