Exodus, again

An innovative educational program gives young French students a firsthand taste of their ancestors’ immigration experience.

Eight hundred young French men and women participate in a reenactment of the illegal immigration of Jews from Cyprus to Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eight hundred young French men and women participate in a reenactment of the illegal immigration of Jews from Cyprus to Israel.
CYPRUS – It was not the first time 17-year-old Natacha Lellouche had traveled to Israel. But as the French Scouts youth group member disembarked in Haifa Port last month, she wasn’t sure where her current adventure would lead her.
Lellouche was one of 800 young French men and women participating in a unique educational program, reenacting the illegal immigration of hundreds of refugee Jews from Cyprus to Israel aboard the ship Yehuda Halevi.
The trip was part of the educational programming of the Israel Experience, an organization under the auspices of the Jewish Agency which works to build ties between Diaspora Jews and Israel through experiential programming.
The teens traveled by plane from France to Israel, then quickly puddle-jumped to Cyprus. The plan was to visit the sites of refugee camps from the 1940s, then travel by ship from Cyprus to Haifa, experiencing firsthand (albeit with better accommodation) this particular exodus.
The voyage also included four men and women who had sailed on the original Yehuda Halevi.
“I already knew the story of the Exodus 1947, but the seminar sounded very interesting, and I didn’t really know much about the illegal immigration vessels that took Jews to Israel and general Jewish history. I knew that this was going to be fascinating experience,” Lellouche said, wearing her Scouts uniform.
One of the people Lellouche met on the ship’s gangway as they descended onto the beach in Cyprus was Shmuel Savion, 83, who had made aliya to Israel illegally from his hometown of Sefrou (20 km from Fez) in Morocco on the day the UN voted for the partition of Palestine. Savion was only 16 when he boarded the Yehuda Halevi, which set out on an arduous trip from Tenes, Algeria. “The hunger and thirst in the camp were much worse than any words could describe,” Savion recalled.
Once on the boat in 1947, Savion realized that the voyage to Israel would be full of suffering. Four hundred illegal immigrants crowded on the old, rickety boat. The sanitary conditions on board were unbearable.
“When we got close to the shore of Israel, British planes began zooming overhead. The commanders – Gideon (Geda) Shohat and the boat’s captain, Yisrael Horev – knew the boat was going to be overtaken any minute.”
The “battle” that ensued between the starved and thirsty illegal immigrants and the British forces ended badly and on May 30, 1947, the Jews were expelled and forced to board a boat called Empire State. “All of us warmly kissed the dust of the Holy Land on the quay, as we imagined Rabbi Yehuda Halevi had done hundreds of years ago. We were taken to a British detention camp near Famagusta in Cyprus,” Savion said.
On the trip to Cyprus, Savion composed a poem to contextualize his feelings. Below are a few lines: “Old and Young / Thinking of Jerusalem / Which lies on the other side of the barbed wire / And the large, wide sea.”
When Jewish Agency representatives came to visit the prisoners in the Cyprus camp, Savion got up to thank Golda Meir for coming to visit. In perfect Hebrew, he told her, “On behalf of all the schoolchildren here, I welcome you to Cyprus and hope that our next encounter will take place in our own free land.”
LEADERS ON the 2014 Israel Experience trip – Moti Likovernik and Uriel Feinerman – took the teens to the remains of the Dhekelia detention camp near Larnaca, Cyprus, where immigrants had been imprisoned for months. As participants stood next to the Mediterranean Sea, the details of the prisoners’ lives became tangible.
“The detainees spent their time learning Hebrew and Krav Maga, and about life in the Land of Israel,” Uriel told the teens.
Ilanit Corchia, who runs Israel Experience’s Europe, Latin America and CIS (former Soviet Union) section, said the trip was planned for people of all ages, and they have had participants aged from nine to 97. “I’ve now seen with my own eyes how this program, which was organized by the Jewish Agency and its partners, changes the lives of its participants. To this day I still get messages from people who participated in the Israel Experience over the years, who say it deeply affected their souls and made them look at their lives in a completely new way.”
“I was very moved by what I learned,” said Dan Layani of Marseille. “I would really like to make aliya after I finish my matriculation exams.”
Dr. Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, is the author of the plan for French immigration.
Maimon joined the teens on the boat and believes that about 40 percent of the participants will end up making aliya.
In addition to encouraging teens to move to Israel, the program has a number of other goals, Corchia says.
“We are also interested in having these youngsters, who are all leaders in their respective youth organizations, form friendships with each other and uncover what unites them. Each morning, we asked them to compose a prayer, which we then combined into one creative work that everyone could identify with.”
Corchia explains: “We want them to return home to France with a greater sense of Jewish identity. This program has touched the hearts of the many people who’ve participated over the years, and I hope this trip will be a success, too.”
Amos Hermon, CEO of Israel Experience, says, “The reenactment of the voyage of illegal immigrants with these 800 teen leaders from Zionist youth movements in France is an important educational touchstone for them, connecting young Jews in France with the State of Israel. The Israel Experience, which is run by the Jewish Agency, brings 6,000 French teens to participate in this program every year.
“In addition, 500 French college students are introduced to the hi-tech world and university programs in Israel.”
When the ship finally reached Haifa Port a few weeks ago, the group held an exciting celebratory ceremony to mark the conclusion of their Israel Experience program.
When they disembarked and returned to Israel, they saw how different the modern-day Jewish state is in comparison to what the passengers on the Exodus and Yehuda Halevi must have experienced 67 years ago.
With their participation, they began to understand the various problems Israel is dealing with today, and now view the issues faced by the French Jewish community in a new light.
Yaakov Hagoel, head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Activities in Israel and Countering Anti-Semitism, says, “We live in an era in which anti-Semitism in Europe will continue to get worse.
Jews living in the Diaspora face many challenges and complicated situations. Experiencing the reenactment of the illegal immigration voyages enables hundreds of French teenagers to deal with anti-Semitism at home, and find solutions to problems they face in day-to-day life.”
When it was time for the young French men and women to say farewell to the veteran men and women who had sailed on the Exodus and other illegal immigration boats, everyone present was overwhelmed with the old dreams, mixed with their hopes for the future.
One of the people to bid them adieu was Noah Kliger, who had survived the Nazi death camps, sailed on the original Exodus and then been interned in Cyprus.
He is now a journalist who writes for Yediot Aharonot.
Along with the other 4,500 people on the ship, he was forced to return to Germany, but refused to disembark.
In the end, he made it to the homeland of the Jewish people, where he has lived ever since. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.