The security situation, US State Department warnings and their families' fears have not kept thousands of North American students from attending yeshivot, kollels and seminaries in Israel.
While some movements curtailed programs or urged their students to leave the country, the Orthodox schools called upon their students to return after the Pessah vacation.
For the two weeks following the holiday, planeload upon planeload arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport filled almost entirely with Orthodox youth coming here to learn.
Orthodox students now make up the overwhelming majority of high-school graduate overseas students studying in Israel. A survey of overseas Orthodox students by Am Achad, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox media organization, in the Fall of 2001 found that some 4,600 students (nearly 1,400 young women and 3,220 young men) were studying in Modern Orthodox and haredi institutions in the Jerusalem area alone. This figure was measured a few weeks after one of the country's worst suicide bomb attacks, at the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, in which 15 people were killed.
Despite the persistence of attacks and terror alerts and the tensions surrounding Operation Defensive Shield, the heads of these institutions reported a return rate of students after Pessah of 98% and more.
A telephone survey carried out by The Jerusalem Post Magazine of various programs for overseas students at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the University of Haifa, the Interdisciplinary School in Herzliya, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew Union College and Young Judaea found a grand total of 1,508 overseas students studying in these programs.
Why are Orthodox families, who are only a minority of the North American Jewish community, sending their children in such large numbers to Israel in these times? This is an especially intriguing question with respect to the haredim, who, unlike the Modern Orthodox, are not considered Zionist in their outlook.
"Today, in the Orthodox world, the feeling is that the best yeshivas are in Israel, the greatest Torah scholars are here and the most intensive learning is found here," explains Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Achad and a Jerusalem Post columnist. "Therefore, Eretz Yisrael is the best place to learn Torah. There is even a saying in the Gemara that the air of Eretz Yisrael makes a person wise."
The desire to learn Torah in the best possible institutions was the impetus behind the growth of Orthodox programs for overseas students in Israel, he says.
"Twenty years ago, there were very few post-high school programs for Orthodox North Americans in Israel," according to Rabbi Moshe Sosevsky, head of a yeshiva for North American boys located near Jerusalem. Founded 19 years ago, the school was one of the pioneers in overseas study programs for post-high school Orthodox boys.
"In the Modern Orthodox world, the boys would do one or two years of college and then come to Israel. As the programs evolved this changed. Today, for the Modern Orthodox, study in Israel has become almost an extension of yeshiva high school. Whereas once only the most serious post-high school boys came to Israel to study, now more than 70% come for one year."
Sosevsky attributes the growth of programs for the Modern Orthodox to the "realization that the boys could attain greater accomplishments in their religious education in Israel" and the fact that they are able to get college credits for their studies in Israel from North American universities.
The women's programs, according to Sosevsky, evolved for the same reasons. "The year in Israel concentrates exclusively on Jewish studies," he notes. "This coupled with the chance for independence and growth, are the drawing cards of study in Israel."
Sosevsky and other rabbis asked that their Torah institutes not be identified in this article, for fear they could be targeted by terrorists.
In the haredi world, the boys usually spend two years after high school studying in North America before coming to Israel. They are likely to stay for three or four years, go back to America to get married and then return to Israel again for the initial years of their marriage. The girls, like those in the Modern Orthodox community, come directly after high school for a year.
Rosenblum believes that this trend of studying in Israel has made a great difference on Orthodox Jewish life in America and considerably strengthened ties to Israel.
Some sources estimate that more than half of those participating in the April 15 mass rally for Israel in Washington, DC, were Orthodox Jews. In lower Manhattan recently, some 50,000 Orthodox Jews took part in a prayer gathering for Israel, while an additional 30,000 participated via a video hook up.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the US, was quoted in the New York Jewish Week as saying that at a time when many Jews with tenuous community links are moving away from support of Israel, Orthodox ties to the Jewish state are growing. The Orthodox community is, according to Foxman, "much closer to Israel because of religious, traditional, educational and personal ties. They have more close relatives in Israel."
"I can't say enough about how strong the connection to Israel is for Orthodox Jews," Rosenblum stresses. "Orthodox Jews come to Israel all the time. Israel is never out of their minds. What is the major reason that the haredi community rejects Zionism? It is because Zionism purports that the Jewish People can be sustained by an identity other than Torah. But the Jews are a nation by virtue of Torah.
"For religious Jews, for whom Judaism is a total identity, their connection to the fate of Jews in Israel is intense. They are thinking about Israel all the time. Almost everyone in the North American Orthodox community has a child or relative in Israel. They feel the pain of their fellow Jews. Israel is a major factor in their lives. There is also a sense that they want to be together with the Jews of Israel. People feel that their presence in Israel does something - that learning here brings merit to Israel. They also feel that if they didn't return or send their children back they would be letting Israel down and weakening the resolve of the Jewish People in this country. They don't call themselves Zionists. But nevertheless, they are not unaware of the positive effects of the State of Israel and are not anti-state."
Miri Hoffman is the 12th generation of her family in Eretz Yisrael. A descendent of the Eshkol and Braverman families, her great grandfather was one of the founders of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. Other members of her family helped found the citrus industry here. She is educational coordinator at one of the largest Orthodox seminaries for girls in Jerusalem.
"With my family background, I have the right to talk," Hoffman insists. "Zionism's founders chose only one fraction of what has kept Jews alive all these thousands of years - love of Eretz Yisrael - as their platform. Orthodox Jews take the whole Torah. We are dedicated to Eretz Yisrael. We love this country more than anyone else. The proof of this is that we are here in these dangerous times. We have stayed in this country under all kinds of hardships. My grandfather had more than 50 grandchildren and every one of them is today living in Israel. You tell me who is for Israel and who is not."
