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Variations on Simcha
Celebrating 50th anniversary of Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement
by Judy Lash Balint
January 9, 2007

At a Jewish wedding the guests are mandated to do whatever they can to make the couple joyful. Dancing, singing, donning silly hats and performing shtick, whatever it takes to increase the happiness of the newlyweds. But sometimes it's the other way around-- the pure, unalduterated joy of the couple radiates out and infects everyone present with its brilliance.

Such was the case with my friend Tzipora's wedding in Jerusalem last week. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the chatan and kallah are mature adults: one a widower, the other a long-time divorcee. Both of them convinced they would never be married again. While they've known each other for a number of years, their courtship was brief and intense, leading to the beautiful wedding witnessed by hundreds of their friends, including dozens who arrived from Canada.

The depth of the love and the overwhelming happiness of the couple at arriving under the chupa together was so powerfully felt by all those standing around to witness the ceremony, that the absolute joy at being there was reflected on everyone's face.

Several days later, a few of us threw a quasi-Sheva brachot dinner for Tzipora and Avraham and fifteen of our friends at my apartment. (It's customary to have only one post-wedding Sheva Brachot when it's a second marriage for both parties.) It was the same thing all over again--our absolute delight at being in the presence of such great love and tenderness made us all so happy. This time, though, we had no time constraints and some wonderful voices around the table. I'd warned my neighbors and so, with the help of a little wine, we sang at the top of our lungs every Hebrew wedding song any of us could think of in as many versions as we remembered. It felt exhilarating to give such vocal expression to our joyfulness.

A few words of Torah from the Chatan and a rabbi friend and a hilarious gramen (if you don't know what that is, I'm sorry--it's impossible to explain...) delivered by two of us ex-Brits rounded out the joyous evening.

The next night, a different kind of simcha was in the air. An overflow crowd of one thousand people packed an auditorium in the Jerusalem Theater to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bnei Akiva (BA) religious Zionist youth movement. For hundreds of young BA members who had arrived from 30 countries the event was the culmination of their quadrennial week-long convention. The teenagers, decked out in the movement's trademark blue or white V-neck cotton shirts with dark blue ties, had not only held serious discussions about modern versions of chalutziut--pioneering, but they had also criss-crossed the country in a whirl of volunteer activity for needy Israelis.

The closing event was also billed as an opportunity for many of us former BA members to try to recognize the faces of the comrades of our youth. In the lobby, I did run into several greying men whom I was able to identify as former objects of my 16 year-old desire. With their wives standing around, we had a good laugh about what we used to get up to at Bnei Akiva camp.

A more serious but distinctly up-beat note ran through the evening's program. BA's contributions to the betterment of Israeli society as well as its impressive achievements in educating teenagers about religious Zionism and inculcating a love of Torah, as well as the land and people of Israel were highlighted in a varied program of song, speeches, skits and film.

With its major emphasis still on stimulating aliya, the evening featured several accomplished young olim. The MC's, who conducted the evening in fluent Hebrew, were a self-confident young man from France and a vibrant young woman olah from Cleveland, OH. The new general secretary of the movement is Zev Schwartz, a 39 year-old from South Africa who made aliya alone at 17. In a short but inspiring and powerful speech, Schwartz proved that there is still leadership in the country.

Among the other speakers were Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger--a BA graduate; MK Zvulun Orlev; Tourism Minister Yakov Herzog, and by video--Mayor Uri Lupolianski, Zev Bielski, head of the Jewish Agency and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who received a few scattered boos. "Even though we've gone on different paths, I admire your movement," said Olmert in his taped message.

The joy of the moment of being together with hundreds of others committed to the same values and goals expressed itself once again through song. The BA vocal group took to the stage for a dazzling finale of old and new Zionist anthems, as many in the audience waved blue and white flashlights in colorful appreciation.

Just as those who had been with Tzipora and Avraham left with huge smiles on their faces and true simcha in our hearts, so did those who had been exposed to a huge dose of good old-fashioned Zionist fervor.