Bnei Akiva (Heb. בְּנֵי־עֲקִיבָא, “Sons of Akiva”) is the youth movement of Ha-Po’el ha-Mizrachi, named after the tanna R. Akiva. It was founded in Jerusalem in 1929. Chief Rabbi Avraham Yiẓḥak Kook served as the spiritual leader of the movement.
From the outset “Torah va-Avodah” (“Torah and Labor”), religion and pioneering – represented by the yeshivah and the kibbutz – were the two major guidelines of Bnei Akiva’s educational work and directed its activities. As early as 1931, two years after the establishment of the movement, the first attempt was made to found a Bnei Akiva kevuẓah at Kefar Avraham (next to Petaḥ Tikvah). The kevuẓah became the center of the young movement, but it was a focal point without a circumference, as the movement was still weak organizationally and educationally. After three years of economic and social difficulties, the kevuẓah was disbanded.
Following the failure of the first experiment, efforts were made to establish a training farm for members of Bnei Akiva. The cornerstone of a permanent settlement was laid in 1938, with the establishment of a pioneers’ nucleus for training at Kefar Gideon. In 1940, the members of this group moved to Tirat Ẓevi and Sedeh Eliyahu, for further training. After another year, this group, together with another from a work camp at Nes Ẓiyyonah, established the kevuẓah Alummot near Netanya as the first Bnei Akiva settlement of its kind. Two years later the group moved to Herzliya, and in 1947 it established its permanent home, Kibbutz Sa’ad, in the northern Negev. By 1970, the movement had succeeded in establishing six kevuẓot, three moshavim, four Naḥal settlements, and 64 settlement groups throughout Israel.
In the sphere of religious education, the movement established a yeshivah in 1940 at Kefar ha-Ro’eh. It served as the basis for a network of Bnei Akiva yeshivot (high schools with intensive Torah studies programs in addition to general education) and later also for the ulpanot (girls’ high schools).
Today there are 15 yeshivot Bnei Akiva and 9 ulpanot. These institutions introduced a new approach to the study of the Torah by the young generation, which aroused widespread interest in circles hitherto uninterested in religious education. Yeshivot Hesder, integrating Israel army service with periods of yeshiva learning, are also under the auspices of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva.
By 1995, the movement had 300 branches, a large number of which were in new settlements, with a total of over 50,000 members, increasing to 75,000 by 2004. The basic characteristics of a youth movement are found in Bnei Akiva. Scouting is cultivated, and each summer large camps are operated.
The Passover school vacation is dedicated to hikes throughout the country. The movement also publishes literary material and educational literature. Since 1936, the quarterly Zera’im has been published. After the Six-Day War (1967), Bnei Akiva established Yeshivat ha-Kotel near the Western Wall, and members of the movement were the first to resettle within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It also had two frameworks aimed at immigrant youth from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and a project for young leadership in development towns.
Bnei Akiva sponsors a variety of activities in the Diaspora through the dispatch of emissaries, the training of Diaspora leaders through seminars in Israel, and the establishment of branches in various countries. In 1954, the world framework of Bnei Akiva was established. In 1995, it had about 45,000 members in close to 100 cities in the Diaspora. Hundreds of its graduates settled in Israel annually; hundreds of others go for a year’s training on settlements, and many join settlement groups of Ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati.