On Wednesday I attended a meeting of the Mazkirut Murchevet, World Bnei Akiva’s senior leadership body. I have been involved with Bnei Akiva for almost 40 years, and for the last 14 years as co-chair of the Friends of World Bnei Akiva. I have always been immensely proud to be part of the movement and I owe it a huge debt of gratitude. Notwithstanding this difficult period, I hope very much that Bnei Akiva finds the way to work through it and show proper leadership, learning and growing from the experience.
I want to make my position very clear on the post made by Mazkir Rav Noam Perel a week last Monday night, a position that I represented at the meeting. For reasons that I will make clear I believed that Rav Noam ought to take responsibility and resign his position as Mazkir. Notwithstanding my own view, and after a three hour debate, it became clear that the consensus around the world is that Rav Noam’s apology was heartfelt and that he should lead the movement to rehabilitate it from the significant damage that has been done. Whilst this clearly leaves part of the movement and some of our partners with a crisis of confidence in Rav Noam as Mazkir, I am pleased that a full and due process was carried out!
People in positions of leadership should know there is little room for anything other than the most careful choice of words, and in 2014 this of course must include social media. The Mazkir of World Bnei Akiva is one of the most important leadership roles in the world of Jewish education, and has the amazing privilege of knowing that his influence stretches to every corner of the planet with an active membership of over 30,000 children.
The comments published via Facebook were completely and utterly unacceptable. Rav Noam’s choice of words in response to hearing of the tragic news of the discovery of the bodies of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad was wrong, and indeed in his statement from this past Sunday he has completely and unreservedly accepted that not only where these comments unacceptable, but they were also very damaging. It is clear that such incendiary comments would become the source of intense controversy. Sadly, it has brought our great movement into disrepute, not just within the circles of people who are closely familiar with Bnei Akiva, but far beyond into the community and in some cases even beyond that, having been featured in the non-Jewish media.
World Bnei Akiva remains a core asset of the Jewish people, tens of thousands of alumni fulfill leadership roles in Israel and the Diaspora. In a highly polarized world graduates of World Bnei Akiva are recognized in Israel as people who can see nuance, and be a force for moderation when so much around is not. One of the things that has always characterized World Bnei Akiva is its fierce independence from formal politics. In doing so it has managed to create an open culture in which a very wide range of opinions on the key Jewish questions are represented and debated.
It is clear from the meeting and recognized by all that Rav Noam has lost the confidence of sections of our community. The Mazkir is such that in order for him carry out the role, with activities in so many different countries, and so many different types of populations, the incumbent must carry their support. This confidence must by extension include not only those directly involved in Bnei Akiva in a given country, the chanichim and bogrim, but also the institutions and leadership of the wider community, who place such store by the values that the movement represents. It is exactly because of its profile as a leading movement in so many parts of the Jewish world that the expectations of its leadership, both local and international are so high.
My personal conclusion rested on two key points.
First, an apology may not be enough to allow the process of rehabilitating Bnei Akiva’s reputation or allow the movement to fully focus exclusively on promoting the values that have been part of our movement for so long. By deciding to continue, Rav Noam will have to invest time and effort restoring that confidence in him personally alongside the process of repairing the damage to the Movement.
Second, the message of taking responsibility can in of itself be a great educational lesson. Understanding that the unintended consequences of our actions have effects that we need to recognize, are a key part of being a leader and inspiring leadership in others. In my opinion an opportunity has been missed.
This episode has been particularly difficult, simply because of the great job that the whole Mazkirut has done in the two years that he has been in the role. Notwithstanding the mistake that has been made, I am hoping that Rav Noam will find a way to take this episode, learn and grow from it, educating to the values of tolerance, respect for others, and of course ultimate respect for human life.
Whilst Rav Noam will undoubtedly need to deal with the effects of this episode going forward, we must not lose sight of the fact that Bnei Akiva is a great movement with open and democratic institutions and a very important role to play serving the wider Jewish community.