Monday, May 28, 2007

May 28, 1922 - Bnei Akiva & Agudath Israel Born

May 28, 1922: The Bnei Akiva youth movement is founded.

Bnei Akiva, the world's largest religious Zionist youth organisation, was founded in Poland on May 28, 1922 under the name of Hashomer Hadati.

After merging with Brit Hanoar later that year, Bnei Akiva was renamed in 1929 in Jerusalem. Today, the movement is active all over the world, with over 70,000 active members and close to a million Bogrim (graduates).

Teaching Jewish youth to achieve fulfilment and self-realisation in an age of turmoil and unrest via hard work and devotion, religious commitment and work on the Land of Israel, Bnei Akiva operates local Shabbat groups, summer camps, leadership seminars, Shabatonim, and other youth oriented activities on six continents.

Naturally, the center focus of Bnei Akiva is located in Israel, where Bnei Akiva is extremely active and where many members of Bnei Akiva participate in movement-sponsored activities before they make Aliya.

Bnei Akiva and Rabbi Akiva

The name Bnei Akiva translates as - "the children of Akiva", the idea of Bnei Akiva relates directly to the story of Rabbi Akiva. At the age of 40 years old, after growing up tending flock, he changed his ways and decided that he needed to find out the essence of the Jewish faith.

The story is told of how it happened: One day while attending to his flock, he noticed a rock onto which droplets of water kept dripping. He thought that if something as soft as water can penetrate this solid rock and cause it to erode, so can the Torah penetrate into me - a shepherd who at this time was solid in his ways. Thus we strive to be like Rabbi Akiva for his three qualities: (a) his love of Hashem, his devotion to the Torah and his ultimate death at Kiddush Hashem (having been killed by the Romans), (b) his love of Israel and his fight for its independence, (c) his love of labour and his respect for it, remembering always his early life.

May 28, 1912: The Agudath Israel Movement is formed.


The impetus to the formation of an organization that would safeguard and defend the interests of the Orthodox Jews came in the beginning of the century when the German reform had reached such a horrendous degree of decline that one of its exponents published an article proposing that Christmas be accepted by Jews as a "Germanic Feast."

While the Zionists had made good inroads in Germany and were also opposed to the assimilationist Reformers, the Orthodox Jews had no way to ward off the inroads of Reform and assimilation. German Orthodox leaders contacted the great Torah leaders of Eastern Europe, who, however, were loath to subordinate themselves to an international political organization.

Especially in Hungary, the Orthodox leadership felt themselves secure under the protection of Royal-Imperial Austro-Hungarian rulers. Although before World War I occasional meetings took place in the summer, when the Torah greats came to German sanatoriums and health spas - especially in 1909 in Hamburg - these meetings led to nothing concrete.

Faced with the cleavage between Western European and Eastern European Jews, the Orthodox leadership in Germany, Switzerland and Austria - in other words, the German-speaking communities - decided to launch their own organization. The catalyst for this was Switzerland's Rabbi Dr. Arthur Cohn of Basel, who in 1911 published a courageous appeal in which he said Orthodoxy stood now five minutes before 12 and had to organize itself - if necessary, without Hungarian participation. If Orthodoxy does not unite at this time, another opportunity may not come back in our lifetime was his prophetic warning.

This appeal caused an immediate, enthusiastic response. Donations for the founding of such an organization started to come in. Three months later a preparatory committee was in place and met in October 1911 in a private home of Mr. Adolf Stern in Frankfurt, with the participation of 60-70 community leaders from Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Austria. They picked the name "Agudas Yisroel" for their new world organization.

A rabbinical council was also formed headed by Rabbi S. Breuer of Frankfurt, Rabbi Dr. W. Feilchenfeld of Berlin and Professor Dr. Hoffman of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary.

First Knessio Gedolo 1912 in Kattowitz

The first world meeting was called for May 1912 in Kattowitz, Germany, under the name "Knessio Gedoto." While the Kattowitz meeting was going on, they sent a delegation to Krakow, Poland, to keep leaders of Eastern communities abreast of developments. This committee consisted of Rabbi Dr. S. Breuer; his son, Dr. Issac Breuer, a lawyer and philosopher; and Jacob Rosenheim, (later, the top Agudah leader in the world), Rabbi Daiches from England and Dr. Wilhelm Freyhan.

Their reception in Krakow was the greatest triumph that they could have imagined in their most hopeful dreams. Thousands upon thousands of Jews swarmed around them, from the moment of their arrival at the railway station in the Polish city, throughout their meeting at the Hotel deLondres, until they returned to Kattowitz.

This wise step of establishing immediate partnership with the Eastern communities established the full work capacity of the Agudas Yisroel to become a fully functioning political organization in all Orthodox communities in Europe.

The Third Knessio Gedolo took place in Marienbad in 1937. By that time there was perfect harmony between West and East in the Agudah. (My family witnessed the Third Knessio Gedolo, and I remember it very keenly. It is a tragic to think that soon thereafter many of the delegates were sent o Auschwitz...)

Agudah in America

I wish to insert something personal that was not contained in the Freyhan report. Right after Kattowitz it was resolved also to found an Agudah in America - a territory that was not known for Orthodoxy. It was decided to send Rabbi Meir Heldesheimer - son of the fabled Dr. Esriel Heldesheimer, founder of the Orthodox Berlin Rabbinical Seminary - to the United States to found an Agudah.

My own father, the late Hans Lehmann, had known Rabbi Hildesheimer in Berlin, and therefore, when my father sailed to New York to marry my mother, Fanny Taub, in December 1913 in New York, he asked Rabbi Heldesheimer to perform the marriage ceremony. Rabbi Heldesheimer gladly acceded to the wish of his old friend, my father, and so my parents were married on December 21, 1913, in the old Broadway-Central Hotel on Lower Broadway.

That ceremony, with the blessings of such an outstanding rabbi, would not have been possible if it had not been for the founding of the Agudah, first in Europe and, then, in America! Everything is providence.