Having left his tafkid as Head of the British desk at World Bnei Akiva after 4 years, Yediot had the chance to speak to Michael Rainsbury and ask a few questions about his time in Bnei Akiva and his thoughts on the Tnua.
What is your first memory of Bnei Akiva?
Following the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, the madrichim of South Woodford BA organised a special peula that I still remember. I don’t remember what they did or said, but I do remember how it made me feel – part of a bigger story. And the ability to place chanichim as actors and writers in that story is what makes Bnei Akiva unique.
Was there a particular madrich you had who really inspired you?
My first Rosh at South Woodford BA, Daniel Tobias. I may have been 7 when he was Rosh but I remember that he made BA an exciting place to be. More recently, Baruch Baigel was an incredible Rosh Machane, who captivated the entire machane with every speech or song, only matched by his capacity to give phenomenal shiurim.
Zak Jeffay was my mentor throughout my time on the Mazkirut, and was the complete package – professional, ideological, practical and sensitive. Abi Keene was behind much of the success of Bnei Akiva in my era of the Mazkirut and she pushed me to be a much better Mazkir than I would otherwise have been. I attribute my success as a madrich to Aryeh Grossman, who brought out the best of me on machane and was the best madrich I’ve ever worked with. And throughout my entire time in BA, one figure has remained constant and that is Jonny Lipczer, whose loyalty to the tnua is unmatched, and who has been there for me at (literally!) every stage of my BA journey, from Rosh Sviva to Mazkir to Head of the British Desk.
Is there any tafkid you haven’t held in the tnua, and which was your favourite?
I’ve never been a TO and I never took Israel Machane (I applied twice!). I would say that I am most proud to have been elected Mazkir, even though I remember thinking at the time that my year as Chinuch Worker was hard to beat. I can vividly remember the moment I got the call asking me to accept the tafkid of Mazkir and the overwhelming sense of pride and responsibility I felt. I enjoyed every minute of leading the tnua and being its public face. As Rosh Machane and later Rosh Torani, I particularly loved creating a positive group dynamic amongst chanichim and madrichim alike, taking them on an educational and ideological journey and creating special memories to last a lifetime.
However, the moments when I became a madrich, and later Rosh, of South Woodford BA remain imprinted on my memory as times of huge excitement and eagerness to make a difference to my community. Every other tafkid and professional job I have undertaken in the world of chinuch have all been extensions of these first roles.
What achievement are you most proud of from your time working for the tnua?
Creating a machane syllabus, mixing the old camp themes with some new ones and framing everything within a wider educational structure. BAUK always had some great chomer and themes, and it just needed some tweaking to make it into a well-built curriculum that madrichim and chanichim could understand and appreciate. To my knowledge, that structure remains in place and though I hope that it has and will develop, I am very proud that it has stood the test of time.
What would be your highlight of each year with Hachshara groups?
Torani Seder night never fails to bring out the very best in every single person present. Everything is experienced in an intensely powerful way – I can remember davening, singing, dancing, playing games, discussions and banter like I’d never done before. Torani in general, and the pre-Pesach Seminar in particular, have produced some magical moments, often spontaneous banter or singing sessions following on from meaningful and life-defining educational and ideological experiences. I will treasure them forever.
Where did the ‘Michael Rainsbury’ song first start?
Gimmel Summer 5767! I often used to lead ‘Borei Nefashot’ and emphasise the importance of saying the first six words of the bracha – it became my thing. One meal, an entire table of chanichim, led by Aryeh Grossman, continued singing the Borei Nefashot tune in unison with the words ‘Michael Rainsbury from South Woodford’. From then it became popular with the entire machane, and soon spread to the whole tnua (with many variations and additions!). I was used to the phenomenon – before it was a thing people used to sing the South Woodford sviva song whenever I got up to speak! It is quite remarkable how long the song has lasted, and I suppose doing the Mazkirut and running Torani has helped its longevity. But as long as people sing Borei Nefashot because of it, I’m happy!
What could BAUK learn from other branches of World Bnei Akiva?
BAUK should always be looking to learn from other snifim, as it should constantly be striving to improve and try new things. Bnei Akiva Australia and South Africa have been successful in harnessing social media to boost the profile and numbers of machane, and have good models of madrich-chanich follow-up and bogrim retention. Since neither snif has a Mazkirut, they are better at empowering bogrim with senior tafkidim immediately after Hachshara – we need to cultivate a sense of taking responsibility as a natural follow-on from the year in Israel, and not wait for 3 years until bogrim are applying for the Mazkirut.
