History Is Now: Youth Rescue in Israel Continues

-Carol Goodman Kaufman

The story of Youth Aliyah is one of adventure, Jewish and world history, and good versus evil, with a few heroes — and even a few miracles — thrown in for good measure.

On January 30, 1933, the very day that Adolph Hitler was named chancellor in Germany, educator and musician Recha Freier anticipated that things were going to get very bad for the Jews. Believing that it was critical to get children out of harm’s way, she founded Youth Aliyah, hoping to convince parents to send their children to relative safety in Palestine.

The Jewish Agency adopted this project and chose as its leader the inestimable Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Even though she was already in her 70s, Szold traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue children, and she made it a point to be on the dock to meet every ship that made it to Palestine. While Szold never married and had children of her own, the thousands of children she saved called her “Ima,” the Hebrew word for mother.

Virtually none of these children ever saw their families again. But because of the care they received, they grew up to become outstanding citizens of the new nation of Israel. Among the prominent Israelis who spent time in youth villages are the late national leader Shimon Peres and the famed artist Mordechai Rosenstein. Actor and author Gila Almagor wrote of her experiences in Youth Aliyah in “Under the Domim Tree,” a novel that was made into a movie of the same name.

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Youth Aliyah Students

The job of saving children didn’t stop with the war’s end. Far from it. Since 1934, over 300,000 young people from 80 different countries have graduated from Youth Aliyah.

As difficult as it is to accept, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, almost 800,000 Israeli children, which is about 30%, lived below the poverty line in 2014. The Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute reports that as of January 2015, almost 400,000 at-risk children and youth, up to age 17, in Israel were registered with municipal social services. They suffer from physical and sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse and the effects of prostitution. These youth engage in high-risk behaviors, have low educational achievements and suffer from emotional or social problems.

Almost from its inception, Youth Aliyah has received significant support from Hadassah. The three villages sponsored by Hadassah — Meir Shfeyah, Ramat Hadassah Szold and Hadassah Neurim — accept the neediest and most difficult students, ages 12 to 18.

Some children come because their parents can’t or won’t take care of them, whether because of poverty or extreme dysfunction.

Some students come on their own initiative, trying to break free of hopelessness. Eli Mentason, one of nine children of Ethiopian immigrant parents, had to drop out of school at the age of 8 in order to help support his family. After working in the Netanya open-air market for several years, he decided that he wanted a future, so he found his way to the Meir Shfeyah youth village. Eli is now a criminal defense attorney, a husband (married to a fellow student from the village) and a father. He has been “paying forward” his good fortune by finding other lost boys and bringing them to Youth Aliyah.

And then there are the “Na’ale” (“we will go up”) kids. Parents are sending their beloved children to Israel — alone — because of the increasingly difficult life for Jews in places like Russia, Ukraine and Estonia. A full 30% of our student population is made up of children from the former Soviet Union.

In addition, hundreds of day students want to study at our village schools. The parents of upper middle class Zichron Ya’akov petitioned the Ministry of Education to allow their children to attend the excellent, award-winning high school at Meir Shfeyah. These students and the boarding students both benefit from the mix of culture and social class.

Not all of our students are Jewish. Our villages also serve Arab, Bedouin and even Eritrean refugee children.

In our villages, students receive not just shelter and food, but also education, vocational training, counseling and other support services that help them develop the life skills they need to become productive members of Israeli society. The work is challenging. With some of our students, we have to teach basic life skills, ranging from personal hygiene to self-discipline and teamwork. In addition, almost 85% of the children come to us with some level of learning disability, so small classes and one-on-one tutoring are necessary.

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Youth Aliyah student harvesting grapes for wine at Meir Shfeyah

The vocational training curriculum includes courses in the culinary arts, high-tech precision tool-making and high-tech motor vehicle maintenance. From the beginning, agricultural work has also been a major part of the vocational training in the villages. The village of Meir Shfeyah, for example, has a winery under the direction of a renowned vintner. The village produces 5,000 bottles of wine a year, with the students doing everything, from tending the vines, harvesting the grapes and making the wine to designing the labels and helping with the marketing.

Finally, a huge portion of our population comes to us knowing nothing of Judaism or Jewish history. Our Joy of Judaism program addresses this enormous vacuum through small group discussions and hands-on activities that bring the richness of Jewish heritage into our students’ lives. In the 11th and 12th grades, our students, like all Israeli high schoolers, participate in a heritage mission to Poland that includes visits to the Warsaw Ghetto and several concentration camps. When they return to Israel, these children have a newly developed understanding of their place in Jewish history, and pride in their identity as Jews and Israelis.

The work of Youth Aliyah is critical. Failure is not an option. Israel needs physically and emotionally healthy adults to ensure a safe and secure future for all within her borders. By following in the inspiring footsteps of Recha Freier and Henrietta Szold, we can make real the Zionist dream.

For more information, please contact Carol Goodman Kaufman, the national chair of Youth Aliyah for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.