Machlaka: Hiking in the footsteps of our founders

By Kobi Weiner

Split the machane in two parts, bus them away to a location unknown to the chanichim and let them find their way back, however long that may take. Even by the standards of Bnei Akiva, Machlaka is an absolutely crazy idea.

Traditionally it has been the highlight of Gimmel, the ultimate challenge at the culmination of one’s summer machanot as a chanich. I still have fond memories of my Machlaka in the South of France, trekking down country roads, trying to teach Ruach songs to baffled locals and convincing a Supermarket to let us practice our French on their tannoy system. More than just going wild and having fun though, Machlaka taught us valuable skills like tent building and map reading, and it was there I did my first Shmira shift. With this in mind, it upset me as a Tech on Gimmel last year to see my chanichim miss out this amazing opportunity, due to logistical impracticalities.

Thankfully, Machlaka made a triumphant return this year – no longer on Gimmel, but Bet Base – and I was there to be a part of it. Reduced to only one day, the sense of adventure still buzzed throughout our hike as we made our way through Welsh fields and footpaths back to our Denbigh campsite. For my group, the day was filled with excitement as we got chased by cows, investigated haunted cottages and chatted to local farmers with brilliant accents (including one odd gentleman who stopped us getting lost several times and called himself Colin the Navigator). One of the greatest elements as a madrich was watching chanichim doing the map reading themselves (however lost they got us), helping each other through nettles and keeping each others’ spirits up even when we were cold and tired. As well as the fun, it was a chance for them to grow and mature as individuals and as a group.

Perhaps the greatest privilege for me was being dropped off next to Grwych Castle, the birthplace of Bnei Akiva’s Hachshara programme. 78 years ago, in the lead up to WWII, a local Earl gave Grwych to be used to house 180 European Jewish children who had escaped on the Kindertransport. There, under the direction of Arieh Handler and other Religious Zionists, the chanichim and madrichim created a small society of their own, working, learning and living together in preparation for aliya and building the yet to be founded State of Israel. At their first anniversary celebration, Arieh Handler beautifully described what they had created in that corner of Wales:

This dead castle had become alive, filled with happy voices singing despite the hardships. Boys and girls getting accustomed to a new creative life, working, studying, learning to live the principles of Chalutzim and Chevratiut, learning to look after themselves, to be self-reliant, and at the same time, to think not so much of the individual as of the welfare of the whole Chevrah”

These words are for me the perfect description of what, in a smaller way, our machanot strive towards and at their best embody. On Bnei Akiva we take individual Jewish teenagers from across the UK, and bring them together for 3 weeks a year – two in summer and one in winter – in a society that encompasses our ideals of Torah V’Avodah. And if machane is the process of building that society, Machlaka, with the skills it teaches and the opportunities it gives the chanichim to take charge and look after one another, is a vital part of the ‘machane journey’.

It was a moment of immense pride when my Machlaka group did Mifkad with Grwych Castle in the background as we started our 13 hour hike back home, and as we ended Denbigh was filled with chants of “אנחנו בדרך של תורה ועבודה”. I hope that, in the spirit of Arieh Handler’s words, Wales will be ‘filled with happy voices singing, despite the hardships’ for many years to come and Machlaka continues to be a part of Bnei Akiva machanot in the future.

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