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Sara Elkes

Sara Elkes ... a woman of valor

There are perhaps a handful of people whom we meet in life who have a profound influence on our own personal journeys. Sara Elkes was one of those who, unknowingly to her, impacted big time on my life and destiny.

In 1976 I was studying at Westhill College in Birmingham, UK , which was one of the nine Selly Oak Colleges famous for training missionaries and Christian clergy. I was the only Jewish student amongst 1,000 and I studied Community and Youth Work. We were informed that a summer experience was available, for those selected, to Israel where we would look at the community work set up, welfare and education systems. This was my opportunity to visit Israel for the first time free of the Jewish Agency propaganda. However, I was rejected on the grounds that the group was sponsored by the Elchanan Elkes Association for Intercommunity Understanding and was aimed at bringing only non-Jews to Israel. Needless to say I ran an effective one man campaign and convinced them that I would enhance the group's experience should I be included. Two months were spent in community centers, summer camps, visits to institutions for education, welfare and absorption, kibbutz and development towns. Any sightseeing was devoted to Christian sites but I stole time to take members of the group to Yad Vashem, the Kotel and other sites. Excited by all I had seen I remained in Israel for an additional month following the group's return to the UK. It was the visit I needed and became one of the three factors leading to my aliyah.

Sara Elkes was behind every moment of that visit. Herself a lecturer in community work in Leicester she motivated, guided and shared her knowledge and her passion for Israel as a pioneering country and she encouraged us to look beyond the prickly Sabras to see the essence of the Jewish spirit. Sara Elkes was a force to be reckoned with. In her quietly spoken, heavily accented voice she argued Israel's case with clarity and simplicity whilst recognizing the young country's weaknesses as it strived for security, peace and quality of life for all its citizens. She also acknowledged that my inclusion in the group was useful and she was very supportive of my own personal journey as I explored my Jewish identity and relationship with Israel.

At the time I was unaware of the sponsoring fund's history or anything about the name it carried, assuming that it was probably named after a wealthy philanthropist.

I returned to my studies, became a community worker in London and carried on with my life until my aliyah in January 1981.

It was only when I met my husband's family in 1988 did the penny drop as to who Elchanan Elkes really was. When talking with my father-in-law about his life in Kovno he mentioned his family doctor who had led the community with compassion and strength during the Nazi regime but was tragically killed in Dachau. This family doctor was the legendary Dr. Elchanan Elkes. Fortunately in 1938 Elchanan had sensed the dangers ahead and had sent his younger child, Sara, to join her brother, Joel, who was studying medicine in London thereby ensuring their safety.

In 1998 Merle Guttmann, ESRA's founder and life president, and I went to a meeting in Jerusalem and she asked if I wouldn't mind sitting in on an earlier meeting she had arranged. As we entered the lobby and Merle greeted the woman with whom she was due to meet, I realized that the person was Sara Elkes. We greeted one another with hugs and kisses. I told her how she was partially responsible for my aliyah and all that had happened as a consequence by my creating a home in Israel with a family including two children and dedicating my professional life to community work sharing her values as taught by her in 1976. Three weeks later I received a JNF certificate that Sara had planted trees in the names of my children.

It was the closure of a circle that started in Kovno, travelled to the UK and ended in Israel with the promise of a new generation.

Sara was a champion of IVS – International Voluntary Service - which encourages international and interfaith understanding and tolerance via voluntary work. She influenced thousands of young people through her teaching, her lecturing and by her spirit and charisma all focused on encouraging one to reach out to the other, to learn, to accept and to embrace.

Sara died in September 2015 and is mourned by many. I hope she knew how influential she was, truly making a difference.

 

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Sunday, 24 October 2021

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