The Jewish Eye
Reb Nochum Birnbaum – A Man of Many Movements, Moves Towards Hashem
Here is a riddle. Which person served as both the first secretary general of the Zionist Movement and the Agudas Yisroel Movement? If you answered Reb Nochum Birnbaum you are correct.
While Nathan Birnbaum was the intellectual who launched the foremost Jewish movements of his day, at the end his quest led him back to good old traditional G-d fearing Judaism. His life went full circle and to his list of movements you can add the Baal Tshuva Movement of which he is considered the forerunner.
Born in 1864 and credited with coining the term Zionism, in 1883 at the age of 19 in the university of Vienna, Nathan founded the first Jewish students' association, based on nationalistic principles. This was a full decade before Herzl contrived the same idea. Ultimately, together they launched the Zionist Movement as we know it today. At the First Zionist Congress (1897) Birnbaum was elected Secretary General of the Zionist Organization. Thereafter, ideological differences with Herzl led to his leaving the movement. Birnbaum and Herzl split because Birnbaum believed that to bind a people required much deeper principles than simply a common geographical homeland.
He came to the realization that the Jewish nation could survive without a homeland as long as there was a common culture. Thinking that Yiddish culture was the answer, in 1903 he started a newspaper and gathered Yiddish intellectuals from all over the world in a Yiddish conference. Ever the honest seeker of truth, despite his success at launching this new movement, he realized that the Yiddish commonality was much too superficial. In the years before World War I he slowly discovered Torah. After the war in 1919, he became the first Secretary General of the new Agudas Yisroel Organization.
A prolific writer and publisher his most famous work of his Torah observant life, called “Gottesvolk” ("G-d's People") was first published in German and Yiddish in 1917 and later translated to English.
Even after becoming a Torah observant Jew he was dissatisfied. This time it was with the people and not the religion. Upset over the spiritual complacency of the ordinary Jew, he initiated a movement called the “Order of the Olim” (Spiritual Ascenders), consisting of small groups of dedicated people to raise spiritual awareness within the confines of larger Jewish society. He felt that the city dwelling Jews were too distracted and susceptible to the non-Jewish world and values around them. He called for agricultural communities where Jewish priorities could be set straight and the Jews totally separated. He believed that there was no way to compromise and bridge the gap between these two vastly different worlds. His death and World War II cut short his grand vision. After the rise of Nazism, he left Germany for Scheveningen, Netherlands, until his death in 1937. Yehi Zichro Boruch
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