Israel Belkind was born in Byelorussia near Minsk. He received a Hebrew education from his father, who was a leader in the movement promoting Hebrew education in Russia. Belkind also attended a Russian gymnasium and intended to go on to university, but instead became involved in Zionist activities, which were intensified in the wake of the 1881 pogroms in southern Russia.
On the first of Shvat (January 21, 1882) Belkind invited a group of young Jews to his home and together they formed the first organized group promoting settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Originally called Davio, an acronym for the Hebrew words from Exodus, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they will go forward,” Belkind changed the name to Bilu, an acronym for the words from Isaiah (2:5), “Beit Yaakov Lechu V'nelcha,” “House of Jacob, come and we will go.” He explained the significance of the change in name: “Rather than persuade others to go to Eretz Yisrael, we have decided to move there ourselves.” Shunning diplomatic or political channels, the group's goal was a practical one: to settle in Eretz Yisrael.
Belkind was the head of the first group of Bilu pioneers, which reached Eretz Yisrael in July, 1882. He worked first in Mikveh Yisrael and Rishon LeTzion, and then moved to Gedera, the first official Bilu community. Belkind, however, did not succeed in adjusting to agricultural labor, and instead devoted himself to education. He taught first at a private school in Jaffa, and then moved to Jerusalem to teach at the Alliance Israelite Universelle. His goals as a teacher were to fuse Jewish values with practical labor. In 1903 Belkind founded an agricultural school in Shfeya, near Zikhron Yaakov, for youths orphaned in the Kishinev pogrom, but the school failed three years later for lack of money.
After 1906, Belkind wandered around Eretz Yisrael and countries abroad, never really finding a permanent home. He had published several textbooks while teaching, and continued his work as a writer. He contributed many articles to contemporary journals and wrote popular articles on history. He was an editor of “HaMeir,” a monthly publication on settlement and the Yishuv, and in the United States during World War I, he published his memoirs, “The First Steps of the Jewish Settlement in Palestine” (1918). In 1928 he published a geographical work in Russian, “The Land of Israel Today.” Belkind died in Berlin in 1929 where he had gone to seek medical treatment, and was later buried in Rishon LeTzion.
Sources: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente