Brit Chalutzim Dati'im
ברית חלוצים דתיים
Acronym: Bachad (בח"ד)
Translation: The Alliance of Religious Pioneers
by Verity Steele
DipRAM, LRAM, LTCL, BSc Econ (Hons), MA(Mtpp), MRes
The driveway leading up to the Bachad Farm Institute, Thaxted, c.1947
Photograph: Edith Hepner, c.1949
Used by kind permission of the Klausner family
Sometimes, Life takes one down surprising paths! This has certainly been the case in my experience, especially when as a musician, I found myself in Israel (1987-88) working as a violinist in the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra. Coming back from a rehearsal one night, a remarkable incident alerted me to the existence of a Jewish training farm, just a few fields' distance from my childhood home back in Thaxted, Essex, some 2,500 miles away! (For the full story click on 'Verity's Journey' above or on the links below to an account in either English or Hebrew).
The 'journey' I have been on since that mind-blowing moment so many years ago has involved further surprises, beneficial 'happenings' and the great privilege of meeting many people who were involved with the Jewish Orthodox, Socialist group who owned and ran the farm across the fields - Bachad, the Alliance of Religious Pioneers (Brit Chalutzim Dati'im is the full name in Hebrew).
To cut a long story short, I am now writing a PhD on Bachad (due for completion, June 2023 @ the University of Southampton). The aim of this site is to share some of my discoveries, provide a little background to Bachad and its origins and to inject life into this history through engagement with people and their stories.
The Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra of Israel under the baton of conductor, Lior Shambadal, April 1988.
Photograph: Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra
The 'adventure' of spending the best part of a year playing violin with this orchestra has left a deep and lasting impression - many 'firsts' such as getting to know Holocaust survivors personally, beginning to learn Hebrew and learning for the first time that we 'Brits' have a troubling history when it comes to Mandate Palestine.
Bachad's Background in Germany
The Orthodox Jewish pioneering youth movement, Brit Chalutzim Dati'i'm, (usually known by its short title, Bachad), was formally inaugurated in 1928 in Germany. The idea of 'chalutziut' (pioneering) had begun decades earlier amongst secular youth movements and the idea of chalutzic 'hachsharah' was to equip young Jewish men and women with skills in agriculture or artisan crafts which would gain them entry to Palestine - then under the British Mandate.
Religious Jews began to embrace similar pioneering goals from the early 1920s onwards - but with a difference: they did not want to compromise on observing the customs of their Jewish faith. Amongst other things, this meant keeping the Sabbath and Jewish Festivals as holy days (not working) and only eating kosher food. The early attempts at establishing a religious hachsharah in Germany were not entirely successful - partly because there were as yet not sufficient numbers of religious chalutzim to make the experiment viable.
The main idea behind the establishment of Bachad - as its name suggests - was to unite Orthodox Jewish pioneers from various different groups: Tzeire Mizrachi, Brit Hanoar, Ezra and even Agudas Israel. By the time of its official launch, a number of its first members were on hachsharah at Rodges, near Fulda. Bachad's Modern Orthodox approach was open-minded, outward-looking and ambitious in terms of striving to apply Torah principles to the whole of life. Members aspired to a high level of education - not only in the field of agriculture and the study of Judaism, but in the study of literature, history, knowledge of Eretz Israel and the Hebrew language. All this was put into practice within a socialist framework: the hachsharot were designed to be run like kibbutzim, along the lines of those already in operation in Palestine, but were customised to accommodate the particular needs of religious Jews.
The first pioneers to make Aliyah from Rodges arrived in Palestine in 1929. They named their new kvutzah Rodges, after their place of origin in Germany - and kept very close contact, often sending shlichim (emissiaries) back to Germany to mentor the younger members, preparing them for the very much harsher conditions they would encounter in Eretz Israel.
Chaverim at Kibbutz Rodges, c. 1929
(by kind permission of S. Taaseh)
Bachad's HQ moves to London!
Following the violence of Kristallnacht (9-10 November, 1938), all but two of Bachad's hachsharot (Geringshof and Steckelsdorf) were closed - and these only continued under very restricted conditions under the tight supervision of the Gestapo. Jews were trying to flee Germany as never before. Jewish leaders, along with some from the Christian community, including a significant number of Quakers, began putting pressure on the British Government to 'do something'! A number of schemes resulted, later collectively known as the Kindertransport, by which the British government granted entry to around 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. This development was of particular interest to Bachad and also to another organisation with whom it had been cooperating since the mid-1930s: Youth Aliyah.
Bachad leader, Arieh Handler, who had previously been granted permission by the Gestapo to travel to the various hachsharah farms (including to Bachad's centres elsewhere in Europe), happened to be out of the country (in Jerusalem, in fact) when Kristallnacht took place. He received a telegram informing him of the violence and arrests that had taken place and was instructed not to come back! At the suggestion of Henrietta Szold, Arieh proceeded to London with letters of introduction to key figures in the Jewish community. There, from an office in Woburn House, close to the hub of the Refugee Movement in London, he set about networking and organising. The need to find placements for Orthodox children amongst the 10,000 children permitted to enter the U.K. via the Kindertransport schemes from early 1939 tested Handler's organisational skills to the limit - he was determined to provide places of refuge (ideally, hachsharah training farms) for as many of the children from observant families as possible.
The most famous and largest hachsharah over which Bachad had some, but not complete autonomy in terms of management, was Grwych Castle, Abergele, North Wales (August 1939 -1941) - more recently in the limelight due to it having been used as the venue for 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here'! Conditions were very grim to begin with, as the place had been uninhabited for many years! Another hachsharah formed early on was at Gorman's Farm, Millisle, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. A number of Bachad members who had previously been on hachsharah in Germany ended up there.
