Yom Ha’atzmaut: Mazkir’s Speech
Click this link to watch this speech, delivered at the Bnei Akiva Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in Finchley Synagogue on 9th May 2011/6th Iyar 5771 in my capacity as Mazkir of Bnei Akiva.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Your Excellency, Rabbi Mirvis, distinguished guests, Rabbanim, Chaverim.
As we leave Yom Hazikaron, a day where we remember those who gave their lives for the State of Israel, we may feel disheartened that our sacrifices are too great and our problems are insurmountable. Israel is still under attack, both physically and in the media, and more questions than ever before are being asked about its legitimacy, its very right to be. It is at times like this that people look to Bnei Akiva, full of young, energised and passionate people, to be at the forefront of this modern day battle. And the beautiful tefilla we have just been part of is the perfect response. We stand, united, unequivocally declaring our thanks to God for giving us the first Jewish State in 2000 years.
It is not strange to see young people at the forefront of the battle to defend Israel. The State of Israel is a country built by youth. Driven by ideology, passion and a sense of destiny, the achievements of young Zionists in the last 100 years have transformed a barren land into the modern, flowering and successful country we know and love today. Much of this work was done by pioneers of Bnei Akiva from this country. You only have to visit Kibbutz Lavi in the North of Israel to see the immense contribution made by young British Jews to Israel through the framework of Bnei Akiva.
However, as time passes, the characters who built the State of Israel and who made such contributions of note become immortalised in history as great men and women, whose feats are regarded as almost super-human. Names such as Esther Cailingold, Yehuda Avner and Arieh Handler are part of folklore and legend in our circles. How can we inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps, that they too can make their mark in Jewish history? How can we show our Chanichim that they must choose to be activists, playing their part in Israel’s future? The answer is found in Megillat Esther, a story which happened many centuries ago, but speaks to us as if it was today.
After Haman sent his decree to exterminate the Jewish people, Mordechai immediately went into mourning, yet Queen Esther was puzzled at his actions. After sending him normal clothes and inquiring why he was acting strangely, Mordechai implores her to ask the King to save the Jewish people. Esther refuses, saying that she is unlikely to succeed and would be put to death. At this point Mordechai makes the following remarkable argument to Esther: “If you should remain silent at a time like this, deliverance and salvation will come from another place, and you and your father’s house shall perish – and who knows if it was for a time like this that you became royalty”. Mordechai is not arguing with Esther’s fear of death, rather he is taking a step out of the situation and surveying it from an external perspective, that of history itself. Mordechai says ‘you have a chance to make your mark in history. If you don’t do it, someone else will. But you will miss your opportunity to be part of the Jewish story of survival, and worse still, you will have spurned the chance given to you by God’.
Mordechai’s message calls to us today loud and clear. Don’t wait for someone else to come along and do the job. Jewish history is not a closed book – there are many chapters waiting to be written. We can make history – not because we want the reward, but rather because we are repaying God’s trust in us, putting us in this position.
There was no greater example of this in recent times than the late Marc Weinberg, Zichrono Livracha. In the months since his tragic and untimely passing, the extent of Marc’s legacy to the community and to the State of Israel is now there for all to see. As Mazkir, he strengthened Bnei Akiva’s ideological focus, added purpose and professionalism to its work and above all, he was an inspirational role model and educator to so many. It is to him that we can attribute the modern success stories of the London School of Jewish Studies and Alei Tzion, two bastions of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism that we as Bnei Akiva are proud to work with. And after such an illustrious contribution to Anglo-Jewry, Marc not only made Aliyah, realising Bnei Akiva’s ultimate goal, but took families with him, creating a new neighbourhood in Modiin.
Marc was not super-human. He grew up like many of us did. He went to machane and received an excellent Jewish upbringing. His amazing feats were due to his decision to fully live the Bnei Akiva vision. He never stopped learning Torah; he never stopped giving to others; he never stopped finding a new project to work on – and he never stopped believing in the Religious Zionist dream. His vision of bringing Bnei Akiva into the modern era is continually being realised, with Yediot, the time-honoured magazine of Bnei Akiva, becoming a regular YouTube podcast. Our high-quality educational publications are reaching new audiences and putting our chinuch on a pedestal within the community. There is a new camp for Chanichim aged 7-10, with Machane Cadur Regel, football day camp, taking place this summer. Our challenge as Bnei Akiva Chaverim in 5771 is to emulate Marc’s, and many other similar peoples’, achievements and to take them forward – because we have the talents to do so.
We are proud that 250 Madrichim have applied to give three weeks of their summer to volunteer on Summer Machane. They willingly give their time to educate the next generation and to pass on the great experiences and the knowledge they received as Chanichim. This unbroken chain of leadership is what keeps Bnei Akiva strong, ensuring that machane remains the ultimate religious, educational and social experience available today.