Extending the question slightly, I believe that BAUK also has much to learn from other youth movements. One example is that BAUK are behind other movements in creating a culture of appreciation for those who contribute, and too often people are put off from contributing further because they were not sufficiently appreciated or in some cases, received more criticism than praise. As Mazkir, I felt that one of my most important roles was to help each chaver/a along their BA journey by showing appreciation for everything they did for the tnua. I believe we can show appreciation through the way we speak to others (always saying thank you, and couching any constructive criticism within the context of appreciating their giving of time to BA), public expressions of thanks and writing thoughtful letters and cards where appropriate. Most people who volunteer their time aren’t looking for presents, but they rightly want to be recognised for the effort they put in.
This culture is both top-down and bottom-up. In the same way that the Mazkirut should always appreciate those who take tafkidim, the tnua must collectively take responsibility to thank the Mazkirut such as by organising a thank you event for outgoing Mazkirut members. We must send a message that doing a tafkid for Bnei Akiva is an attractive proposition, and that Bnei Akiva is a place where you are appreciated for the time and effort you give. Criticism and feedback have their place in the tnua, but we must contextualise it all with the knowledge that everyone doing a tafkid has made a choice to get involved – and could just as easily choose not to. I would like to see a tnua where every chaver/a feels responsible that their fellow chanich/madrich’s experiences in the tnua are only positive.
If you could change Bnei Akiva with one Veida motion, what would it be?
I don’t believe there is one Veida motion that would change Bnei Akiva – in fact I think we have lost the idea of what Veida is. Veida should be the tnua defining its aspirations, yet it is often an opportunity to say what other people (usually the Mazkirut) should be doing. I would like to see motions articulating what causes Bnei Akiva should be fighting for, followed by those people standing up and making it happen. Whether it’s supporting poorer communities in the Israeli periphery, bridging the gap between the sectors of Israeli society or raising money for important Israeli charities in the UK, Bnei Akiva has so much work to do, and Veida is the time to work out what our message should be. Veida must be about activism, not the technicalities of the constitution. Although it has successfully cultivated a spirit of democracy within the tnua, I don’t believe that it has contributed enough to inspiring people to take our ideology forward.
What challenges do you feel Bnei Akiva faces in the years to come?
Unlike a few years ago where many young people had to struggle to maintain their Jewish identity, many young Jews today don’t lack anything in their Jewish life. For example, many of our committed chaverim used to come from small communities, who understood the need to step up and take responsibility, for example by making sviva happen. However nowadays, the largest concentration of young Jews live in a few large communities where there are already plenty of activities to occupy them and enough young people from their Jewish school who live in their area that they don’t ‘need’ to attend a youth movement. Having an Eruv on Shabbat also offers social opportunities that previously only existed in the shul. Whereas the committed shul-going youth were naturally ‘givers’, now in many places they are naturally ‘takers’ – and we must justify why committing oneself to a life of giving to a youth movement is a worthwhile investment.
Therefore, we need to re-discover the spark and energy that defines what it means to be a BA-nik. Our ideological message is the most compelling out there, so long as we have the courage to live it, and to shout it from the rooftops. We have become very good at making excuses (how many times I have heard the “It’s just a bad year” line…) but we should not be satisfied with low numbers at sviva, events or machane. It’s time for bogrim as a collective to stop the (western political) culture of blaming the Mazkirut and instead take responsibility to spread our message and explain why it’s so necessary.
Bnei Akiva is more relevant than ever before. We need to turn young people from being consumers to providers and we need to show how Aliyah, Medinat Yisrael and lifelong commitment to Torah are critical for the future of Am Yisrael and the world. But we need to embark on a campaign to win the hearts and minds of parents, the wider community and of course young people – and not be embarrassed about risking being labelled ‘keenos’ in doing so.
Any final thoughts?
Rabbi Akiva taught us many things, but perhaps the greatest was his supreme optimism. He always saw the good in others even when it was easier to judge negatively. When he lost 24,000 students, he had the faith to start again with 5 new ones, thus ensuring the continuation of the Torah world. When others saw the destruction of the Temple, he was able to envision its rebuilding.
At the heart of Religious Zionism is an optimistic view of the world, that Am Yisrael are building a future that will lead to redemption and this will make the world a better place. Religious Zionism understands that Am Yisrael is not monolithic, and that different people and sectors of society all have their own contribution to make to the State of Israel. On an individual level, Religious Zionism is about believing that each one of us can make an impact on the destiny of our people.
It is no understatement to say that the Bnei Akiva movement as a whole, and BAUK in particular, has been the greatest exponent of this optimistic worldview, imbuing generations of chanichim and madrichim with the belief that they can make a difference. So, whatever challenges may be faced by the tnua, we should take inspiration from Rabbi Akiva that we can overcome them. Because for BA-niks, being optimistic isn’t an added bonus or a nice character trait. It’s our ideology, our DNA and our message to the world.