For months now, many have assumed that the year in Israel so many young men and women look forward to might be scuttled.
With the coronavirus spiking on an off-and-on basis over the months, how would the government of Israel allow these students from disparate areas of the world to spend the year in Israel? Although many students from around the world traditionally study in Israel after high school, there may not be an area that sends more students to Eretz Yisrael than the Five Towns.
So it’s not surprising that Rabbi Reuven Taragin was the individual in charge of coordinating an agreement with the Israeli government to grant permission for foreign students to enter the country. Reuven is from Flatbush and his wife, Shani, a renowned speaker and teacher in seminaries in Israel, was raised here in the Five Towns. She is the sister of Rabbi Eytan Feiner of the White Shul.
Rabbi Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. The yeshiva educates many young men who live in Israel; at some point over the last couple of months, however, the possibility existed that the heart and soul of the yeshiva — the students streaming in from around the world and many from New York and New Jersey — may be in jeopardy.
So what changed, and what was it that convinced the Israeli government to allow over 16,000 foreign students into Israel at such an unpredictable time?
“Well, for the first time ever, the leaders of 150 yeshivas and seminaries in Israel organized a unified group and presented a detailed plan on how we will be able to function safely in the year ahead,” says Rabbi Taragin. He emphasized that everyone joined the group, from HaKotel to Netiv Aryeh, Brisk, the Mir, Me’ohr Seminary, and many other yeshivas and seminaries that largely serve foreign students.
An effort like this cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Taragin credits two people in particular for being the catalysts for the campaign: Rabbi Nechemiah Malinowitz, whom he describes as an “activist,” and Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald of Me’ohr Bais Yaakov Seminary for women.
Rabbi Taragin says that more than the actual plan, which was impressive in its own right, was the unity of the leaders of the 150 institutions. Education on this level is widespread and runs the gamut on multiple levels, but never have they assembled as such a unit that was able to lobby and persuade the government representatives that this could succeed.
The key to the plan presented by the schools to the appropriate agencies focused first and foremost on quarantining for two weeks upon arrival in Israel. At this point, the government policy does not require any kind of testing on a regular basis, but there has been a mechanism set up for the students’ temperatures to be monitored daily.
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, founder and dean of Me’ohr Bais Yaakov, says that there was some concern that the school would not be able to run this year as it has over the last 31 years.
“But the coalition of yeshivas and seminaries came about quickly and almost miraculously,” he says. The key to the success, he adds, is the uniqueness of the desire to learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael.
I asked him if he sensed a reluctance on the part of the families whose daughters are enrolled to join Me’ohr, and he says not one person withdrew from the program and that all 125 slots in the seminary are filled.
To some extent, it will be a different experience than it was in years past, and that is true for all students in all yeshivas, colleges, and seminaries.
“We are collectively expending hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to make this year here in Israel a very special one,” Rabbi Greenwald said. He says that there will be limitations on movement, and that is certainly true of the first two weeks when the students are required to quarantine.
As an example of the lengths to which his seminary is going, he says that for the first time he will have a minyan on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the girls in the seminary, explaining that he cannot allow them to attend local shuls, and the shuls themselves may have their own limitations on who can attend services and so on.
In addition, for both the young men and women, part of the dynamic of the year has always been the Shabbosos and yomim tovim. Meeting or being hosted by local families has always been one of the additionally interesting things about the experience. For the foreseeable future, or at least until there is a dramatic change in the situation, all meals will be served to the students in the yeshiva or the seminary.
“If you are here in Israel this year to learn and grow, this might be the best year yet,” said Rabbi Greenwald.
While the new coalition accomplished a great deal, Rabbi Taragin says that there was significant opposition to the idea. One of the chief critics was Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, along with a number of other Knesset members from the leftist and non-religious political parties.
According to Rabbi Taragin, without vital support from those in government like Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Knesset Members Shlomo Mor Yosef and Yitzhak Pindros, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, this effort would never have been able to get off the ground.
Last Monday, the first 60 young men arrived from the U.S. to study at HaKotel. I asked Rabbi Taragin why they are coming to Israel so early when these terms usually begin around Rosh Chodesh Elul. He said that those in government who support the idea advised him and the other yeshivas to bring their students into Israel as early as possible, because while the situation is improving, you never know when that might change.
In the more than three decades of Me’ohr Seminary, Rabbi Greenwald recalls a few times when the students needed to go under lockdown. He says that was during wars and intifadas, but there has never been anything like this.
“We are a resilient and creative people,” Rabbi Greenwald says, “and this year’s students just demonstrate to us that our Jewish communities have the greatest youth in the world.”
Contact Larry Gordon at email@example.com. Follow 5TJT.com on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.