We are proud of our Bogrim, students, who give to the movement in so many ways, from running activities in schools to leading sviva on a weekly basis. There is no better place to be than the Bayit on a Monday night, where you will see Bogrim and teenagers taking time out of their week to learn Torah in a welcoming and fun environment.
We are proud, despite the current difficult economic climate, to have 50 Chanichim on Hachshara, our year-long programmes in Israel, with a further 32 going next year. At a time where the concept of a gap year is being questioned more than ever before, Bnei Akiva is standing tall and sending a clear message to the community that our connection to Israel is unshakeable, our thirst for Jewish learning cannot be satisfied in the UK and our commitment to our children’s religious education is paramount. Bnei Akiva’s Hachshara programmes produce the great educators, role models and leaders that the community so desperately needs. Shevet Dvir – we salute you and we look to you as the future leaders of the movement.
To be a chaver of Bnei Akiva is to believe in being the best that we can be. We are not interested in second best. What differentiates Bnei Akiva from others is the fact that no matter what background you come from or how many camps you have been on, our acceptance of an ideology that believes in an ultimate goal of Am Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael according to the Torah of Yisrael pushes us to continually improve and look forward rather than back.
So, let us take our inspiration from Rabbi Akiva, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple yet stood on its ruins and proudly declared that he could only now envision the prophecy of its rebuilding.
Let us take our inspiration from Yechiel Eliash, who said that a religious youth movement was not a contradiction in terms, and went on to found Bnei Akiva.
Let us take our inspiration from Arieh Handler, who not only saved hundreds of Jewish youngsters from Nazi Europe but gave them the tools to go to Israel and work the land as religious pioneers.
Let us take our inspiration from Marc Weinberg, who said that it is not enough to rest on our laurels but that we should always be looking to make a difference and to inject passion and energy into everything we do.
Let us take inspiration from our Madrichim, at sviva or machane, who not only taught us the ideals we live by, but showed us how to live them.
Above all, let us take inspiration from ourselves and utilise the talents and abilities we have been blessed with, to make ourselves, our movement, our community and our country be the best it can be.
Today, on Yom Ha’atzmaut we thank God for the miracles 63 years ago that opened a new chapter in Jewish history, and allowed us to be the words and sentences which are imprinted in this evolving book. Tomorrow, we must resolve to take the inspiration from those that came before us, and continue the hard work of taking the people of Israel and the State of Israel, forward. Kadimah Bnei Akiva.
Arieh Handler Tribute Speech
Delivered at the Arieh Handler Tribute Evening in St. John’s Wood Synagogue on Sunday 19th June 2011/17th Sivan 5771 in my capacity as Mazkir of Bnei Akiva.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Dayan Binstock, distinguished guests, Rabbanim, Chaverim.
Tonight we have heard stories, memories and reflections on the great life of Arieh Handler. We have learned about his remarkable achievements – in Anglo-Jewry, European Jewry, World Jewry and the State of Israel. Arieh will go down in the annals of history on the same pages as the great Zionist leaders of the Twentieth Century. Yet at the heart of these feats and accomplishments lies the legacy he bestowed on the Bnei Akiva youth movement, supported by Bachad, Friends of Bnei Akiva.
From the very start, Arieh was the major influence on these two movements. It was he who brought over young teenagers from Bachad in Germany and Poland to the UK, escaping Nazi Germany. Arieh then placed them in Hachshara centres all over Great Britain, the first being Gwrych Castle in North Wales and the last remaining being Thaxted in Essex. These were safe havens for the youngsters, where they could live amongst contemporaries and learn Torah, Ivrit and practical agricultural skills. Hachshara means preparation, and every aspect of their lives in the centres was preparation for Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and a life of pioneering in order to build up the Land of Israel.
Arieh put every effort into running the Hachsharot and caring for the Chaverim within them. He would travel up and down the country visiting them and inspiring the youngsters with his passion for Eretz Yisrael and their role within it. Indeed, at the first ever gathering of Bnei Akiva in 1940, called the Pegishah, Arieh gave a three hour speech on this subject – and when he spoke, people listened. Arieh was always proud that over 5000 Bnei Akiva Chaverim have since made Aliyah and contributed to Medinat Yisrael. This incredible statistic can be attributed to Arieh’s success in actualising his vision of Hachshara, turning remote places in the UK into breeding grounds for the next leaders of Am Yisrael of the future.
It is not an exaggeration to say these actions changed the face of Anglo Jewry forever. In running summer and winter camps in remote places around the UK, Bnei Akiva have found the magic formula to transform young people’s lives into ones full of ideology, vision and purpose. In the 1960s, Hachshara moved from the UK to Israel and became Bnei Akiva’s gap year programme, which gives young Chaverim the knowledge, skills and desire to learn Torah, practice Avodah and return as mature young adults, capable of leading the movement and making a huge impact on the community.
