When Eli Mantson moved to Israel from a small village in his native Ethiopia as a young child in 1984, he had never seen a car before.
“It was like coming to another planet,” says Mantson.
Back in Ethiopia his father was a farmer and his mother a homemaker. From time to time, Mantson and his eight siblings would go to bed hungry.
In Israel, there was more opportunity – but also greater challenges. To help his family make ends meet, Mantson dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work full-time at the Netanya fruit and vegetable market.
But as Mantson displayed an aptitude for quick arithmetic at the market stall, his bosses asked the middle-school dropout to tutor their children.
It didn’t take long for Mantson to pine for math classes of his own again.
“I saw all the kids buying notebooks and backpacks, getting ready to go back to school, and it was a little heartbreaking. What about me?” Mantson says.
Taking the initiative, Mantson went to the local welfare office in Netanya, where he lived, and told them he wanted to enter the ninth grade, even though he had been out of school for two years. Mantson knew he needed a dorm environment where his basic needs would be met.
He was accepted to the Meir Shfeyah youth village near Zichron Yaakov, part of the Youth Aliyah network and supported by the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Meir Shfeyah is one of several Hadassah-supported youth villages, including Ramat Hadassah Szold and Hadassah Neurim, that provide housing for underserved youth from Israel, Africa, and the former Soviet Union. Many of the young residents come from troubled families in Israel; others are refugees or new immigrants with few or no resources of their own.
The villages provide an education, housing, counseling, and a family environment, giving young people the framework they need to succeed. They also aim at building character.
Most campuses have lush, green grounds with swimming pools, sports facilities, and computer rooms. At the same time, the youth live in no-frills dormitories and also do village chores.
“Hadassah has been privileged to take a leading role in Youth Aliyah since our founder Henrietta Szold spearheaded the rescue of children and young adults from the Nazis in the 1930s. As America’s largest women’s membership organization, saving children has always been an organic part of who we are. We provide safety, life tools and enrichment to help these youngsters succeed in life,” says Hadassah president Ellen Hershkin.
The results are evident.
“Moshe Kahlon, Israel’s Minister of Finance, is a graduate of one of the youth villages,” Hershkin says. “Students learn responsibility by contributing to their villages, whether they milk cows, make wine or rehabilitate abandoned dogs. They also reach for excellence, competing in international sporting events and robotics competitions. Lone soldiers spend their furloughs at these villages because our devoted staff members make sure the villages feel like home.”
A long history of giving youth a better chance at success
Founded in 1933, the Youth Aliyah movement initially saved thousands of young lives by bringing them to what was then Mandatory Palestine.
Youth villages were established earlier and were popular with idealistic teens. Israel’s beloved late president Shimon Peres and his wife Sonya lived and studied at the first such village in Ben Shemen.
Szold adopted the idea early on, and personally greeted each of the arriving ships carrying the fleeing immigrants. She was so beloved that the childless stand-in mother was referred to by children around the country as “Ima,” or mother, and Israeli Mother’s Day (now Family Day) was established on the anniversary of her death.
Today, the Youth Aliyah movement continues in Szold’s footsteps.
Former Hadassah president Marci Natan and her husband Eli have always been committed to strengthening the state of Israel by reaching out to children at risk, and providing equal educational opportunities through post-army higher education.
“This is the reason my husband and I have always taken under our wing at least one student from Youth Aliyah, who we endow with a scholarship to complete his or her higher education,” says Natan. “We are proud to know that each and every one of ‘our’ students is today a productive and successful member of Israeli society, who in their turn looks to give back.”
Provided the opportunity, students and graduates of the Youth Aliyah program are quick to prove Natan right. Youth Aliyah students have won nationwide science and hi-tech competitions and are gifted athletes and musicians.
When Louis, a resident of Hadassah Neurim, ran away from home in Eritrea six years ago, he was fleeing a life of semi-servitude that would come with his mandatory conscription to the Eritrean army. Since 1998, army service there is open-ended, with no set age of release.
Louis fled through Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Sinai Desert before being smuggled somewhere close to Beersheba. Along the way, many others were robbed, kidnapped, or killed – but when he saw the Israeli soldiers, he knew he would be safe.
Wanting to work and earn money, Louis told the border guards that he was 19 years old, but doctors were immediately able to tell that he was no older than 14. They took him to a youth detention center, where Hadassah-Neurim’s director, Natan Biton, convinced Louis to come to the youth village.
“Hadassah-Neurim is a wonderful place,” Louis says. “They help you with everything. They anticipate your needs. I said I wanted to be a runner – they gave me a coach, they bought me shoes.”
Louis qualified for the World Championships in Athletics for youth and holds numerous medals having won and placed in many contests on the national level in Israel.
Changing hearts and minds
Developers have approached the villages with an eye on turning them into real estate bonanzas. In particular, a developer expressed an interest in purchasing Meir Shfeya, near much sought-after Zichron Yaakov.
“But when the developer was given a tour of the grounds and saw how Hadassah’s youth village was shaping the lives of hundreds of teens, he changed his mind,” says Barbara Goldstein, deputy director of Hadassah’s offices in Israel.
“He couldn’t believe it,” says Goldstein. “He was so impressed. Not only didn’t he buy the land – he joined the board, became a donor and is the greatest advocate for the village.”
Graduates of the Youth Aliyah program often stay in touch and continue to give back to the program long after they set out to begin lives of their own.
After Ethiopian-immigrant Mantson was accepted to Meir Shfeyah, he graduated from high school with exemplary grades. He then completed his military service with the border police, where he became an officer and went on to study law. He also married his high school sweetheart, Einat Levy, whom he met at Meir Shfeyah.
But working long hours to support his young family, Mantson didn’t have the time or resources to study for the highly competitive bar exam. When Goldstein, who sits on the Meir Shfeyah board, heard about Mantson’s hesitation, she let him have it.
“Simply put, she yelled at me,” says a sheepish Mantson.
Goldstein made some phone calls and guaranteed the funds, telling Mantson to take a leave of absence from work to study for the bar. Today, Mantson is a successful lawyer, and has been suggested as a candidate for a judgeship.
Today, when he’s not in the courtroom, Mantson helps mentor teens at his old stomping grounds of Meir Shfeyah, and serves on the village board of directors.
He also returns often to Netanya’s outdoor market, which is conveniently located near the courthouse. He says that as he walks around the familiar surroundings, Mantson keeps an eye out for children in need.
“I’m always looking for kids who can benefit from the program at Meir Shfeyah,” Mantson says. “Nothing feels better than sharing what I’ve received.”
This article was sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.