Bachad's first hachsharah in the UK was in fact Thornham Fold Farm, set up with the help of the Manchester Jewish community in February1939. It was located near Castleton, Rochdale, on very exposed land overlooking the city. Again, conditions were very spartan. One of those billeted there recalled that he'd woken up one morning to find snow on his bed! Mercifully, this ceased to be a hachsharah in 1942.
By this time, a few other hachsharot had been established: St. Asaph, Ruthin and Rosset (all in Flintshire, N. Wales); Kynnersley, Shropshire, Maidsmoreton, Buckingham and Avoncroft College, Bromsgrove. These took in members from the hachsharot that were closing (Gwrych Castle (1942); Whittingehame, East Lothian (1941); Later on, hachsharot were established at Ollerton and Dockenfield, but Bromsgrove and Buckingham were by far the largest. Nearly all these places served as accommodation bases for the members - run like mini-kibbutzim - from which agricultural work (on-the-job training) was found with local farmers. Not only were members working towards their goal of eventually getting to Eretz Israel, but they had the satisfaction of knowing that they were contributing to the important task of wartime food production! (That's if they'd managed to avoid being interned as 'Enemy Aliens'!)
Arieh Handler was hatching a grander plan, however. What Bachad needed, was a farm of its own, which could be run exactly in line with Bachad's religious ideals. For this, Arieh needed the help of some well-established businessmen! To achieve this, he set up the Bachad Fellowship in 1942, and appointed as chairman, Oscar Philipp (co-owner of the international metals company, Philipps Brothers). This over-seeing committee set about fund-raising and garnering support of the Jewish community, including the Chief Rabbi. At long last, in September 1944, they purchased a run-down farm at Thaxted, Essex, which soon became Bachad's 'flagship' hachsharah - The Bachad Farm Institute, Thaxted, Essex. In addition to training Bachad members for Aliyah, it was a place to which many groups in the Jewish community came on visits. It also inspired many members of Bachad's junior movement, Bnei Akiva, to come, firstly to attend harvesting camps or annual meetings (Pegishot), but then, when they were old enough, to join the hachsharah and prepare for Aliyah to one of the by-now-established religious kibbutzim in Israel.
In addition to the hachsharot, December 1941 saw the opening of the Mercaz Limmud in Manchester. The idea was that selected chaverim from the hachsharot would be sent there for a period of three months' study - sometimes more. Some of the girls were sent there to do the cooking and cleaning!
Below are a few photographs of the hachsharah farm at Thaxted:
But life in Germany became increasingly tough for Jews after 1933 - the year Hitler and his National Socialist Party came to power. With many losing their jobs and with antisemitism on the rise, hachsharah became an increasingly attractive option - hopefully, a means of emigration for those who had no financial means to buy their way into countries such as Britain, whose government had virtually closed its doors to those fleeing Germany.
To begin with, the Nazis were somewhat tolerant of the idea of the hachsharah farms - they viewed the 'retraining' of Jews, many of whom had been ousted from more 'intellectual' professions, as a useful method of preventing social unrest, whilst accomplishing the Nazi goal of removing Jews from the Fatherland. So Bachad's main hachsharot - Geringshof and Steckelsdorf - became over-subscribed. Bachad worked hard to find work-placements for single members and apprenticeship places for would-be locksmiths, tanners or gardeners.
But as Nazi persecution grew ever more severe, Bachad needed to find new solutions: this involved expanding their work abroad - to countries through which its members might find a route to Palestine. This situation was made much more difficult by the fact that the British were not allowing many Jews in to Palestine at this crucial time. Holland and Italy were the obvious choices for expansion, but there were also Bachad outposts in Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and Czechoslovakia. However, events would take a turn for the worse in November 1938!
The living accommodation at the Bachad Farm, Thaxted.
Photograph: Edith Hepner
Right: The late Mr. Edmund Leeder (a distant cousin of Verity's and farmer of adjacent land) talking to Aaron Ellern (ז"ל), the first manager of the Thaxted farm and another Bachad member with the old farmhouse in the background.
One of the farm buildings at Thaxted. Take note of the sign on the gable end - 'Handler Rd'! In 1942, Arieh Handler gathered together a group of London-based Jewish businessmen to form the Bachad Fellowship under the chairmanship of Oscar Philipp. They served as guarantors for the loan taken out by Bachad to buy the Thaxted farm and were in reality Bachad's executive committee, shaping policies and taking the big decisions. The hachsharah farm at Thaxted was the first farm actually owned by Bachad, providing the long-awaited opportunity to run an establishment in line with their beliefs and values.
If you have further information or comments, please use the contact form below.
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No comprehensive account of Bachad's history has so far been published in English, so wishing to rectify this, I deliberately opted for a broad working title:
The Jewish Youth Movement, Bachad (Brit Chalutzim Dati'im): Ideological development and legacy
This has allowed me to cast my net as widely as possible (thinking ahead to the possibility of publishing a book!). However, the PhD - which cannot include everything - will analyse the 'transnational' and 'diasporic' elements present within Bachad's thinking, its extensive networking and reach, including the tensions that exist between these two elements. I will also draw out the competing driving forces present in Bachad, especially how the desire to preserve and protect Jewish Orthodox youth from the influences of secularism was balanced with its cooperation with less religious organisations. And of course, much more!
I am always happy when someone with connections to Bachad, or information makes contact - please use the form below and I will reply as soon as I can!