There are many stories of bravery and tragedy among the soldiers who fell defending the Land of Israel - and the Kfar Hassidim Religious Youth Village in the Zebulun Valley in northern Israel has more than its share, says Yitzchak Knopfler, a former administrator and teacher in the school. “We have had students who died fighting before the establishment of the the State, and in each of the country's wars. In fact, the first casualty of the first intifada was from our school.”
The history of the youth village reads like a history of the State of Israel – with students and graduates at the crossroads of Israeli history.
The youth village, like others of its type, was established to fulfill an educational philosophy that had youngsters responsible for the upkeep of a holistic educational framework, working in the kitchen, farm, maintenance, and more, in addition to their studies. It soon became a place of refuge for young German and European Jews sent there by their parents. Established in 1937 with a few dozen students, mostly from Hamburg and Frankfurt, only some of the first residents were orphans or from single-parent families – but by the end of the war, most of them were alone in the world.
In the early days of the State, most everyone – including 12-year-old students – were on duty defending their towns and villages, and the children of the youth village were no different. “We had several students who were killed before the War of Independence, smuggling supplies and messages into the youth village during curfew periods. Several were shot and killed by the British for breaking curfew.”
Ironically, says Knopfler, the school also had students who were on the “other side” - fighting for the British, against the Nazis! “We had one student in the British Cavalry who was sent to fight in Europe, and was killed in battle, and another in the British Navy, who was on a ship that was torpedoed by the Nazis.”
After the Second World War, the Jewish Agency assigned the students to build new settlements in southern and central Israel. Among them was Kfar Darom, one of 11 kibbutzim established by the Jewish Agency in an effort to ensure that the Negev remained a part of the Jewish state, after a United Nations report recommended that the Negev be included in the Arab part of the brewing partition plan. They left in the dead of night to establish these outposts.
Known as the “Eleven Point Plan,” its kibbutzim are all still around today – except for Kfar Darom, which was abandoned during the War of Liberation after being overrun by Arabs after holding out for weeks and preventing the Egyptians from going northward.
“Those students fought heroically to keep Kfar Darom, but the odds were just too great for them. Several were killed, and the rest were reassigned to other kibbutzim when Kfar Darom was abandoned,” says Knopfler. “Wherever they went, they fought with the utmost bravery, and eventually became leaders in their communities."
" It was amazing they were able to do so, considering that they had lost their families so recently in the war,” he continues. “But they were fighting for the only homeland they now had; it gave meaning to their lives, so they dedicated themselves to the effort totally.”
Sixty-five students and graduates of the youth village have died in Israel's wars – the most recent being Maj. Avihu Yaakov, who was killed in Shechem in a 2002 raid against a terror cell that was planning a suicide attack in Israel. In the raid, he managed to eliminate a top Hamas terrorist – one who had participated in the Pesach Seder terrorist bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya. Yaakov's family's home is adjacent to the youth village.
“One of the saddest stories is that of Yossi Tabaja, an immigrant from Ethiopia who studied and lived at the youth village,” says Knopfler. “He came to Israel as a child during the great aliyah of Operation Moses, and was serving as part of a joint patrol with Palestinian Authority police. He had been working with these officers day in and day out for months – when suddenly, in September 2000, one of the policemen shot him at point-blank range.” A fellow IDF soldier was shot by a second Arab, and was seriously wounded. That was the real trigger of the first Intifada.
For years, Knopfler directed a memorial service at the youth village on Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day. “I retired a few years ago after nearly 40 years at the youth village, so I have left the memorial service to someone younger,” he says. “But we have a lot to be proud of, and we remember each student – those who made it back and those who didn't – with great love."
"We show the pictures of every fallen student on a large outside screen. Some of them were the only remnant left of their families after the Holocaust, so that only we and the IDF remember that they ever lived and gave their lives for Israel... We have sent thousands of our students to help defend and build the land. I'm proud of the part our little school has played in the history of this country.”
A reunion of all alumni will take place on Lag BaOmer 2012, and those who know alumni or are former students are asked to contact the village through the village's website <http://www.kfarhanoarhadati.co.il>, or send email to <email@example.com> or call (972-0)50-984-6022