On January 30, 1933 – the day that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany – Recha Freier established the Committee for the Assistance of Jewish Youth. The committee, which within several months changed its name to Youth Aliya, aimed to resettle German Jewish teenagers in Palestine, on kibbutzim and at youth villages.
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Freier (1892-1984) had had the idea for such a program in 1932, as anti-Semitism was becoming more palpable in Germany, and young Jews were already being denied equal opportunities for training and jobs. Initially, the Jewish Agency was skeptical of the idea, and the German Jewish community was strongly opposed to sending its children away. Henrietta Szold, the head of the Hadassah organization in Jerusalem and the Jewish Agency official in charge of all social services in Palestine, also was reluctant to take on the project, but after the head of the Ben Shemen Youth Village agreed to take in the first 12 children, she got behind Youth Aliya, and took charge of its Jerusalem office.
In the more than six years leading up to World War II, Youth Aliya helped more than 5,000 Jewish children leave Germany for Palestine. Others were brought to the United Kingdom, some as part of the Kindertransport program. Once the war began, in September 1939, Freier turned her focus to helping Jews escape from German-occupied countries. She was not averse to using illegal means to achieve these goals, and this led to clashes with her colleagues both in Germany and in Palestine, and her suspension from work in the Youth Aliya organization.
After World War II, Youth Aliya devoted its efforts to finding child survivors and bringing them to Palestine. The group succeeded in bringing 15,000 children over, and educated and housed them at the organization’s boarding schools.
As the identities of the most underprivileged young people in Israel have changed over the decades, so has the focus of Youth Aliya, which is now a department of the Jewish Agency. Today, it operates five residential youth villages, where it offers its services to new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union as well as to native Israeli children from broken and dysfunctional families.
As for Recha Freier, she stayed in Germany until 1940. After time in Yugoslavia and Turkey, she arrived in Palestine in March 1941. As Henrietta Szold would not work with her, she devoted herself to other projects, first an agricultural training center for young people, later a fund to support Israeli composers. Only toward the end of her life did she receive recognition as the founder of Youth Aliya: In 1981, she was honored with the Israel Prize. She died on April 2, 1984, in Jerusalem.