“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”

Two-Way Street

A Mazkirut member’s perception of the perception of the Mazkirut

It is October 2001, and little Eli Maman is being taken to his first ever Salford BA Sukkah Crawl, probably by his mum, and probably crying his eyes out because all he wants to do was stay at home and play with his wooden train set (remember those??). He doesn’t want to go and make friends and learn stuff (ew!). Who wants to learn stuff when there are trains to be played with?!

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Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – An Open Letter from an LGBTQ+ Boger

Last year, Eli Gaventa wrote an article for Yediot about our community’s attitudes towards people who are LGBTQ+. Amongst other things, he rightly highlighted the increased risk of suicidal ideation that is associated with growing up gay in a religious community. I write this as a continuation to this conversation, to the journey we as a tnua are on in relation to this topic.

Continue reading “Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – An Open Letter from an LGBTQ+ Boger”