Castles in the sand build a beachhead for new Zionist group

With Israeli music playing on a boom box and a sand sculpture contest, families gathered on a Sunday at Alameda's Crown Beach to kick off the Berkeley chapter of Bnei Akiva.

The new chapter marks a local resurgence of the world's largest religious Zionist youth organization, which has some 50,000 members worldwide, 10,000 in North America.

Organized by members of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, the event drew about 80 participants.

"In Berkeley, we didn't have much of a tradition of [synagogue Jewish] youth movements," said Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, the driving force behind the new Bnei Akiva chapter. "This was an opportunity to start something new."

The group will host religious activities and after-school social events, according to Yifat Alon and Dina Moskowitz, the program's co-directors. The two women, both 19, are emissaries from Israel, fulfilling their national service requirement by helping to set up a Jewish religious youth movement here.

Bnei Akiva had an active San Francisco chapter about 10 years ago, but it was dismantled after apparent financial problems. Currently, the group sponsors activities in the Sunnyvale area, but the Berkeley group is the only official Bay Area chapter, with emissaries.

The new chapter will cater to two main age groups — kids in grades four through eight and high school students who will act as counselors for the younger children, Alon explained.

"We want to have activities on a regular basis, not just on the larger holidays," Moskowitz said.

Added Alon: "We want to try to show the children that you don't have to choose between doing something Jewish or something fun. It'll be both."

As families congregated at picnic tables and on blankets on the beach, parents helped younger kids shovel wet sand for the sculpture contest.

"There has been a definite absence of youth group-appropriate activities for Jewish kids, especially kids with more traditional backgrounds," said Leslie Valas, a Beth Israel member with three children. Two of them will participate in the youth group. "My kids have responded positively just to having the two girls [from Israel]."

Dorit Resnikoff, 15, took part in the sand sculpture contest. Bnei Akiva, she said, "is about getting together with friends. It's just there. We might as well give it a chance."

Although an Orthodox synagogue is spearheading the youth group, Moskowitz said that all Jewish kids are welcome to join Bnei Akiva. The organization's ideals, she said, "are not necessarily Orthodox. They include all Jewish individuals."

Barbara Budnitz, Beth Israel president, was at the beach for the youth group's kickoff event. "This is a community," she said. "It's about having good times being Jewish."

Bnei Akiva will be funded largely by Beth Israel, though participants will pay a small membership fee. Activities will be promoted through a targeted mailing list and the congregation's bulletin.

Started in Jerusalem in 1927, Bnei Akiva promotes commitment to Judaism and immigration to Israel through local groups, summer camps and leadership seminars.

The new Berkeley chapter hopes to expand via word of mouth. "We want kids to convince their friends [to join] and have those kids convince theirfriends," Moskowitz said.

Meanwhile at the beach, Moskowitz and Alon, dressed in hand-painted shirts bearing the Bnei Akiva logo, offered sand sculpture suggestions on a handmade sign taped to a large trash can. Ideas included shofars, heads of fish and Simchat Torah themes.

Julian Clark, 11, a sixth-grader at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, created a large, round sand pile with his father and younger brother. But he wouldn't reveal what it would become. "It's a secret," the boys said.

Finkelman is optimistic about the new chapter. "If 20 years from now, one kid looks back at this year and says he learned about Judaism and made some friends, that could make a difference in that person's life."