LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX – BY CHANA BE’ERI

I have chosen to publish this article as I feel strongly that these conversations must be held, and that the only way to remove the stigma surrounding a subject is to discuss it. I hope readers find it to be thought-provoking and feel inspired to start their own conversations on the complex topics touched upon here. I welcome all feedback, questions, and comments!

From September 2020, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) becomes a compulsory part of the UK curriculum in secondary schools, covering topics including nurturing healthy relationships, safe sex, and online relationships[1]. Parents are able to opt their children out of the Sex Education element of the curriculum.[2] While the Chief Rabbi has welcomed the new policy,[3] the Charedi community has vehemently objected to it, particularly the requirement to teach about LGBT+ issues.[4] There have been reports of Charedi schools pressuring parents to withdraw their children from the Sex Education component[5] and concerns expressed that teaching children about these topics will sexualise them.[6]

Nobody likes to talk about sex, a fact that is especially true of British Jewry. The traditional, conservative values of Orthodox Judaism combine with the quintessentially British attitude of avoiding discussing anything personal, and we are left with a community who would rather hide under the bedcovers than teach schoolchildren, with their inquisitive personalities and underdeveloped sense of boundaries, about what grown-ups sometimes do there. But even with a pillow held tightly over our ears, we cannot ignore the fact that today’s world exposes us to sexuality from a young age. It’s time to stop brushing matters under the carpet: we need to respond to this challenge head-on and initiate a frank, open conversation about how we wish to educate our children (and ourselves). The new RSE policy awards us an opportunity to do just this.

The 20th Century saw a rise in women’s freedoms, including freedom of dress and behaviour. As baring female flesh became more accepted, it was accompanied by the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Scarcely dressed women in suggestive poses became the norm when advertising anything from clothes to cars to food products. Orthodox Judaism reacted defensively, placing a huge emphasis on the concept of tzniut. Often translated as ‘modesty’, tzniut has become almost divorced from its associations with dignified, humble behaviour, and is now synonymous with policing women’s dress. We have developed an obsession with women’s hemlines, with schools, shuls and community organisations expected to define exactly how many inches of skin it is permissible to show. All of this sends the message that women should not be free to make their own choices about their bodies. Ironically, we have succeeded in reinforcing the view that women’s bodies are sexual objects that must be controlled.

Nobody likes to talk about sex, a fact that is especially true of British Jewry.

Even more disturbing is the lesson that girls are taught from a young age: that women are responsible for controlling male sexual desire. Every girl who has attended a Jewish school (or even Bnei Akiva Machane) has been told at some stage that their outfit will make their male teachers/leaders uncomfortable and cause their male peers to disrespect them. They must cover up, or else they will lead men to sin. This promotes rape culture and perpetuates the false message that women are non-sexual beings[7] and that men are animals with no self-control.

The closest we currently come to discussing boundaries is in conversations about shmirat negiah. From the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, when teenage hormones are running high, we instruct our youth to avoid all physical contact with the other gender. With no explanation given as to why we expect this often unrealistic standard of behaviour, which is so at odds with societal norms, it is hardly a surprise that many young people struggle to understand this mitzvah or take it seriously. In the minds of most Modern Orthodox teenagers, you either are ‘shomer negiah’ or you are not; there is no in-between. When we reduce shmirat negiah to this black and white concept, we can no longer hold nuanced conversations about boundaries, personal space and consent. While many educators fear that if they are willing to discuss halachically non-permissible behaviours it may seem like they condone them, shmirat negiah cannot be the only boundary we provide children with. We need a platform through which a child who makes the decision to not be shomer negiah can discuss those choices without judgement. If we do not provide children with the tools to be aware of their own sexual experience, they risk becoming dissociated from it and making spontaneous, dangerous decisions.[8]

Clearly, outright rejection of society’s attitude towards sexuality results in unhealthy messages being transmitted. And yet, embracing these values comes with its own dangers, not to mention the contradictions that we encounter with halacha. So, how can we promote a healthy, sex-positive outlook that conforms with a halachic worldview?

It’s Torah, and we need to learn

Unlike many religions, Judaism values the physical world that God created. Everything physical can be used to serve God in a positive way and sexual desire is no exception. An Aggada in Masechet Yoma describes the capture of the yetzer hara (i.e. sexual desire) by the Sages at the time of Zechariah:

‘They imprisoned it (the yetzer hara) for three days. They searched for a fresh egg throughout all of Eretz Yisrael and could not find one. They said: What should we do? If we kill it, the world will be destroyed…They gouged out its eyes and set it free.’[9]

In this Aggada, without sexual desire, nature cannot function. Sexuality is powerful, and therefore dangerous. It is also something beautiful, and essential for the survival of the world. Whilst the rabbis recognised the need to set boundaries, trying to suppress sexual desire in its entirety is foolish.

That is the message that we need to teach young people. Sexuality is a part of the human experience. Trying to suppress it and label it as something evil cannot work; it will lead only to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger. Rather, we must teach young people how to embrace their sexuality and to control it, to know when and how to act on it, and to understand how it fits in with a halachic worldview. Children are already taught countless lessons about sex from the world around them – the only perspective they do not learn is a Jewish one!