Following in the footsteps of Arieh, thousands of Madrichim and Madrichot have given their time to educating and inspiring the next generation of children, turning them into leaders. Machane is a unique place where hundreds of teenagers socialise and have fun in a religious atmosphere, where they can learn from inspirational role models and take important messages from Jewish history and apply them to today. Today, Bnei Akiva stays true to its pioneering ideals and this summer over 500 people will be standing on wooden benches, singing Bnei Akiva songs and camping under canvas in North Wales, just a short drive from Gwrych Castle. It will be the beginning of a new era in which only the memories of Arieh will serve to inspire us in our goals of Torah, Avodah and Aliyah – and it is our job to ensure that these memories are passed on.
Another of Arieh’s great legacies has been his work for Bachad and helping it to its role of Friends of Bnei Akiva. Throughout Arieh’s 35-year chairmanship, he ensured that Bnei Akiva was financially stable and able to function, working behind the scenes to give it as much support as possible. Whichever Mazkir you speak to will tell you the same story of Arieh – how he inspired and empowered them to run the movement as they saw fit. Arieh always understood the concept of a youth movement and the fact that Bnei Akiva has always remained one is the reason for its ever-renewing strength and success.
As an older statesman, Arieh’s vigour and passion about Bnei Akiva did not weaken. He was always present at National Weekends, Yom Ha’atzmaut and when the Chief Rabbi visited Limmud. He was frequently seen around the Bayit and loved nothing better than telling stories of yesteryear to the Mazkirut of the time. Following his Aliyah at the age of 90, he still continued to play a role in Bnei Akiva, as he was visited by Hachshara groups on their year in Israel, as well as each incoming Mazkir. When young Bnei Akiva Chaverim came to visit him, his face would light up as he told them his life’s story – and they listened to every word. All those who have met him cannot fail to have noticed his unwavering passion and ideology. As the Chief Rabbi says, Arieh’s ability to remain young at heart is what allowed him to continue being the visionary that he was for all 95 years of his life – and it is what connected him to each new generation of children.
Tonight, if you look around, you will see Chaverim and Chaverot of Bnei Akiva, some of whom were lucky enough to have met Arieh, and some who did not. The fact that a tribute evening to a 95 year old man attracts so many young people says everything about what Arieh meant to Bnei Akiva. He is our role model, the ultimate Madrich. He embodied the values that we teach and practice. In Bnei Akiva, we teach our Chanichim to believe in an ideology; to love Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael; to have a vision and realise it; to do and not just talk; to love and care for one’s fellow Jew; to empower others and to show the next generation the way, to understand that the movement comes first and that it is incumbent upon us to play our role within it. All of these attributes were present in Arieh, and the continued success of Bnei Akiva is testament to his personality and leadership.
Arieh saw great people and witnessed great events – but he constantly declared that he was most proud of the success of Bnei Akiva. He understood that affecting one person not only changed their life, but also that of their family, friends, wider society – and of course their children and Chanichim. The current generation of Bnei Akiva are still Arieh’s Chanichim.
In 2006, Arieh’s achievements were celebrated at a dinner in his honour, with the launch of the Arieh Handler Scholarship Fund, which raises money for those who cannot always afford to go on Bnei Akiva camps and Hachshara, a year in Israel. Since then, many people have had opportunities they would never have received and Bnei Akiva continues its excellent reputation of giving everyone a chance to take part in the movement regardless of their financial background. Today, Bnei Akiva and Bachad commit to continuing this fund and raising its profile to ensure that all Chaverim have the opportunity to spend time in Israel, as well as launching new projects in Arieh’s memory to ensure that his name and achievements are not forgotten.
Thirty days ago, the Handler family were joined by every single Chaver of Bnei Akiva in a period of mourning for Arieh. His passing ended a glorious chapter in the history of Religious Zionism in the UK, and Bnei Akiva will no longer benefit from his leadership and encouragement. Today, thirty days later, we are gathered here to pay tribute to his achievements. However in the spirit of Arieh, this is not enough – because Arieh may have been a man of words, but he was a man of action too.
In this vein, we have to ask ourselves: Are we doing enough to realise the ideals we believe in? Could we find extra time to invest in sviva, machane or learning Torah? Who will step forward to join Friends of Bnei Akiva and give the youth the necessary support to continue if not us?
As we pay a fitting tribute to Arieh Handler, a hero to each and every Chaver of Bnei Akiva, let today open a new chapter in Bnei Akiva and Bachad in the UK and ensure that Arieh’s greatest legacy will never be forgotten.