November 4, 2013

Shalom Avichai

Saturday night was Tassim, the annual right of passage for B’nai Akiva youth. It was the culmination of chodesh irgun, Movement Month, and I imagine many parents sigh in relief to see the month over. 

The B’nai Akiva youth group is very popular here in Israel. This religious Zionist youth movement was established in 1929. The Hebrew letters taf and ayin adorn the logo; taf represents Torah and ayin is for avoda or work. The movement wanted to combine Torah values with a work ethic and placed a heavy emphasis on dedicating effort to building the land of Israel. Today, there are B’nai Akiva branches in 23 countries across the world and it has over 125,000 members, mainly modern Orthodox Jews.

Since I did not grow up with B’nai Akiva, I always found chodesh irgun very puzzling. It begins slowly with events a few nights a week at the snif (branch) of B’nai Akiva. The kids in grade nine are specially honored at the end of this month as they receive their shevet (tribe) name. So all religious children across the country who are 14 years old take this extremely seriously even if they had never before attended a B’nai Akiva activity.

This may sound a bit like Fred Flintstone’s unusual initiation by the Grand Poobah into the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. But b’nai akiva puts Fred’s water buffalo horns aside and replaces them with large Israeli flags.

The whole month, the kids practice a type of parade. They bring broomsticks from home and learn to march in sequence. They also paint the snif, which is a code word for painting each other. Case in point; my son came home last week covered in what must have been the snif’s entire inventory of paint. His hair was so thickly matted with paint, he felt like a bronze sculpture. I followed a trail of paint to the bathroom only to find a pile of gooey splotchy clothes that could have been an abstract art exhibit.

In the final week, the kids then attend a leila lavan or white night, which means they stay up all night. I still do not know what they did all night. The only information I got from my son was that it was ‘fun.’ The religious high schools are supportive of this and for one week, classes start late. The days after leila lavan and Tassim are also school holidays. So basically, the modern orthodox community across the country supports a month-long fest of paintball and broomsticks.

Last Saturday night was the big event. The mayor, the senior B'nai Akiva rabbi of Ra'anana and every B’nai Akiva member and family member was there. The kids were pumped.  They had traded in the broomsticks for real flags and their paint-splotched T-shirts for crisp white B’nai Akiva shirts. They stood in two lines, one for boys and one for girls. The madrichim (counselors) jumped around with microphones and screamed ‘smol, yamin, smol, yamin, smol’ (left, right, left, right, left) over and over again for about two hours while the kids ran around in a frenzy with their flags held high.

And then the moment came; time for a name. Everyone was hushed and then a grand banner appeared up high with the name AVICHAI. There was clapping and cheering and dancing and flag waving. A new tribe was officially born.

I will be honest. I don’t get it. However, I have heard stories about what many so-called worldly 14-year old kids are doing and they would not consider running around holding flags to be ‘fun.’ I am grateful our 14 year olds are expending their energy in a healthy, clean way, socializing in a supervised environment and waving the Israeli flag with great pride.

As I drove my son back, I said to him with great relief, “Well, that’s over.”

“No it’s not. We have to meet at 10:30 for the all-night initiation. We need flashlights, water and a snack. See ‘ya tomorrow.”

Life in Israel for growing kids is on another level.  Just take a look at the thirteen principles of B’nai Akiva.

1. Is loyal to the Torah of G-D, His people, Land and Language
2. Sets aside definite periods for the study of Torah
3. Loves work and hates idleness
4. Sees the future of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael
5. Is kind and courteous to all
6. Acts as a brother to chaverim and is prepared to assist them at all times
7. Obeys his parents, teachers and leaders
8. Is pure in thought and action
9. Is truthful
10. Loves nature
11. Is always cheerful and pleasant
12. Is thrifty
13. Looks after his health

We are living in an enriched society here in Israel and for this I feel thankful. I drove home alone. I may not get the brouhaha (which incidentally is originally from the Hebrew Baruch Haba), but how can a parent complain?

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