Unlike many religions, Judaism values the physical world that God created. Everything physical can be used to serve God in a positive way

Our discomfort with talking about sex leads to censorship of the Torah itself. Jewish schools not only fail to engage students in halachic conversations about sexuality and relationships, but also avoid teaching stories in the Tanach that deal with these subjects because they are not ‘age-appropriate’. Stories such as Tamar’s seduction, Dina’s rape and David’s infidelity are skipped over or altered to make them child friendly (though nobody seems to hold the same concerns when it comes to tales of violence, war, and torture). These stories are not intended to be scandalous or inappropriate. They are included in the Tanach because they hold important messages for posterity – just like the rest of Torah! The Gemara relates the following story:

‘Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs (i.e., having relations with her). Rav Kahana said to Rav: The mouth of Abba (Rav) is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish. Rav said to him: Kahana, you are here? Leave, as this is an undesirable mode of behaviour. Rav Kahana said to him: It is Torah, and I must learn.’[10]

This concluding message is so important: the Torah teaches us how to live every aspect of our lives, and that includes sexual conduct. Teaching about sex from a Jewish perspective is teaching Torah. In doing so, we teach our children to be holy, to live as better Jews. However, while Rav Kahana’s curiosity to learn about sex was completely natural, the way he went about it was inappropriate and overstepped Rav’s personal boundaries. If we do not teach students about sex, they will find a way to learn for themselves, and that way will not necessarily be the right way.

Facing reality

In the age of the smartphone, young people can access everything online with near-complete anonymity. A 2016 study by Middlesex University examined the prevalence of watching pornography among British secondary school-aged children and concluded that 65% of 15-16 year olds have viewed pornography, most of them seeing it for the first time before the age of 14. Children are often initially exposed to pornography by accident, as a result of curiosity, or when a friend shows it to them. Most children react with curiosity, shock, and confusion the first time they view pornographic content, but the negative emotions tend to fade with repeated exposure and pornography becomes normalised. The study also found that many young people thought pornography was realistic and wanted to try things they had seen online for themselves. Sexting is a normal part of teenage culture and a significant minority of young people have taken nude selfies and shared images online.[11]

These concerning statistics are not specific to Jewish schools, but it is likely that they are reflective of the reality within the Jewish community[12] (apart from in Charedi communities where smartphone and internet usage are highly restricted). By denying children access to Jewish values-based sex education we are not protecting them from the world; rather, we are ensuring that the only type of sex they see is violent, objectifying, and exploitative. Impressionable young people are growing up believing that this is normal, healthy sexual behaviour.

In most Orthodox communities, the first time a person receives formal sex education is during chatan/kalla classes when they are about to get married (the theory being that this is the first time it is relevant and to do so earlier might encourage sexual behaviour).[13] These can be limited, as the content of these classes is up to the discretion of the teacher and discussing the subject with anyone other than the teacher is stigmatised. In reality, sexual development is a process that starts before puberty and continues throughout a person’s life (not to mention the fact that many Orthodox Jews engage in various degrees of sexual behaviour before marriage)[14] and successful sex education needs to reflect this. Attempting to ‘protect’ young people by withholding knowledge can cause extensive harm in the long-term.

Through dialogue and education, we can face up to the issues that are currently brushed under the carpet and become stronger as a result.

The taboo around talking about sex has a negative impact on observant Jews both before and after marriage. A survey of Orthodox women who observe taharat hamishpacha found that, though the majority had studied with kalla teachers before marriage, most felt that these classes had not helped to prepare them for married sexual life. The authors of the survey noted that the extreme privacy within the Orthodox community can contribute to feelings of shame surrounding sexuality, finding that many respondents struggled with the transition from viewing sex as something immoral and forbidden to being expected to enjoy it as part of a fulfilled marital life. Respondents reported significantly less physical and emotional satisfaction and a higher rate of sexual dysfunction than married women in the general population but struggled to discuss these issues or to feel comfortable seeking advice. Women were less likely to seek rabbinic guidance on matters of sexuality than on questions relating to Shabbat or kashrut.[15] The lack of education about sexuality in the observant Jewish community could very well be to blame for these attitudes.

A strong argument in favour of comprehensive sex education stems from the fact that when a person is ill-informed, they are more likely to make irresponsible decisions and less likely to seek help when they have a problem.[16] Numerous studies have concluded that abstinence-only sex education does not do anything to reduce incidents of premarital sex or prevent teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.[17] Conversely, comprehensive sex education is shown to increase the number of adolescents who abstain from sex and delay the onset of first sexual intercourse,[18] particularly when it includes a focus on gender and power balance in relationships. When students do eventually have sex, they are more likely to do so safely and as a result of a thought-through decision. Evidence also suggests that sex education can help prevent sexual assault later in life.[19]

The silence around sex leads to a great deal of stigma. While this causes difficulties for LGBT+ people, as well as those facing challenges such as sexual dysfunction and relationship difficulties, there is a particular problem with regards to discussing sexual abuse.[20] Victims of sexual abuse are not given the support and encouragement from the community that they need and often face judgement and even blame.[21] Sexual abuse within marriages is hardly discussed, yet its prevalence among Orthodox Jews is comparable to the general population.[22] If we are to empower victims and tackle this head-on, we need to create a culture of openness and acceptance around sexuality.

Taking responsibility

Though schools are now obligated to deliver RSE that will hopefully be holistic and Jewish values-based, it is not enough to simply rely on schools to deliver these lessons. Jewish education is more than mere knowledge: it is a system of values and a way of life that we hope to inspire children towards. This places responsibility not only on teachers, but on parents, madrichim and community leaders. We need to rethink our relationship with sexuality, seeing it not as a specific act that occurs within a marriage, but as a character trait that every person possesses, affecting our relationships with ourselves and with others. We should feel comfortable studying Jewish texts that relate to sex and teach halachot of sexuality and taharat hamishpacha as naturally as we would other topics.

To conclude, it is time for an overhaul of our attitude towards sex. Sex is a part of life and a part of Judaism. We need to engage fully and honestly with our fundamental religious texts as well as to accept the reality of the world we live in and ensure the messages we send children promote respect, equality, and a healthy attitude to sexuality. This can be achieved at least in part by the introduction of Jewish values-based sex education in schools, teaching values of modesty, halacha and boundaries while encouraging responsible decision-making and removing stigma and shame from the conversation. But we need to go deeper than that; our whole community looks to benefit from a more open, honest attitude towards sex. Through dialogue and education, we can face up to the issues that are currently brushed under the carpet and become stronger as a result.


[1] This article was written and was intended to be published last year, and does not explore how UK Jewish schools have responded to this legislation since it came into force.

[2] Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education, Department for Education, (2019).

[3] Rocker, S., ‘Chief Rabbi says ‘no contradiction’ between new sex education policy and Torah values’, The Jewish Chronicle, 26/01/2019.

[4] Rocker, S., ‘UK Charedi rabbis issue statement to make clear their schools cannot talk about same-sex relations in class’, The Jewish Chronicle, 13/2/2019.

[5] ‘Orthodox schools deny pressing parents to withdraw pupils from sex ed classes’, The Jewish News, 03/12/2019.

[6] Frot, M., ‘Jewish headteacher: If we taught about sex, pupils would be removed from school’, The Jewish News, 15/07/2019.

[7] Not only is this false, there is a specific command for a husband to provide sexual pleasure for his wife (See Mishnah Ketubot, 5:6).

[8] Rosenbaum, T. and Kahn, S., ‘Raising Sexually Healthy Children Part 2’, Intimate Judaism, (Podcast),(2018). www.intimatejudaism.com/raising-sexually-healthy-children-part-2-episode-3

[9] BT Yoma, 69a. Translations are Author’s own, adapted from William Davidson Talmud, Koren Publishers.

[10] BT Brachot, 62a.

[11] Martellozo, E. et al, “…I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it…”, Children’s Commissioner Report, (2016), p8.

[12] Perton, B., ‘Speak Up About Sexting’, The New York Jewish Week, 14/06/2011. This article is referenced here as it explores the prevalence of sexting in Orthodox Jewish schools in the United States and is likely reflective of the situation in the UK; however, I wish to condemn the victim-blaming tone of the article. Rather than attacking the recipients of sexual harassment, the author should question why perpetrators feel their behaviour is acceptable and why victims do not feel encouraged to speak out, and seek to rectify these issues.

[13] Yanklowitz, S., ‘Sex Education in Orthodox High Schools’, The Jewish Journal, 13/03/2012.

[14] Orthodox Jews who engage in premarital sexual behaviour often face internal struggles that are linked to problematic sexual behaviour. See Rosmarin, DH. and Pirutinsky, S., ‘Problematic Sexual Behavior and Religion Among Adult Jewish Males: An Initial Study’, American Journal of Men’s Health, (2019), 13(1).

[15] Friedman, M. et al, ‘Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study’, Conversations, (2009).

[16] Linzer, D., ‘The Sex Ed Episode – High School Edition’, The Joy of Text (Podcast), (2017), 2(10).

library.yctorah.org/2017/11/the-sex-ed-episode-high-school-edition-joy-of-text-210-2

[17] Stranger-Hall, KF. and Hall, DW., ‘Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the US’, PLoS One, (2011), 6(10).

[18] Ingall, M, ‘Making Sex Education Smarter—the Jewish Way’, Tablet Magazine, 28/05/2015.

[19] Santelli, JS. et al, ‘Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?’, PLoS One, ed. Goodman, ML., (2018), 13(11).

[20] Linzer, D., ‘Male Masturbation & How to Stop Shul Sexual Abuse Before It Starts’, The Joy of Text (Podcast), (2016), 1(9). library.yctorah.org/audio/male-masturbation-how-to-stop-shul-sexual-abuse-before-it-starts-joy-of-text-19

[21] Rocker, S., ‘Victims of child sex abuse face ostracism, inquiry told’, The Jewish Chronicle, 12/05/2020.

[22] Friedman, M. et al, (2009).

“SHOULD BA BE DOING MORE FOR PEOPLE AT NON-TORANI MIDRASHOT & YESHIVOT?” – BY DANIA MANN-WINEBERG

‘The following peula will be for Torani only. Everyone else can have menucha’. The year was 2018 and I was in the middle of my year in Israel, a talmida at MMY and an attendee on ‘Shabbat Shevet Avichai’, a shabbaton organised by Bnei Akiva, supposedly for anyone in my shevet spending time in Israel during their gap year. Upon hearing these words, I paused, staring awkwardly around me as my friends traipsed outside and I was left alone, feeling like a second class citizen without the elevated status of ‘Torani Participant’.

I have been involved with Bnei Akiva since the age of six, have attended multiple machanot, was a madricha in Salford sviva for three years and had taken machane by the time I went to sem. I cared deeply about BA’s hashkafah and saw a future for myself that included many more years of involvement. I chose the Midrasha that was the best for me (which had a hashkafah concurrent with that of Bnei Akiva). Whilst feeling disappointed that this excluded me from being eligible for Torani participation, I optimistically assumed that there would be opportunities and a certain level of support available to me as a BAUK bogeret in Israel. Granted, I do remember some positive experiences that Bnei Akiva gave me. Highlights included the brunch near the beginning of the year and Shabbat Olami, as well as the rest of Shabbat Shevet Avichai. I appreciated the diversity of attendees, the complexity of the conversations had and the genuine thrill of feeling part of something important. However, an undercurrent of exclusion, elitism and oversights left me feeling that I wasn’t valued or acknowledged by BAUK and that involvement in the Tnua after my ‘year on’ would involve immense amounts of pushing and resilience on my part. (I should add that this turned out to be far from the truth, and ever since the summer following my gap year I have felt extremely welcome and appreciated).

