In the midst of the ongoing conflict that has gripped Israel, the simple joys of childhood have become a distant dream for many children. On Oct. 7, the lives of children like 10-year-old Leah, 8-year-old Noa and Eitan, and 7-year-old Elia and Benny were abruptly disrupted. The celebration that typically accompanies birthdays—filled with family, friends, gifts, balloons and cake—was replaced by a harsh reality of displacement, fear and uncertainty.
Since the outbreak of the war, these youngsters, along with countless others from cities like Netivot and Ashkelon to the south and Kiryat Shmona to the north, have found themselves uprooted, living out of suitcases, seeking refuge in the homes of friends and family, hotels and Airbnb apartments. Their once-stable worlds have crumbled, replaced by trauma, instability and a palpable lack of security. Some have lost family members, while others live in constant fear for their lives.
Enter Bakehila, a nonprofit founded in 2002 by Erel and Debbie Margalit. With a vision to strengthen communities from within, it operates under the belief that socio-economic advancement requires a comprehensive, collaborative approach. The organization focuses on narrowing social gaps among children and youth at risk in Israel’s socio-economic periphery. One of its approaches involves young adults deferring army service for a year to engage in community service as “Service-Year Volunteers.”
Erel Margalit, the founder and chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners, as well as of Bakehila, explained that “we initiated this program with a deep understanding that many children in Israel face challenges preventing them from celebrating their birthdays, whether due to family hardships or other reasons. Through this impactful initiative, our dedicated ‘Bakehila’ Shnat Sherut volunteers travel across the country, transforming these significant days into vibrant and joyous celebrations.”
Reflecting on the recent challenges faced by children from the south and north of Israel, who were compelled to evacuate, Margalit shared: “We anticipated that these youngsters would miss eagerly anticipated birthday celebrations. However, the Bakehila ‘Birthday Angels’ went above and beyond, surprising them with magicians, pigeons, gifts, songs, a violinist, a darbuka player, balloons, smiles, hugs and a birthday cake. In that moment, we became one large family, and the echoes of laughter drowned out fears and memories, offering a temporary escape from the challenging and uncertain reality we all share. The unity experienced during these celebrations fostered a profound sense of connection and empowerment.”
Despite the tumultuous past two months, Bakehila remains steadfast in its commitment. Since Oct. 7, the organization has mobilized 60 volunteers in their gap-year service, integrating them into communities to address the needs of refugee children and youth evacuated to safer areas. Notably, the program continues its dedication to include young high school graduates from the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem, underscoring its commitment to inclusivity.
To date, Bakehila has orchestrated more than 100 birthday parties for displaced children from across Israel, proving that even in the darkest of times, the power of community, compassion and celebration can break through the shadows.