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Thursday, November 07, 2013 

Bnei Akiva almost made a terrible mistake

A few days ago, when Women of the Wall made their monthly visit to the Western Wall, Bnei Akiva almost made the mistake of joining the Haredi opposition, making a mountain out of a molehill. Luckily, there was opposition even in the government and in the end it was called off. That said, this article by Alison Kaplan Sommer unfortunately takes an opportunity to attack what Bnei Akiva nearly did as "rightward", and I'm decidedly going to look it over to see what the legitimate and wretched parts are:
Bnei Akiva.

If there is anything that encapsulates the modern Orthodox/religious Zionist experience, it is those two words.

It is the rare member of the so-called ‘knitted kippa’ community in Israel, male or female, who hasn’t attended a Bnei Akiva school, participated in its youth movement activities, or sent their children to one or the other.

That is why the grassroots reaction was so strong, particularly among Orthodox feminists, when it turned out that Rabbi Benny Nechtailer had taken a stance against the Women of the Wall.

Nechtailer, the head of the Bnei Akiva school network, had urged principals of the group’s high schools for girls, known as ulpanas, to send their students to the Western Wall to participate in a ‘traditional’ prayer service - designed to be a counterweight to the controversial ‘Women of the Wall,’ prayer.

It was the first time a mainstream religious Zionist organization officially joined with the Haredi community, and individual activists, who go to the Wall to voice opposition to WOW’s activities. Ultimately, Nechtailer’s effort was torpedoed. As reported in Haaretz, the effort was called off after Education Minister Shai Piron, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and several other members of the Habayit Hayehudi party pressed Nechtailer to rescind his call.

But the fact that it happened in the first place shook many to the core.

“It was like a knife in my stomach,”
said Miriam Zussman of Beit Shemesh, whose 18-year-old daughter is both a member of Bnei Akiva and regularly prays with Women of the Wall - and who pointedly wore her Bnei Akiva shirt while taking part in Monday’s Women of the Wall festive 25th anniversary event. “I was horrified and upset that Bnei Akiva was willing to exploit their girls by shipping them out to protests that are actually against many of their parents’ core value system. That the head of the flagship religious Zionist school network in Israel is someone [who] thinks that is an educationally appropriate thing to do is extremely worrisome.”
It is indeed very sad that Nechtailer is somebody who apparently thinks opposing all other sects of Judaism that aren't Orthodox - or at least his personal idea of what Orthodoxy should be - would do something like this, to say nothing of suggest he considers the Wall/Temple Mount solely the property of Orthodoxy and other sects are systematically forbidden to pray there. As noted the other month, even if Haaretz exaggerated some of the facts, it's still very possible that some of the girls in Shas's outfit shrieked out repellent obscenities that violate the Proverbs 18-21 lesson. What if the Bnei Akiva students got the wrong idea from the Haredis and trashed Judaism all for the sake of hatemongering? Is that what any self-respecting parent wants their children to do? Besides, as I've often estimated, the hostility towards WoW has little or nothing to do with left-wing political stances the members may have. And no matter how leftarded Anat Hoffman is, how she conducts prayer in itself is petty compared to the dangers this country faces from Islamofascism.
A dark moment, or simple truth?

Nechtailer’s call represented “a very dark moment in the history of modern Orthodoxy,” said Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman, Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and resident of Modi’in, who grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement. “The idea of a Bnei Akiva leader ordering the entire ulpana populace to adopt the most radical idea unquestioned -- that women praying in a group while reading Torah is wrong and that these women deserve to be abused and harassed in their prayers? How much more misogynistic can we get?”
I agree that what Nechtailer nearly did constitutes an attempt to impose a form of thought control and condemn a gender over a thoughtcrime, which runs counter to what Judaism is all about. You may not agree with Reform's customs, but if they haven't been running around robbing banks or committing/condoning acts of terrorism like jihadists do, or even spouting racism against people of other skin color, then to encourage potential violence is bizarre and wrong to Judaism as a whole.

I would again note that my grandparents were Conservative adherents, and they were not anti-Israel. Nor were most of the congregants at the Conservative synagogues my parents visited years before. Today, it's bewildering how some Conservative congregations have a poor grasp on respect for Israel, and some even decided to legitimize homosexuality. But back in the day, they had a better grip on decent values and were far from taking up the kind of weird customs Reform women do with the kippas and tefillin (even today, from what I know, they're still far from that). That's why, if I caught any Orthodox adherent damning my grandparents, their beliefs in tasteful values notwithstanding, I would blow my stack. I wonder what if a child of Conservative upbringing wanted to join their movement. Would they reject him/her simply because they're not Orthodox? I think that's a very bad example to set, and if they did that, they'd only further the impression that non-Orthodox are unwanted in Israel.