Three years later, I would say I am a fairly active Bogeret, having been a tzevet member on six machanot and a Nivcheret Hanhalla, yet it still bothers me that the year that was one of the most formative for me in terms of hashkafic development, chinuch and connection to Torah, was also one in which my connection with Bnei Akiva was severely limited. I was also curious to hear about the experiences of other bogrim in order to address some elements that I perceived as problems. Based on this, I have spent some time investigating this matter in order to develop a comprehensive, nuanced and hopefully productive answer to the question, ‘should BA be doing more for people at non-Torani Midrashot/Yeshivot?’

I paused, staring awkwardly around me as my friends traipsed outside and I was left alone, feeling like a second class citizen without the elevated status of ‘Torani Participant’

It is important to challenge some misconceptions that exist surrounding the matter of choice of institution. One such assumption is that people who don’t do Torani are not as enthusiastic about BA as those who do. Whilst a wide spectrum of ‘keenness level’ clearly exists within both the Torani and non-Torani demographics, the decision of a BAUK chaver to go to an institution other than the two options available to them should not immediately connote some sort of conscious abandonment of the movement.

‘I chose a Yeshiva that was suitable for my learning style and also has a hashkafah that I think is in line with Bnei Akiva’s’, explained Chaim Stanton (Yeshivat Orayta 5781), ‘This happened not to be a Torani institution’. Former Nivcheret Hanhalla Penina Myerson (Midreshet Lindenbaum 5777) employed a similar tactic when choosing which sem to go to, ‘I was going for the learning experience that was best for me and I wasn’t going to compromise on that’. She also added that she ‘would’ve loved to do Torani if it had been on offer’.

It is reasonable to accept that for some young men, the right institution for them is neither Yeshivat Hakotel or Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, and that for some young women, their ideal establishment is neither Midreshet Amit or Midreshet Harova. If this is indeed the case, it calls into question the intellectual honesty of the way that BAUK chaverim are treated during their gap years. Seeing as BA is an inclusive movement, it does seem strange that individuals who make a choice in line with BA’s hashkafah and that is reflective of who they are should be given any less support or be seen as any less valuable to the Tnua. Put simply by Kobi Be’eri (Yeshivat Hesder Orot Shaul 5777), ‘Torani is a great programme, but a massive disadvantage is how exclusive it is’. 

Also worrying is the belief amongst some Torani alumni I have spoken to, that people who don’t go to their institution have made the wrong choice, with some even implying that such people are inferior in various ways. In my opinion, this toxic elitism has no place in Bnei Akiva, or anywhere else, and I find it worrying that people struggle so hard to open their minds that they think less of people for making a decision that is hardly radical.

An issue that can develop is that some people feel compelled to prioritize ‘Torani’ over ‘institution’ during the selection process. Michael Kay (Yeshivat Har Etzion 5780-5781) acknowledged this, saying that ‘some people consider institutions that aren’t the best for them because they want the Bnei Akiva support system’. One such Bogeret was former Nivcheret Hanhalla Adi Abeles (Midreshet Lindenbaum 5778), who mainly looked at Torani Midrashot during the majority of her selection process. ‘I was on the verge of making the wrong decision because of Torani’, she revealed. There seems to be a discrepancy between the supportive and inclusive mentality of BAUK and the sudden demands on chaverim to sometimes pick between making the most appropriate choice for them and being involved with BA for the year.

It is reasonable to accept that for some young men, the right institution for them is neither Yeshivat Hakotel or Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, and that for some young women, their ideal establishment is neither Midreshet Amit or Midreshet Harova

It is worth noting that some Bogrim have had very positive experiences with BA and have praised the level of communication available. Michael appreciated that he ‘frequently received reminders and invitations to events’, as well as reflecting that ‘it was nice that BA was there for me’.

Some Bogrim, whilst passionate about being part of BA, didn’t feel disadvantaged by their non-Torani Institution choice. ‘I was very happy to be immersed in my sem at the time’, admitted Emma Creek (Sha’alvim for Women 5778). However, she did note that, ‘looking back now, it bothers me that I didn’t have more experiences with BA in Israel’. For some, however, a different reality materialised, manifesting in feelings of being systematically, and perhaps unnecessarily, excluded from BAUK programming in Israel. ‘I felt that after investing so much for so many years in Bnei Akiva, at a time in my life when I needed them most, I didn’t get any support from them’, recalled Naomi Brookarsh (Midreshet Nishmat 5780). Adi had a similar narrative, claiming that she was ‘rejected from BA events when I asked to join them’. She also commented that it is ‘so sad to see people’s journeys with BA end because BA seems to refuse to be there for them.’ Former Israel Worker Eli Maman (Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh 5775-5776) believes that this issue does need addressing. He stated, ‘there does need to be more immersion in BA for people who don’t do Torani’.

It seems that a significant issue for some people was the lack of contact that BA had with them during their year in Israel. Spending a year in Israel can, at times, be overwhelming and isolating for some, particularly those who go to institutions with a smaller British (and English-speaking) minority. It is reasonable to assume that a movement that one has been passionately involved with for the majority of one’s life will provide some level of support and communication to anyone who could benefit from it. This has, to an extent, been the case with certain individuals in certain years. However, there is a need for BAUK representatives in Israel to communicate more regularly, and reach a wider scope of bogrim with the support on offer. Natalie Maurer (Midreshet Nishmat 5779) suggested that ‘BA needs to make more of an effort with less well known BA names’.

There is also the potential that non-Torani bogrim who attend BA events during their year in Israel may experience social exclusion and feel marginalised from the Torani group. This could manifest as people simply not talking to them, sitting with them or making an effort to introduce themselves. Perhaps the responsibility lies with all participants at these events, along with the madrichim present, to employ their best efforts to ensure that this does not happen.

Another prevalent misconception is the idea that BA Bogrim returning from non-Torani institutions are unlikely to stay involved in BAUK. I can’t reiterate enough how untrue I think this is. Clearly, my own reality has not played out like this and I don’t think I am an anomaly. ‘There is a long standing myth that if you do a BA gap year programme you’re more likely to be treated better in the movement. This has not been my experience’ insisted Penina, reflecting on the nine tafkidim, including Nivcheret Hanhalla, Israel machane madricha and two senior tafkidim that she has held in the Tnua. Emma agreed, making it very clear that she believes that not doing Torani is not a barrier to anyone who wants to be involved with BA post gap year. She said, ‘I felt really valued by BA after sem.’

Additionally, if anyone remains unconvinced, it is worth noting that within the sample of non-Torani Bogrim I interviewed, including myself, the average number of BA Tafkidim held was eight (rounded to the nearest tafkid), with each individual having had a mean of three senior tafkidim. 40% have been Israel machane madrichim and 40% have been on the Hanhalla. Whilst I don’t have statistics from a sample of Torani bogrim to compare this to, I think these numbers are quite high, especially considering the fact that the majority of those interviewed are likely to have future tafkidim in the Tnua. However, even though it is clearly possible to remain involved after one’s gap year, we shouldn’t forget that there are bogrim who don’t get to that stage as they were put off BA due to the way they were treated during their year in Israel, which is a huge shame.

There are various potential solutions to some of the above problems. One idea that has been suggested is to add other institutions to Torani. However, as well as the cascade of logistical problems that would be triggered by this, I think this solution would be about as useful as repairing a smashed filing cabinet with sellotape.

It is imperative that anyone who has an encounter with BA leaves feeling valued and respected and every single chaver/a has the responsibility to perpetuate this mentality

However, there are some reasonable adjustments and additions that could be made to improve things for non-Torani Bogrim. Naomi and Natalie both thought it would be beneficial for either the Rav, or anyone else involved with BAUK programming in Israel, to do a ‘meet and greet’ tour of all institutions with BAUK bogrim. Also many people have said that they would haves really benefited from Torani madrichim reaching out every so often, or from any accessible point of contact in Israel from BA. Emma mentioned that BA should reach out to people they know are not going to Torani institutions. Building on this, perhaps BA should send out an annual survey to the entire shevet currently in Year 13 in order to have an up to date database of where all of its bogrim are the year after.

An unavoidable reality is that some events in Israel ought to be open to non-Torani bogrim. Less controversial examples would be the Chanukah party, additional tiyulim and perhaps more than one shabbaton for just BAUK bogrim. Additionally, it seems sensible that the Eilat tiyul before Sukkot should be open for everyone. Many people have suggested that the Pesach Kibbutz program ought to also be open to non-Torani bogrim, describing how valuable the support system would be for people who choose to stay in Israel for Pesach. However, others had some reservations. ‘I think it would be a great idea for the bein hazmanim programs to be open to non-Hachshara people. However, one potential problem could be that the pre-Pesach program is a culmination of many months of programming. Adding new people at this point may be detrimental’ explained Eli.

There were also mixed opinions amongst some Torani Alumni I spoke to. Yona Davis (Midreshet Amit 5778) was a fan of the shabbatons she attended that were open to non-Hachshara Bogrim. ‘It was really nice to meet people from other Midrashot and Yeshivot in a structured environment’ she remarked, adding that she thinks tiyulim should be more open.

Nivchar Hanhalla, Rafi Kleiman (Yeshivat Hakotel 5778-5779) said, ‘I think that developing Torani as a group is valid, but this also needs to be balanced with including other people on their gap years’. He noted that ‘BA has a responsibility to make all bogrim aware of what is available to them’. Sarah Murgraff (Midreshet Harova 5778) also highlighted the importance of making sure that bogrim returning to the UK after their gap years should be provided with points of contact in order to continue their connection with BA.

One of the easiest logistically, yet most important improvements that ultimately needs to happen is that all Hachshara participants, as well as staff members, need to make an active effort to be kind, welcoming and inclusive to any boger/et who attends any Bnei Akiva event. It is imperative that anyone who has an encounter with BA leaves feeling valued and respected and every single chaver/a has the responsibility to perpetuate this mentality, even though this can be difficult at times and can require copious amounts of strength of character.

Going forward, the mazkirut have agreed to meet with me in order to develop these ideas further. In order to ensure that as many people are represented in this conversation as possible, I encourage anyone who has thoughts or experiences to share, to send them to me in the next couple of weeks at daniamw@gmail.com .

I would like to thank everyone who agreed to be interviewed for the writing of this article, and for consenting to have their words included.

*I also acknowledge that this article has been largely Yeshiva and Midrasha-centric and has not discussed the experiences of those who do not take a gap year or who participate in gap year programs other than Yeshiva or Midrasha. This is a separate, yet equally important topic.

“That Machane Life” – Josh Daniel

Last month I had the privilege to lead winter machane for the first time and it was incredible. One of the kevutzot on this particular camp involved talking about the various things madrichim sacrifice for B’nei Akiva and the perceptions of those sacrifices in university. We all went around the table and wrote down the things we had given up to come on machanot: family time, exam results, internships etc. We talked about why we do it and what other people think of it (you’re clearly a bit crazy and hate free time?). So why do we do it? That’s what I hope to touch upon in this article.     

I think machane is a microcosm for everything we want our lives to be.

