At the recent General Meeting of this Fund, my Trustees expressed the view that I have inhibited our efforts to increase support by concealing my personal contribution. I have therefore decided reluctantly to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’
On the day my death was announced to my parents, I was lying amidst the wreckage of a four-engined bomber in a raging snowstorm in the wilds of Newfoundland with the only other survivor of the 21 passengers and crew. I had no special merit that I should survive in an aircraft that flew into the ground, and that I should manage to extricate myself from a metal tomb after heaving off three dead bodies – and that with a broken back.
Years later, in Jerusalem, I found the reason. I was walking through Alkalai Street, when I caught sight of a sign that read “The Center for Voluntary Service.” I was impelled to go in. There stood Hava Ya’ari, a retired head teacher, who stared at me and said: “Thank God you’ve come; I only hung the sign outside five minutes ago, and you’re the first person to come in.” “What can I do for you?” I asked. That day changed my life. She sent me to Neve Ya’akov, a new suburb of Jerusalem, and a destination for hundreds of olim from Georgia in Russia; it was my task to help them settle. I operated from an apartment converted into offices, and was helped by a professor from the Hebrew University who spoke Russian.
However, after three weeks, I noticed that in the afternoons, our office began to fill up with youngsters who had just finished school. Neve Ya’akov was still in the building stage, and as yet there was no community center or youth club; so kids with nothing to do milled around our office. I decided to organize groups for them, operating either in the street or in air raid shelters. After three months I got a call from the Jerusalem Municipality; they had heard of my activities, and ‘would I take charge of all youth activities in Neve Ya’akov’ – voluntarily, of course.
By now I had a few volunteers, students either at the University or from yeshivas. Somehow, word got around. A retired dentist from the US, staying at a local hotel, heard of what was going on, and offered to start a group in his hometown to help us. I began to receive cheques made payable to me – $50, $100, $200 – and when one day I got $900 in one envelope, I decided that the proper thing to do was to organize a charitable trust. So was born the Future Generation Fund; its purpose was – and still is – “to give financial assistance to young people in order to further their education and develop their potentialities so that they may become useful members of Israeli society.”
That was 30 years ago. Almost immediately, we were offered regular annual finance from the B’nai Brith First Lodge of England. Our first two cases were among the most successful. A demobilized soldier who had the dream of becoming a youth worker was referred to us by the B’nai Brith Bialik Lodge in Tel Aviv. His family, living below the poverty line, could do nothing to finance his training; so we supplied the necessary. Today, he has a distinguished record. For many years he has been responsible for youth and absorption in the city of Carmiel; and we have been his partners. School dropouts, drug addicts, attempted suicides, layabouts, have been our ‘daily bread.’ A plaque I have received from them sums it up:
“TO MEIR ABELSON.”
“We are young people of Carmiel, who have been privileged in our generation to meet one of the thirty-five righteous men, who has done the impossible for us. He has planted hope within us by helping us with education and vocation. By your merit and your love for all we are today proud and useful citizens of the State of Israel; and for this we offer our affection and thanks.”
The second case was a 16-year old boy from Tel Aviv, who possessed an unusual talent for the violin. His parents were crushed under the burden of financing his lessons. I telephoned to B’nai Brith in England, and they agreed to help. That boy was accepted at the Juilliard School in the United States, where the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern adopted him for two years. He has become one of Israel’s most talented musicians.
Since those days, our records mirror tragedy, inspiration, hope, adventure – and even danger. I recall visiting a divorced mother of seven in hospital, who whispered to me with her last breath: “Look after my children.” The picture of two brothers aged 15 and 17, standing over the open grave of their father – three months after their mother had also died of cancer – hugging each other and crying: “Abba! Abba!” – is etched in my memory. A 16-year old boy from Carmiel discovered that he had diabetes; he wanted to die and refused treatment. As he almost lost consciousness, I dragged him into my car and rushed him to hospital. Employed by the Carmiel Municipality, he is still in touch with me. The girl from an Ethiopian family, who sat in the dark in their salon because they could not afford to pay for electricity, is now a qualified nurse and happily married with three children. On one organized trip, I was prevented from reaching the top of Masada because I had to subdue a 16-year-old boy who tried to attack the guide with a knife.
