Youth Aliyah marks 70 years of rescuing children at risk

JERUSALEM — Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, Israel's Youth Aliyah program, well-known for rescuing Jewish youth at risk from Ethiopia to the former Soviet Union. However, this child and youth rescue operation has saved more than 300,000 children, also plays a major role in educating disadvantaged Israelis, whose parents and grandparents were never properly integrated into Israeli society.

"The children in Youth Aliyah villages today," explained Eli Amir, director-general of the Jewish Agency's Youth Aliyah Institutions, "are more problematic than ever before. With gaps between rich and poor in Israel wider than ever, they are more alienated and at greater risk from the country's rising levels of crime, violence and drug addiction."

Established in 1933 by teacher and pianist Recha Freier in Germany, Youth Aliyah initially rescued thousands of children from Nazi Germany. It was later adopted by Hadassah founder and pre-state leader Henrietta Szold and became a Jewish Agency department. Over the years the organization brought children to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Soviet Union and most recently Ethiopia and the Russian-speaking republics.

Since the 1980s, Youth Aliyah has also been taking in Israeli-born children from severely dysfunctional families.

"To meet today's greater challenges," said Amir, who himself was educated at Youth Aliyah villages after reaching Israel from Iraq over 50 years ago, "we have introduced more informal education through individual and group therapy, which enables students to express their hopes and fears, anger and frustration."

Youth Aliyah's traditional recipe has been to combine educational and remedial programs with warm residential care. No class has more than 20 students. Added to this are extracurricular activities in the arts, sports and computers to enhance concentration and basic skills of literacy and numeracy, while therapy and counseling improve the child's self-esteem, nurturing social skills and the ability to articulate feelings.

At remedial residential villages like Ramat Hadassah Szold near Haifa and Kiryat Yearim near Jerusalem, the pet therapy program typifies the success of Youth Aliyah's innovative informal methods.

For example, when Dima first came to Ramat Hadassah Szold he would walk around with slouched shoulders looking depressed. His posture changed for the better after he "adopted" a parrot within the framework of the personal pets program.

"We told him a half-truth," confessed Daniel Zelanko, director of the newly opened Animal Education and Therapy Zoological Center at Ramat Hadassah Szold. "We told him that parrots don't like slouched shoulders and that his pet would be much happier if he stood more upright. In fact all birds do prefer to perch on something strong and stable. I'm not a parrot, but if I were, I don't think I'd want to perch on slouched shoulders!"

Dima, 15, came to Ramat Hadassah Szold four years ago, having experienced difficulty living at home and fitting into the local school framework. He was the only child of a new immigrant divorcee from the former Soviet Union, an educated woman who was disappointed with her son's scholastic performance.

Away from his mother's discouraging influence, Dima quickly flourished. After three years in the school's remedial junior high program he had not only caught up academically, he was even showing an above-average scholastic performance. And emotionally the pets program and the relationship he developed with his parrot enabled him to show his affections rather than hide them, as well as to develop a sense of responsibility.

Among the graduates of Youth Aliyah is President Moshe Katzav, who studied at the Ben Shemen village. While countless captains of industry, senior army officers and college professors are products of Youth Aliyah, today's yardstick for success is more modest, according to Rafi Talby, principal of Hadassah Neurim, a Youth Aliyah residential high school near Netanya.

"Our first measure of success is for our graduates to be accepted by the army," he stressed. "Rejection by the army because of behavioral or psychological problems will leave a teenager with a stigma for life."

Yossi Krothamer, director of the Ben Yakir village near Hadera, echoes these sentiments: "Success for us is a graduate who will hold down a steady job and will one day get married and have children and not abuse or neglect them. Many of our children have been the subject of abuse and neglect. We help them break out of that vicious circle."

Two Youth Aliyah graduates who have broken out of that vicious circle are Natalie Altit and Amos David. Altit, 27, who studied at Kiryat Yearim from 1998 until 1990, today she still lives in her native Beersheva where she has her own fashion store and was recently married. "I owe everything I have achieved to Kiryat Yearim," she said. "For the first time in my life I was able to understand the positive side of studying and life in general. The staff's love and understanding changed my behavior."

Amos David, 39, studied at Hadassah Neurim from 1978 until 1981. Today he is a senior manager at the Angel Bakery in Jerusalem and is married with three children. "Before Youth Aliyah I was getting into trouble and leading others into trouble too," he recalled. "At Hadassah Neurim I learned to become more independent and cope with difficult problems. Most importantly, my behavior improved and I influenced others to do positive rather than bad things."