I fell in love with B’nei Akiva the month before I started my first year of university. People are always slightly shocked at that date—“it’s a bit late to get properly involved in a youth movement”. But I think I’ve learnt so much about myself on the few weeks of my life that I’ve spent on machane—every memory is so valuable to me.  

I feel like my shevet may have begun to enter those years where enthusiasm and keenness for B’nei Akiva often tends to unfortunately decrease and apathy tends to increase. But I feel like I’ve only just started this journey.

With every machane I take, I feel more connected to B’nei Akiva and I’m more amazed with what it has the power to do.

—Josh Daniel, Shevet Avichai

Everyone knows that camp can be fun and meaningful and exciting. But after this particular camp I had a long think about why I really hold it in such high regard. Why do you remember every moment on machane with so much more clarity and intensity than other memories in your life? Why does it all go by so fast? What’s that feeling you always get when you see someone you really connected with on machane outside of a camp context?

Here’s what I’ve pinned it down to. I think machane is a microcosm for everything we want our lives to be. I think it amplifies and accentuates all the elements that we would imagine in our ‘ideal life.’ It’s a place where, for a short period of time, you can really live life in the fullest sense of the word. Allow me to explain.

The microcosm

I’ll start with productivity. As a madrich on machane, you are basically on duty 24/7—doing something productive with your time, all the time. Whether it’s chilling with chanichim, making stuff for your next activity or having important discussions in the mads room, you’re practically always doing something. Never will you get the opportunity to sit down and watch a bit of Netflix or have a lie-in. You are constantly productive. Imagine taking that level of productivity and transposing it onto your life—imagine how little time we would all waste. You would come out of every day feeling fulfilled. That’s one way I want to bring machane into my life.

The second is to do with how we relate to other people. A wise older student once made the observation to me at university that when you live on your own, it’s so much easier to only look out for yourself. Similarly it’s so much easier to see how everyone very much looks out for themselves. Peoples’ aims are to get a degree to benefit them in some way, to get good exam results etc. On machane it’s the complete opposite. You are thrust into an environment where suddenly everyone is looking out for each other. It’s your job to look out for chanichim as well as other madrichim on the tzevet. Madrichim can be helping each other where they need it and picking up each other’s slack where it lies—an extremely caring environment can be created. As a result relationships are formed more quickly and they feel so real as opposed to superficial. People are more willing to come up and introduce themselves on pre-camp. Imagine transposing that caring, relationship-forming environment to university or life in general. Communities would be cohesive units as opposed to a bunch of people thrust together, all looking out for themselves. People would be more open about introducing themselves to others and the relationships we would form would be less superficial. Imagine that world. 

Rebellion

Another discussion we had around our pre-camp table this winter was to do with rebellion. We discussed the history of B’nei Akiva and how, when it started, it was considered a rebellious movement. Granted, the meaning of being a tnua is that we change over time and B’nei Akiva bogrim certainly aren’t rebels in the same way they were when we started. But have we lost all sense of rebellion as a movement? Are we rebels without a cause? Madrichim around the table answered differently—“we’re rebelling against Judaism that is anti all modern values”; “we’re rebelling against assimilation”; or “we’re fighting for women to play a more active role in the orthodox community”. All of those things are true but it was only right at the end of machane that I realised what we’re really rebelling against. 

At one of our last dinners, Rafi Cohen, the mazkir, got up on his bench to make an extremely powerful and passionate speech. He was at the top of his voice, a voice that completely filled the room with his presence, a room that was totally silent. At one point in the speech he said:

“…BECAUSE IN A WORLD WHERE NO ONE CARES, 
IN A WORLD RELUCTANT TO MAKE CHANGE, 
IN A WORLD THAT TRIES 
TO TAKE AWAY ANYTHING 
FOR PEOPLE TO BELIEVE IN, 
HERE AT B’NEI AKIVA, 
WE BELIEVE IN SOMETHING! 
WE CARE ABOUT SOMETHING!” 

It was at that moment I realised what we are rebelling against. It’s a word I already used at the beginning of this article. Apathy. 

Apathy

That’s my last awesome thing about machane—defeating apathy. Every moment feels meaningful and it gives people something to care about. Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael and all under the umbrella of Torat Yisrael. Every davening becomes a bit more meaningful, everyone looks forward to shabbat, chanichim want to learn and madrichim want to give and we create this unbelievably meaningful environment.

It’s an apathy-conquering environment, just as B’nei Akiva is an apathy-conquering movement.

When your tochnit starts in ten minutes and you make that choice to continue decorating the room with that final touch, that bit of paint that the chanichim might not even notice, you do it anyway because you care. It’s an environment that makes people care. Imagine transposing this kind of emotional drive to our daily lives. Imagine getting rid of that can’t-be-bothered attitude and caring as much about your daily pursuits as you do every activity on machane. Imagine transcribing that level of meaning to every moment in your life. I think that would be pretty amazing.

Two Messages

There are two messages I’d like you to take from this. 

Firstly, if you can, if you’re on the fence, apply to take machane this summer. Re-experience disneylanding a tochnit to the extent that you convince yourself you’re in the world you’ve created. Re-experience a place where it’s okay to get up on your chair and turn a meal into a musical. Re-experience a group of people who are all always looking out for each other and throw yourself into a role where your job is literally to care about other people all the time. Re-experience this apathy-conquering rebellion. Realise that whatever camp you go on you will re-experience all these things as well as make new memories. Realise that entertaining chanichim in a field near Prague or Cape Town or on a coach in Israel, is exactly the same as entertaining chanichim in a field in Yorkshire.