Plus, back in the day, the Conservative movement was formed as an attempt to counter what they saw as the Reform movement's deviation from stuff like respect for Israel. They simply wanted to improve upon the errors the Reforms were making, and offer up a non-Orthodox sect that could be more appealing and not as weird as the Reforms have been.
Not every Bnei Akiva parent, however, felt the move was utterly inconsistent with the values of most of the students. Kira Sirote of Ra’anana, whose daughter attends a Tel Aviv Bnei Akiva high school, staked out a carefully nuanced position. “I really think it is a terrible idea to send schools to demonstrate on any topic. But it is part of the society here - and if it makes sense to take children out of school to protest anything, this is well within Bnei Akiva’s philosophical direction,” she said.

“I asked my daughter, how would one of your friends react, if a girl was davening at the Kotel and she were to see a group of women some of whom were wearing tallis and tefillin (prayer shawls and phylacteries) at the wall. Her reaction was instinctive and immediate - she would ask: why are they doing it here? If they are going to be rebel against tradition, to do so at the Kotel? Yes, she and her friends would find that upsetting and offensive. If the question is whether a step like this (countering Women of the Wall) represents what the vast majority of the ulpana girls actually feel, I would have to say yes, it does.”
All this does is tell us somebody's got a very thin skin and can't accept any other sect than Orthodoxy, based more on customs than on political beliefs. And again, Reform prayer customs, no matter how much you may dislike them, are petty compared to concerns about Islamofascism, which this idiot mother must not comprehend. Maybe they don't like Reform customs, but the Wall hasn't collapsed from their MO, and they should be letting the Lord decide whether WoW are worthy or not.
Scraping raw nerves

This week’s Women of the Wall-related events touched two raw nerves. The first: whether Bnei Akiva should stick to a purely educational agenda or whether political activism is consistent with its values. Bnei Akiva is highly identified with the settler movement and there were impassioned debates when schools in the network took students to demonstrations against territorial withdrawal.
Well there's something more worth protesting. Withdrawals have only done horrific damage to this country that even WoW cannot come close to causing, and while I won't say the question of whether political activism is ill-advised for Bnei Akiva, I will say that worries about dhimmitude and jihadism are much more legit than Jewish prayer customs.
The second ultra-sensitive nerve is the role of Bnei Akiva in what is being perceived as the rightward religious shift of the religious Zionist camp when it comes to the question of women’s role in Judaism, modesty, and separation of the sexes.
"Rightward"? Sommer may be seemingly restrained here, but I still see that as a dumb smear tactic. That kind of mentality does not serve Judaism well. Not Orthodoxy or any other movement. And it sure doesn't serve righties well either. At worst, it's an embarrassment to the right in Israel and it'd be ill-advised to take it lightly. Granted, she's correct that it's merely perception. But coming from Haaretz, that's still something to worry about, that they must think this literally characterizes the right in every way. Right and left are meaningless in all due honesty, and whatever Bnei Akiva is doing now doesn't speak for me.
Technically the triad of Bnei Akiva institutions - the Israeli youth movement, the international network of youth movement and the chain of Israeli schools - are separate entities. But there is a common understanding that Bnei Akiva is meant to represent the religious Zionist mainstream. And there is institutional cross-fertilization. Nechtailer, for example, is the former secretary of the Israeli youth movement, where his conservative stance on gender issues has sparked headlines in the past - most prominently when he has resisted allowing Bnei Akiva youth groups participate in ceremonies where women were singing.
Here, I could almost overlook their terminology of Nechtailer's acts as "conservative", though even here, it's ridiculous to suggest it actually represents conservatism in every way, shape and form. Apart from that, his villification of women's singing is offensive to the memory of biblical Miriam, who'd led the ancient Israelites in song and dance after the escape from Egypt across the Red Sea. I got a hunch he knows he's desecrated her memory too.
The changes in attitudes in Bnei Akiva youth movement culture can be illustrated through the shift away from mixed dancing.

