By Larry Gordon
Just two years ago we were dealing with a great amount of uncertainty about how we would oversee an educational staple in many communities: our post-high school young men and women traveling to Israel to study in yeshivas and seminaries.
In some instances, Israel was closed to non-Israelis on all levels. If you wanted to travel to Israel to attend a child’s wedding or other lifecycle type of event, you had to request an application and submit it to the local Israeli consulate that had a waiting list, of many months at times.
A little over a year ago, at the start of summer 2021, we found a slight decrease in the usual restrictions by getting vaccinated and boosted, applying for entry through the Government Press Office, and then, of course, masking for the ten-hour flight except when eating.
But things have changed, thankfully. Over the last year and a half, I had to know the whereabouts of my vaccine card at all times; now I know it’s somewhere—but I’m not sure where. That’s progress.
Throughout this ordeal the greatest anomaly was how despite severe global restrictions on travel, our children and grandchildren were allowed into Israel to study in yeshiva.
Back in the summer of 2020 I was in touch with Rabbi Reuven Taragin of Yeshivat HaKotel to get almost-daily updates on the talks with the Israeli government on how to arrange a system that would allow students into Israel to study for the year despite the rampant spread of the virus and mounting casualties in those pre-vaccine days.
Yeshiva and seminary students had a relatively easy way to move in and out of the country, more so than the average tourist to the country. Still, there were obstacles to overcome during this period. When Pesach approached, families had to decide whether to bring their children home for the chag. The issue was that policy on entry into the country was changing on a constant basis. If you were told you could go back to the States for yom tov and would be able to return after the holiday, that was all fine and good—except if the policy changed in the interim for some reason.
This year, Rabbi Taragin says, there are no restrictions to come to Israel to go to yeshiva or, for that matter, for any other reason.
Two years ago at this time, the situation was exactly the opposite. The yeshivas and seminaries formed a group that united them and their cause so as not to disrupt this vitally important gap year of Torah study in Eretz Yisrael. That group still exists and is called the Igud Yeshivos and Seminaries. Together they were a force the government had to reckon with.
Reuben Gampel graduated from DRS High School in Woodmere this past June. Reuben was one of the students who received a journalism award from the 5TJT this year. He will be attending Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem and is leaving for Israel with thousands of other young men and women on Sunday, Rosh Chodesh Elul. Reuben is excited about going and will be sharing a dormitory apartment with a few friends from high school as well as several young men from Israel who attend the yeshiva.
We talked on Monday and explored the possibility that Reuben will write a column chronicling his move to Israel for the year. Having attended our local yeshivas here in New York for the last 12 years, what is it like to move to the next level, yeshiva in Israel?
We spoke about the contrasts between these last two school years and this year, and he said that he had traveled to Israel as recently as last February and was required to wear a mask throughout the entire flight to Israel as well as on the return.
On the constantly changing travel policies these last two years, Rabbi Taragin explains that, in retrospect, he felt that Israel was always ahead of the U.S. on how to deal with the virus. In a sense, U.S. health officials were always watching what the Israel COVID czar would do in terms of entry requirements to the country and pretty much did the same shortly thereafter.
Perhaps it has already been forgotten, but back in 2020, when students arrived, they had to remain within what was referred to as their “bubble” or “capsule,” to keep whatever it was within that same mini population. In addition, arriving students were required to quarantine for two weeks and then be tested for the virus before being able to move around somewhat freely.
A year ago, back in 2021, the rabbi says, the restrictions were lessened as the country learned more about COVID and how to integrate the reality of COVID into everyday life. Interestingly, at no point were the students required to vaccinate; the only real requirement was that they test negative upon departure from the States and again when they arrived at Ben Gurion airport.
Rabbi Taragin says that there was a dimension of mesirus nefesh in going to Israel to study Torah for the year. HaKotel is always filled to capacity, but there was an upsurge in young people arriving in Israel to learn because many of the universities here and in other parts of the world were either not opening or only offering classes online.
Last week, several hundred families made aliyah to Israel with Nefesh B’Nefesh. Beginning this week and through this coming Saturday night and Sunday, thousands of young men and women will be making their way to Israel to study Torah and experience the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.
COVID has not disappeared from the planet, but the key today is that it has mostly vanished from the news. In the early days of the virus, doctors like Dr. Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins spoke about reaching herd immunity as a way of blunting the spread of the virus. Yes, people are still catching the virus every day, but the force and severity of COVID is diminished because it has weakened over all this time.
In the meantime, billions of dollars have been made on vaccines and boosters, and some, like Dr. Fauci, are advocating for more shots, more boosters, and more billions of dollars.
A year or two ago the criticism was that Israel was allowing the country to be used as a laboratory to test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Some agreed with that approach, others did not. The important point is that we reached the month of Elul, and Eretz Yisrael will once again become the full-fledged Divine laboratory where the long-tested formula of Torah study will hit its stride, baruch Hashem, at warp speed.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times 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.