I’ve been on four machanot now. 
One was in Israel, 
one was in Switzerland, 
one was in South Africa, 
but my favourite one was in a field in Wales. 
Don’t let anything stop you from re-experiencing, 
and re-immersing yourself 
in the amazing world 
of machane

A second message is even more important. Over the past year I’ve been blessed with meeting lots of amazing people. I’ve met Jewish students all around the country who are involved in their university Jewish Societies and giving up hours of their time, cooking for tens of people every Friday night. I’ve met people with regular jobs in the business world who use the few holiday days they have to take Jewish teenagers to Poland. I’ve witnessed people in shuls around the country turn kabbalat shabbat from a ritualistic habitual chant into a tsunami of musical and spiritual energy. I’ve had teachers who would put in hours of unpaid time after school to ensure our lessons the next day were as amazing as possible. I’ve met parents who Disneyland their children’s worlds to the extent that they live in the magical universes they create. I’ve met families who still turn their shabbat meals into musicals. I’ve met people who are really always looking out for each other and constantly make it their job to care about other people all the time. I’ve met people still part of this apathy-conquering rebellion.

These people, to varying degrees, have made their lives into machane

This winter I had to come to terms with the fact that we can’t all go on machane forever. B’nei Akiva is a youth movement and that’s what makes it so awesome. The journey that I only started so recently will, in all but a few years’ time, draw to a close. But it won’t really. It’s the abundance of people, the amazing people that I’ve introduced you to above that help me know that it will never really draw to a close. 

Life is the best of all machanot

This winter machane I was up late one night in the madrichim’s room. Rafi Cohen and Eli Maman were there. They calculated that they had both spent almost an entire year of their lives on machane. Crazy right? But I think because of who they are, because of the type of people they are, they’ve really spent a lot longer on machane. There are people all around the country immersing themselves in the characteristics, the values and the experiences you get and give on camp in their daily lives. They are, knowingly or unknowingly, living that machane life. And that’s the major message. Life is the best of all machanot. On machane it’s so easy to see what you want your life to be. Have that vision in front of you the whole time by living it.

Do it quickly. It can sometimes feel like life goes by almost as quickly as camp.

The Mazkir Reflects – Rafi Cohen

“What a week it has been, and it’s only Tuesday.”

Rafi Cohen, Mazkir

I said these words on Monday evening as the clock approached midnight. It did indeed feel like a week had passed with so many incredible, moving and touching events tying together the previous few days. Let me take you through those events and tie together some semblance of meaning.

Over Shabbat I heard several times from Rav Gidon Weitzman, originally a Cardiff BAnik who now heads the English-speaking section of Machon Puah, the institute bringing together fertility, intimacy, medicine and halacha. Each time he spoke he challenged those assembled to think carefully about our own preconceived notions and personal priorities as we grappled with one ethical dilemma or another.

When he spoke to a gathering of Bogrim at a Melave Malka hosted by the Kenigsbergs, he challenged us to go one step further, to realise the connections that tie us together and that bond the Jewish people, no matter where we are from in the world, are stronger than any other. We can feel closer to someone from halfway around the world, just because we are both Jewish, than to our own next-door neighbours.

Each time Rav Weitzman spoke, it was infused with a deep love of Israel and full of hope for a bright future. He spoke about an emergent ‘nusach Yisraeli’ and the merging of the nuschaot and minhagim as disparate Jewish cultures mix together in Israel. He spoke of Charedi integration and service and viewed the internal social struggles of Israeli society through a lens that made me think “maybe things might actually turn out ok!”

On Sunday Bnei Akiva was privileged to be invited to the inter-school round of Chidon HaTanach UK. It was an amazing to watch young Jews who had so clearly invested a huge amount of time and love into the study of Tanach, and a huge shout out must go to those of our Chanichim who were representing their respective schools!

Then came Monday. I don’t think I have ever had such a Monday.

As a former student of City of London School, I was invited to a special Rosh Chodesh Shacharit as the school’s Jewish Society has recently been the recipient of a Sefer Torah. During my time as a student, with no Torah, we could only daven Shacharit in school on certain mornings of the week. Access to a Torah (as far as I am aware the only non-Jewish School now in possession of a Torah) is a game changer to the lives of Jewish boys in their formative years in the school. Amongst the guests were the grandfather of a current student (another of our Chanichim), who had attended City in his time, as was Rabbi Moshe Levy of Chazak, who regularly teaches at JSoc lunches.

At the celebratory breakfast, Rabbi Moshe gave a message of thanks to school and staff for their unwavering commitment to provide an atmosphere where boys of all faiths and none can grow, develop and learn in parallel with maintaining a strong pride in their unique, individual heritages and faiths. He also encouraged the students, current and former, to realise what a blessing this was, to always keep the Torah close, to guard and protect it, and to bring it with us whenever we step out into the world.

Next on Monday, I travelled to the offices of the Board of Deputies for a very special meeting[i]. Representatives from across Anglo-Jewry, young and old, religious and secular, leaders and laypeople, had the chance to hear from Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress, representing the 11 million minority ethnic group who live in the Xinjiang Region in north-west China. The Uyghurs currently face terrible degrees of oppression, curtailment of rights, and anywhere between 1-3 million may be currently held in over 1,000 concentration camps (which China refers to as Vocational Education and Training Centers).

Mr Isa told us his personal account, of seeing the resources and rights of his community being repeatedly impinged, of setting up youth camps to educate the young of the community and preserve their culture and identity, of leading student protests and being put under house arrest and kicked out of university. Eventually Mr Isa left his family as he fled China, with Chinese propaganda labelling him as a terrorist causing him to be detained in airports across Europe. In 1996 he established the Uyghur Youth Congress in Germany and eight years later he helped establish the World Uyghur Congress.

