On Monday January 30, 1933, a cold winter’s day in Berlin, the same day that Adolf Hitler took power, Youth Aliyah was founded by a unrelenting woman in her early 40s, Recha Freier, who recognised the need to act in order to save young German Jews from the abuse and hatred of Nazi Germany.
In the six years leading up to World War II, over 5,000 Jewish children were rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust and brought to Israel or to Britain on the Kindertransport.
At the end of the war more than 15,000 surviving children were brought over to Palestine. Amid the olive groves and the orange trees planted by the Youth Aliyah pioneers, these once-abandoned children were given a home and vocational training in one of the organisation’s youth villages. In the years that followed, the charity would go on to help countless young people in distress around the globe find new hope and new opportunity in the land of Israel.
Yet although our history reads like a work of fiction, almost too remarkable to be real life, we have been using the opportunity of our 80th anniversary to highlight the way that our work has evolved into a fundamental strand of Israel’s social services.
A classic tenet of charitable activity is that your ultimate goal must always be to end any need for your charity to exist. Indeed one might be forgiven for thinking that Youth Aliyah had achieved that elusive goal with the apparent end of state persecution of Jewish communities around the world. There may be people of a certain age who do in fact believe that our organisation, now called Youth Aliyah Child Rescue, has long since folded and there are perhaps more young people who have never heard of Youth Aliyah at all. That, I’m afraid, is a terrible indictment of our community. Because though we are now rarely called upon to rescue Jewish children at risk in the diaspora, many remain blissfully unaware of the terrible problems that afflict youth in Israel.
However beautiful a holiday location Israel might be, unfortunately we have to accept the reality that according to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics there are 350,000 young people there officially designated as being “at risk”. That probably represents around 40 per cent of the entire youth population.
Today, YACR provides homes to 2,500 young people, designated as being “at risk” of violence, abject poverty and often the worst kind of abuse. Unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and violence are endemic in large parts of Israel. Countless children and their families are crying out for an opportunity to break the disastrous cycle of distress which they experience every day.
At the gala event held in London to mark 80 years since we began our first child rescue, we were honoured to have with us Shimon Solomon MK, who perhaps epitomises our work. He was one of the first immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia in 1983, having travelled on foot from his home to the Sudan at the age of seven as part of Operation Brothers. He arrived with almost nothing, was placed in the village of Talpiot, followed by Yemin Orde, where he was given the opportunity to begin building a life for himself.
He went on to serve as an elite paratrooper in the IDF before devoting his life to public service. He travelled to Rwanda, where he helped to build a Youth Aliyah-style village which would take in and care for young people orphaned by the horrific genocide of the late 90s. Today he campaigns for minority rights as an MK representing the Yesh Atid party.
Of course, for every success story, there will be ten more children you’ll never hear about, whom we can’t reach. A recent report by Haifa University found that every other child in a Jewish or Arab state school has been subjected to, or witnessed, some form of abuse.
In large part, because of the mass immigration from Ethiopia, the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere, the next generation of Israeli society faces countless social and cultural problems which have placed unprecedented strain on the state’s social services. Many have become marginalised and disillusioned — they desperately and increasingly need our help. And that is why Youth Aliyah is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago.