‘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 email@example.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.