His story was a harrowing one, and one which sounded all too familiar; curtailment of rights, destruction of mosques, propaganda, executions, rapes, concentration camps, and a world seemingly standing by out of fear of a great superpower. Worse than standing by, many countries are even working closely together with China, sharing trade deals and importing skills and technology (Huawei 5G anyone?). There are even parallels with the fact that China is hosting the Olympic games! We asked what we could do. “Tell people, teach people, you know what this was like.”

These messages resounded in my head over and over throughout the afternoon as I headed to the Holocaust Memorial Day at Westminster’s Central Hall. As we heard from Holocaust survivors, from survivors of more recent atrocities, from religious leaders, and from Prince William.

I was sat up in the gallery with members of other Youth Movements, and I could see that all the speakers had notes in front of them and that there was an autocue at the back of the hall. Nothing wrong with that, the ceremony was being broadcast after all. But one speaker had no notes and did not use the autocue, and it seemed to enhance the idea that he was speaking from the heart. Chief Rabbi Mirvis spoke fluently, movingly and beautifully about choice. 75 years ago, we had no choice, were deported on the whims of others, we went left or right on the whims of others, the we lived or died at the whims of others.

Today we are blessed to live in a time where we can choose. We have freedoms like never before. But the Chief Rabbi exhorted us to realise that in some things we do not get to choose, when it comes to memory, and taking a stand to make the world a better place we do not get a choice, we have an obligation.

To finish my long weekend, I was taken to see ‘Come From Away’ (for a second time!), a brilliant musical about the flights which were diverted when American airspace closed on 9/11, and one community, Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, that doubled in size taking on 6,000 guests at no notice for around five days.

It is an incredibly moving musical and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. In one particularly emotional scene a local hears that a Rabbi has been diverted and is now in town. The local seeks out the Rabbi to tell him his story and to finally reveal to one person what he hadn’t in over 50 years:

“I was born in Poland, I think. And my parents — they were Jews — they sent me here before the war started — I still remember some of the prayers they taught me. As a boy, I was told I should never tell anyone I was Jewish. Even my wife. But after what happened on Tuesday [9/11] — so many stories gone — just like that. I needed to tell someone.”

Framed against a backdrop of people of all faiths praying for peace, interwoven will the classic tune of oseh shalom bimromav, it is a gut-wrenching cry for what has been lost, and what may yet be rebuilt from the ashes.[ii]

“So what?” I hear you asking, “Okay very nice you were lucky to go to a few meetings and events…and? What is the point of these ramblings?”

The point is this. I used to think we were a generation without a cause, that we struggled to find direction. Arieh Handler and the founders of Bnei Akiva UK helped to provide a home for Jewish children from Europe during the Holocaust. The next generation had the original Hachshara and took their skills to literally build the land from scratch. The next had to fight to protect Israel in war and the next fought to free the Refuseniks from behind the iron curtain.

What is our calling?

I believe our calling is to be active choosers, to make the conscious decision to be part of the story, when it would be so easy not to be.

  1. Rav Weitzman reminded me how powerful it is when we choose to connect to Jews throughout the world and when we choose to see the hand of God in daily life in Israel.
  2. Shacharit at City reminded me how powerful it is when we chose to keep the Torah with us and part of our daily life.
  3. Dolkun Isa reminded how important it is to choose to act.
  4. The national Holocaust Memorial Day event and Come From Away reminded how important it is to remember all the individual stories that make up our history.
  5. Chief Rabbi Mirvis reminded me how none of these things are choices, they are all obligations.

And how am I choosing to be active? I am proud to be the Mazkir of a Tnua that will see around 750 Chanichim, Madrichim, Technical Tzevet and Shlichim coming on Summer Machane in a number of months. Over Machane we will find time to pass on Dolkun Isa’s message. I want each person to write a letter which we will copy four times, sending one to the Foreign Office, one to the Chinese Embassy, one to the Israeli Embassy and one to the German Embassy, I want this to be taken up on future Machanot, I don’t want anyone to forget or go about their daily lives while there are concentration camps in the world. Because we have been there. We felt alone and we died alone. I want the Uyghurs to know that someone stands with them.

Read up, spread the word, tell others how they can act. In these parshiot we tell the story of our nation’s freedom from oppression.

Let us remember our past, remember that we were oppressed, and prevent others from experiencing the same fate.

Shabbat Shalom!

[i] Read more about the meeting here.

[ii] The Rabbi was Levi Sudak from Edgware Lubavitch. To hear his version of the story (perhaps more incredible than the musical makes it out to be), watch this interview with him at Edgware United Synagogue.

#5 March of the Living 2019 – Jemma Silvert

This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.

Today’s thoughts are from Jemma Silvert, who is in shevet Eitan:

Continue reading “#5 March of the Living 2019 – Jemma Silvert”

#4 March of the Living 2019 – Noah Haber

This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.

Today’s thoughts are from Noah Haber, who is in shevet Na’aleh:

Continue reading “#4 March of the Living 2019 – Noah Haber”

#3 March of the Living 2019 – Chana Bernstein

This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.

Today’s thoughts are from Chana Bernstein, who is in shevet Na’aleh and is currently Israel & Sixth From Development Director on the Mazkirut.

Continue reading “#3 March of the Living 2019 – Chana Bernstein”

#2 March of the Living 2019 – Rafi Hambling

This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.

Today’s thoughts are from Rafi Hambling, who is in shevet Na’aleh and is currently Camps & Social Action Director on the Mazkirut.

Continue reading “#2 March of the Living 2019 – Rafi Hambling”

#1 March of the Living 2019 – Jodie Franks

This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.

Today’s thoughts are from Jodie Franks, who is in shevet Avichai and is a nivcheret Hanhallah.

Continue reading “#1 March of the Living 2019 – Jodie Franks”