DORTMUND, Germany — Almost eight decades after being outlawed by the Nazis, Germany’s branch of the international Bnei Akiva movement is back — with some slight changes.
Founded as a religious Zionist movement to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, this particular branch of the organization has shifted its sights to instead suit the needs of the growing local community and the peculiarities of German Jewish life.
The group was officially granted non-profit status by German authorities last summer, enabling the branch to collect tax-deductible donations and enter into contracts with renewed independence.
The original iteration of the youth movement was formed in the beginning of the 20th century with a dual commitment towards religious studies and agricultural labor in the land of Israel, famously summed up in the group’s slogan, “Torah v’avodah,” or “Torah and work.”
Promoting the emigration of Diaspora Jews to Israel was a central part of its worldview. Today’s Bnei Akiva in Germany, however, takes a necessary different approach.
Now focusing on educational work within Germany’s Jewish congregations, Bnei Akiva educators cater to the needs and wishes of their respective communities. To wit: consolidating Jewish life in Germany.
Ilya Trubman, Germany’s director of operations for the group, says that the educational activities of his organization don’t put a special emphasis on Zionism.
“We don’t have a very strong ideological orientation,” Trubman says. “Our main goal is to provide quality Jewish education. I am just as happy about a young person who decides to commits himself to his Jewish congregation in Germany as about someone who decides to move to Israel — and I would support both of them equally.”
In the same vein, Gil Gotlieb, a Bnei Akiva emissary to the Jewish Community in the central German city of Dortmund explains, “Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel need each other. Both communities are important.”
Gotlieb, a 31-year-old father of three, was born in Germany but lived in Israel for 11 years. He was recently hired by the Dortmund community to direct its youth center together with his Israeli wife Ayelet.
Besides Gotlieb, there are four more Bnei Akiva emissaries in Germany. All of them work within the already-existing network of Jewish congregations.
The tactic is more of an evolutionary measure than anything else: With no independent social base, the established communities are the only bodies through which Bnei Akiva can conduct its activities. As a result, the group has to toe the line — and local German Jews are not champing at the bit to have their members lured away to Israel.
“Representatives of our congregations have to weigh carefully whether the goals of a Zionist movement are consistent with our striving to consolidate Jewish life in Germany,” says Michael Rubinstein, director of the Association of Jewish Communities in the Northern Rhineland area.
“I recommend that Jewish communities who want to work with Bnei Akiva should do so on the basis of a clear agreement, which stipulates the strengthening of Jewish life in Germany as the goal of such a cooperation,” he says.
The guideline acts as a de facto framework within which the youth group can operate today.
Consequently, Trubman stresses that “the goals of Bnei Akiva Germany are essentially the same as the goals of all Jewish organizations in Germany that offer educational activity.”
Germany’s Jewish population has grown massively over the last 25 years, fueled mainly by a wave of Jews from the former Soviet Union encouraged by the German government in an attempt to reestablish the Jewish communities that were almost extinguished by the Nazis.
At the end of the1980s, Germany’s Jewish community boasted roughly 25,000 members. Today, that number is four times higher at around 100,000.
However, these figures obscure a much more sober social reality in which German Jewish communities are struggling for active members. Many of the Soviet immigrants have little or no cultural connection to Judaism.
With many German synagogues often rather empty, there is a huge discrepancy between the Jewish communities’ official statistics and the number of practicing Jews.
Dortmund’s community youth center epitomizes this phenomenon. There are some 30 people, including the Gotlieb family and all educators, that regularly attend the youth center’s activities. To put that number into context, the Dortmund community formally contains about 3,000 members.
The low number of Jews in Germany who actively participate in any Jewish life may explain why Bnei Akiva doesn’t have an independent base there. It still can’t be considered a true grassroots movement — instead the group could more accurately be described as one of several educational programs.
Still, some communities hope that Bnei Akiva’s initiative can help motivate more of their members to participate in local activities.
Trubman believes that by bringing in these religious Zionist Israeli educators, Bnei Akiva can help to disseminate an activating “Jewish and Israeli spirit.” Head of Jewish communities in the area Rubinstein also acknowledges that the Bnei Akiva educators are needed and that they have already made an important contribution.
In contemporary Germany, the religious Zionist youth movement is carving a new niche for itself as it creates a potent cocktail of Jewish spirit and identity — with a measured splash of Zionism.