There was an orphaned teenager who had been given temporary accommodation in a cheap hotel; he amused himself by throwing darts at me. A boy who was expelled from school in the 10th grade because of behavioral problems was keen on sports; so we helped him to study at the Wingate Institute. He completed the course with distinction, and served three years in a combat unit in the Army. On demobilization he returned to Wingate, and is today sports instructor and football coach. He has helped many youngsters, and we are still in touch.
Every Rosh Hashana I receive a call from a high-tech operator who has an important position in his field. His father was an illiterate gardener, and his mother was blind. We paid for his education; he has never forgotten. Another similar case– his father was a blind widower with one other child – a daughter – is now married with four children, and has a flourishing book-binding business. One boy had a chaotic, violent record at school, and the authorities washed their hands of him. However, he finished twelve years’ schooling, and is now in charge of security at a large electronics factory.
The problem with one Carmiel boy started with his parents’ separation His father was alcoholic and a gambler. When I first met the family, the younger brother, aged 17, was dying of leukemia; we lightened his last few weeks by buying him an organ. We encouraged and supported the elder brother’s entry into pre-Army training. He is now a self-employed decorator, and is still in regular touch.
Many of our “cases” have decided to help others as they were helped. One boy, who was involved in petty crime, now runs a transport company, and is married with three children. He helps youngsters by taking them under his wing. Another served a prison sentence for petty crime. After his release we financed a course of study at the Wingate Institute. He now owns a successful transport agency. A third was expelled from school; the principal declaring that he would never amount to anything. Now married, with three children, he runs a successful estate agency.
A recent calculation has revealed that over the past thirty years we have transformed the lives of over 10,000 youngsters, the majority of whom we have known personally. All this has been achieved on a voluntary basis, and from an office that has always been a spare room in my apartment. For years we received massive funding from B’nai Brith in England, and from a private Charitable Trust in the US. This enabled us to help youngsters all over the country, from Carmiel in the north to Ashkelon in the south. In both cases, however, the “prime movers” have passed away, and we now receive nothing from either source. Therefore, we are very appreciative of the efforts and the support of the Sephardi Congregation of England.
At present, therefore, because of financial stringency, we concentrate mainly on subsidizing extra coaching for small groups in schools that operate an enrichment program. The results have been dramatic; pupils who formerly received only 40% in certain subjects have after a few weeks achieved 80%.
What is most amusing is that so many youngsters seem to relate to me as if I were their contemporary. Last summer, one invited me to join him with some of his friends who were renting a boat for a week. Another asked me to go swimming with him. A third often calls me to ask if I can take him around the local nature trails.
For the latter I have done relatively little; we give him a monthly allowance for traveling expenses to school. Yet I have received a ‘testimonial’ from him that I have shown only to my wife. On the instructions of my Trustees, I am translating it here:
“To dear Meir; I sometimes thank the Almighty that I have been privileged to meet someone like you, who possesses characteristics that it is impossible to describe. Meir, you are like your name*; you have raised my spirits in difficult times, given me advice and support. I really feel that you are like a grandfather. Both my family and I want to say not just ‘thank you’ but ‘thank you’ writ large.
With affection and esteem,
In conclusion, I have a further confession to make. Over the years I have mentioned the certificates that hang on the wall of my study – from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Absorption, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Gilo Municipality, the Hazani Prize for Social Work, the B’nai Brith First Lodge of England, the Israel Goldstein Youth Village, the Lions Club of Bet Shemesh, the Moriah school in Carmiel, and the Arieh Levine school. I have always said that they are appreciative testimonials awarded to the Future Generation Fund; in fact, they are addressed to me personally.
January 7, 2009
* “Light-giver” in Hebrew.