April 24, 2024
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Yeshivot Bnei Akiva Reboots in America

Minister of Education Naftali Bennett. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely. The head of the Mossad. The first woman of Ethiopian descent to serve in the Knesset. The chief of Israeli police. The CEO of Israel Electric Corporation. The president of Hebrew University. Even Cantor Dudu Fisher. What single thing do all of these Israelis have in common? They all attended Yeshivot Bnei Akiva (YBA) schools in Israel.

Jewish education has always been one of the keystones of Jewish life. For the centuries of exile we have endured, the Jewish home has always been the foundation. And it is the cheder, the shiur, the classroom, the yeshiva that provided the collective link in the chain that connected each generation to the next.

In the United States, following the lead of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l and others, the Modern Orthodox community embraced the concept of Torah U’Maddah, the notion that we can devote ourselves to Torah, and also live and thrive in the secular world. In Israel, the equivalent notion among the Dati Leumi, or religious Zionist community, is an even more familiar one of integrating kodesh and chol, the holy and the secular, in one’s daily life. This integration is the central principle of Yeshivot and Ulpanot Bnei Akiva. This network of 74 schools throughout Israel—from Eilat to the Golan—is the central body and critical player in educating the next generation of Israeli leaders. YBA has experienced tremendous growth over the past few years, in no small part because of its reputation for educational excellence, and is now a network with more than 5,000 teaching staff and a $200 million annual budget. All of this is run by a senior management team of 30, who ensure that every dollar that is collected for YBA goes straight to programming for the schools and for the expansion of the network. The office in Lower Manhattan has only two staff members. No students in Israel are turned away for lack of ability to pay.

The network consists of yeshiva high schools for boys, ulpanat yeshiva high schools for girls, hesder yeshivot that combine Torah study and IDF service (including the famed Yeshivat HaKotel with such deep connections to our area), state high schools, mechinot programs to prepare yeshiva students for military service and a college and graduate school focused on teacher training.

According to Elchanan Glatt, Director General of YBA in Israel, YBA schools are growing rapidly, as is their influence and importance in Israel. Glatt reports that “the local municipalities are banging down our doors to open more and more educational institutions across the country, and our growth record indicates this clearly.” Before making aliyah, Glatt grew up in Manhattan, where his family played a leading role at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. In discussing the importance of YBA to Israel’s future, Glatt emphasizes the tremendous importance of connecting local Jewish-American communities, such as the one in which he grew up in Manhattan, with the community-based schools that together form YBA Israel. One example of this is “sister school” relationships that are being established between yeshiva day schools in the US and Canada and YBA schools in Israel.

YBA is the leading force behind countless local and national projects and initiatives that cater to a wide and varied audience within Israeli society. Aside from their core high school education mission, they have created a pioneering lay leadership and rabbinic program for Ethiopian immigrants (Or Mophir), as well as one of the most popular and successful conversion programs in the country (Ami). In furthering its mission to show that there is no divide between religious observance and Zionism, YBA is also devoting its attention and resources to working with the Charedi sector of Israeli society and helping advance the education and career prospects of their youth.

Naftali Bennett is Israel’s Minister of Education and also Minister of Diaspora Affairs. He is a graduate of a Yeshivot Bnei Akiva high school and serves as the head of the Bayit HaYehudi Party, which holds eight seats in the current Knesset and includes among its members Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s dynamic Minister of Justice.

Bennett will be leading a delegation from YBA to the US on the weekend of May 19–22. He and Minister Shaked will be having private meetings with supporters of YBA. That same weekend will also include a Shabbaton in Teaneck with YBA leaders from across Israel.

“When you look at the impact of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva on Israel, it’s truly unbelievable,” Minister Bennett said. “Yeshivot Bnei Akiva has had a central influence on the whole history of the State of Israel. The young men and women who study at the 74 schools of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva throughout Israel go on to fill leadership roles in every sector of Israeli society. And we need to strengthen Yeshivot Bnei Akiva to continue this amazing mission of building a vibrant and Jewish Israel. An Israel connected to Torah, to the IDF, and to national service transforms Israel into a better place.”

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely is also the product of a Yeshivot Bnei Akiva school, graduating from the YBA Ulpanit in Tel Aviv. In addition to her role of guiding Israel’s complex foreign relations, she is a leading voice for women’s rights. Hotovely, a Likud member, previously chaired the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality in the Knesset. Bennett and Hotovely both met with Dr. Akiva J. Covitz, the new Executive Vice President of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva in North America when Dr. Covitz visited the Knesset in February. Both Bennett and Hotovely stressed to Dr. Covitz the importance of the YBA network to Israel. “The exemplary education that students receive at Yeshivot Bnei Akiva schools strengthens their commitment to the Jewish people and to their country. It is a vital educational institution in Israel for the Religious Zionist movement. The Yeshivot and Ulpanot of Bnei Akiva also play a crucial role in promoting the equality of women in the State of Israel.”

Part of Deputy Minister Hotovely’s national service included working at the Beit HaRav Kook museum in Jerusalem. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, zt”l, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of what was then Palestine, is widely considered to be one of the leading founders of Modern Orthodoxy. Rav Kook sent one of his disciples, Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah, to found the first YBA school in Kfar Haroeh, a village named with the Hebrew acronym (הָרֹאֶ”ה) for Rav Kook’s name. Rav Neriah went on to help establish the Bnei Akiva youth movement, serve in the Knesset, and receive the Israel Prize for his service to the Jewish state. Since that first YBA school was founded in 1939, more than 100,000 students have graduated from its schools.

YBA’s efforts in North America were recently bolstered by the addition of Dr. Covitz, who joined YBA full time as their executive vice president in March. A resident of Teaneck, Dr. Covitz comes to YBA most recently from Yeshiva University, where he continues to be a member of the faculty. Before that, Dr. Covitz was associate dean and a member of the faculty at Harvard Law School. He also served as vice president of edX, an online learning company founded by Harvard and MIT that includes millions of learners around the world and many of the world’s top universities. Dr. Covitz brings with him a background as an administrator, educator and development expert. Joel Paul, President of the Joel Paul Group, recruited Dr. Covitz to bring his distinctive background to communicate the vital importance of YBA to Israel’s future. Dr. Covitz spoke of his visit to Israel in February. “As I toured YBA schools around the country with Naftali Kandler, YBA’s Director of Institutional Development, and YBA’s Limor Friedman (who also has deep Teaneck connections), it was truly moving to see some of their thousands of students, including at the Yeshivat Hakotel; Ethiopian smicha students at Ohr Etzion near Ashkelon; young men in Meron in IAF uniforms learning next door to Rav Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb and brilliant, confident young women at YBA ulpanot around the country.” Following the same lines of thought as Elchanan Glatt, Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely, Covitz described YBA as “a key part of a mature Israel. Israel has many needs. Supporting YBA is a vote of confidence in Israel’s future.” Covitz says, “Throughout our history, we have seen education as the core of our lives. YBA is an inclusive, growing, Modern Orthodox, pro-IDF educational system that covers the entire country of Israel, and is deeply grounded in Rav Kook’s powerful message of Torah and Avodah, our religious heritage and our role in the world.”

Dr. Covitz and his Israeli colleagues invite anyone who is interested in learning about YBA to come and visit the schools. A group trip from the US is being planned for Shavuot. You are never far away from a YBA school in Israel. As Dr. Covitz can personally attest, the leaders of the 74 schools will gladly provide a tour to show visitors around, have them meet the students and enable them to see the impact the schools are having in their communities in Israel. Find out more about the Yeshivot Bnei Akiva on their newly launched website (http://www.afyba.org/), their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AmericanFriendsYBA/), on Twitter (https://twitter.com/afyba) and by contacting Dr. Covitz at [email protected].

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