Touch me not

As a 50-something acquaintance explained to me once, when his parents were in Bnei Akiva, there was mixed-couples dancing at events. By the time he joined, that was forbidden, but boys and girls still danced in a circle holding hands. While he was there, the norm shifted moved to boys dancing in a circle and girls in an outer circle around them. Today, as anyone who has attended a Bnei Akiva event knows - the standard has evolved into separate circles of dancing, usually with a mechitza (separation barrier) between boys and girls so they can’t see each other, and in some communities - there are totally separate male and female chapters and separate activities.

In many Israeli communities today, girls who wear pants or unacceptably short skirts are regularly told that they cannot be Bnei Akiva counselors unless they change their style of dress - both during and outside official Bnei Akiva events. And in a sign of resistance to egalitarian practice, some girls who read from the Torah in all-women’s prayer groups have been told that this activity is inappropriate for Bnei Akiva leaders.

As Sztokman of JOFA sees it, slowly but surely, “The contours of Modern Orthodoxy are disappearing into a sea of radical religious misogyny. Bnei Akiva used to be the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy - religious Zionism. It was supposed to be the symbol of a religious life that values modern sensibilities, secular education, and women as equal partners.”

To her, the decision to call on the girls to protest “is like sealing the fate of Bnei Akiva, an arm of Modern Orthodoxy and watching it fall to religious radicalism.”
As mentioned above, on the whole dance/song issue, their decree against it is an insult and desecration of Biblical Miriam, who'd led the Israelites in song and dance after their escape from Egypt. At worst, it constitutes an peculiar, backwards fear of sex, acting as though this is the cause of all the badness in the world, rather than mentalities that teach and preach violent jihad. And what the Haredis are doing by running separation of sexes runs the risk of imitating Islamic customs that call for the same.

And condemning women for wearing pants is another petty issue. There's a lot of clothing concepts that look as good on women as on men, far more so than the other way around, and by villifying that, they're setting another poor example, suggesting they think an insular mindset is appropriate while shunning anyone who steps out of their line.

By taking these positions, they could also risk teaching boys to be negative and dehumanizing towards girls, and cause girls to develop low self-esteem. Which is not good for Judaism either.
Beyond the issue of supporting or opposing Women of the Wall, she stresses, is what this incident says about the direction of Orthodox education.

“The whole idea of using students as bodies, as pawns to just show up in order to make a political statement -- that goes against the most basic premise of individual freedom and liberty," Sztokman says. "The idea that the schools don't actually care about helping students form ideas and individual positions on complex issues -- this really erases the entire concept of individuality.”

Instead, Bnei Akiva is left with the “top-down imposition of uniform, monolithic ideas that characterizes ultra-Orthodox culture in Israel. Modern Orthodoxy was supposed to be different. It was supposed to encourage the development of ideas, pluralism, democracy, not to impose groupthink.”

Daniel Goldman, co-chairman of World Bnei Akiva, says he understands the concerns of women - and men – but that he prefers to look on the bright side.
No, he prefers to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the bad example they're setting today. If he really cared, he'd be setting out this very moment to campaign for reversing some of the harsher policies they've imposed that only embarrass the movement, making them look as though they think beliefs in separation of sexes must apply even outside the synagogue auditorium in all instances. In ancient times, when synagogues decided men and women should pray separately, it was only because they felt socializing wasn't something appropriate during prayer sessions, not because they thought it was throughly abominable. Outside the synagogue sessions, no such notions were ever preached and enforced.
This week, the Bnei Akiva community pushed back against Nechtailer’s effort, and in the end, there was no identifiable presence of Bnei Akiva girls at the Wall on Monday.

“The good news is that nobody showed up - there was pressure from above and below that stopped it from happening," says Goldman. "In that sense I think it clarified that there are lines which are obvious to our wider public that simply shouldn’t be crossed. Ultimately, whatever the cause, the schools and the girls made the decision that this was not something they should be involved in and they stayed away.”
Even so, the current hierarchy in Bnei Akiva must be challenged and told they should reverse the sex-segregation policies. If they think sex between youngsters is a problem, as I assume they do, what they can do is preach abstinence until adulthood, as some Judeo-Christians do teach. And they certainly shouldn't go miles out of their way to act as though a boy and girl falling in love is the flat-out worst thing that could happen. Parents who find today's conduct in Bnei Akiva objectionable and setting poor examples should warn they'll cut funding and remove their children from their movement, to say nothing of work to set up alternatives. Only that way will they have any proper impact on a bad policy. There's no need to provide papers like Haaretz with ammo to use against Zionism either.

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