For haredi parents and students, a major factor in deciding whether to return to Israel was the opinions of leading rabbis. The halachic issue was whether Eretz Yisrael has the din (status) of a dangerous place.
The greats of the yeshiva world in Israel - including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky - all told those who asked them that Eretz Yisrael is not a dangerous place from which people should flee or avoid coming to. They said, were that the case, then they too would have to leave, and they are not. They are also not telling those living here to flee.
But they did not order anyone to return to Israel. The students and their families had to make the decision for themselves. However, the rabbis said that Torah does not forbid someone coming to Israel to study at this time.
Rabbi Paysach Freedman is the director of a kollel in Jerusalem for 12 married men from English-speaking countries. About half his students went home for the Pessah break. All returned. Freedman says this is basically the situation in other kollels as well.
"The problem was their parents," Freedman says. "They were very fearful in light of what was going on here during Pessah. They see the worst on TV. I got many calls. I told them that the students are here for a very clear reason - to study Torah in Israel. Since, halachically, Israel is not a dangerous place, we are carrying on our normal lives."
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald heads a major seminary for girls who are high-school graduates in Jerusalem. The institute has 73 students from English-speaking countries, mostly from the US, the same number as before the current wave of violence. About 400 people have applied for next year.
"About two thirds of our girls went home for the Pessah break," Greenwald relates. "I got a lot of phone calls from parents. They asked what the school would be doing to protect the girls. I sent out a letter explaining that the girls would basically not be allowed to leave the campus except for places in the immediate community. If their daughter could live with that, then she should come back.
"They all returned," he adds. "The rabbis said that the whole world is volatile now and therefore they could come back to Israel."
Sosevsky notes that more than the usual number of his students returned to North America for Pessah, and that some parents hesitated to send their sons back.
"But in the end, out of 100 students, only two did not return and one was because of a family emergency," says Sosevsky. "We have had to cut back on trips and Shabbatot outside the institute. It hurts because the students lose out on a wider Israel experience but I get the feeling that they now have a much stronger identification with and feeling for Israel because of the situation."
'All of our girls came on the heels of Sbarro," says Rabbi Shimon Kurland, the head of a another program for female high-school graduates.
"They were nervous, but they have been dreaming about the year in Israel throughout their high-school years and didn't want to give up the Torah learning and the experience of Israel. To not come would have been very difficult," he says.
Only two of 110 girls did not return.
"There are some girls whose parents insist that they not leave the campus. Most are allowed out but it depends on the situation that day. We have increased on-campus activities and we continue with our touring on a limited basis."
Yossi, 22, who asked that only his first name be published, is from Monsey, New York and has been at a yeshiva in Jerusalem since Pessah a year ago. He had trouble persuading his parents to let him return after Pessah this year.
"My parents were very worried. The news in America played a big role. Jerusalem seemed like a virtual war zone. I talked things over with my yeshiva head in the US. He said that his children are in Israel and are not leaving. He didn't think the situation was dangerous enough to offset the gains from learning in Israel. I feel that there is so much to be gained from religious studies in Israel that this outweighs the dangers. I conveyed this to my parents and I came back."
Moshe Norman, 22, from Brooklyn says he "decided to come back after Pessah for two reasons. One, in my age group the vast majority of boys come to study in Israel. It is hard to find a yeshiva in the US with other students this age.
"And two, when the Torah was given, it was so that it could ultimately be studied in and have the mitzvahs fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael. Certain trees grow better in certain climates and studying Torah is more successful in Israel."
Since his return, Norman has more or less avoided straying from his immediate neighborhood. "I do go to other places, but I think twice before I do."
Ronnie and Esther Daniel arrived in Israel last August and Esther, 23 has since given birth to a boy. Ronnie, 27, hails from Baltimore and Esther, from Brooklyn. The couple has also previously studied in Jerusalem.
"We want to stay here as long as we can," Ronnie says. "We take things a few months at a time. The situation as perceived from the outside really looks bad. We get frantic phone calls. But for me, Israel is the most successful place for personal growth and learning."
He studied in Jerusalem for five years before they married.
"The yeshiva here is the best place for me for intensive study. The way of life in Israel is focused not on material things but on real goals. Also the sanctity and holiness of Eretz Yisrael are important and the fact that we are close to people we respect here. Right now, we wouldn't want to live anywhere else but Jerusalem," Ronnie says.
"Even if we do eventually have to leave, it is important that we are here now when we are starting to build our home and set the foundations of our family. We will have gained from doing this here in Israel," Esther says. "There is no glossing over that fact that there is pressure to return.
"No one is actually telling us to go back to America. Our families are proud of us and realize that we are doing something important to us. But I feel bad knowing I am causing anguish to my grandmother."
Hadassah (Dassy) Maryles, 18, from Lakewood, New Jersey, arrived in September with the intent of remaining for a year, to study at a seminary in Jerusalem. "I went home for Pessah and didn't know what to do. We are brought up to ask gedolim [sages]. My parents consulted them and when they said it was okay, I came back. I wanted to finish the year that I had started. I was having such a great experience that I didn't want to leave in the middle."
But she doesn't venture far beyond the school's gates. "The school has a rule - no downtown Jerusalem and no Geula. It is really not so hard. I spend a lot of time studying and in the dorm with the other girls."
Shana Kramer of Los Angeles felt as if she was witnessing "a reverse Kindertransport" as she put her 19-year-old daughter Kayla on the plane for Israel after Pessah.
"I was in the airport looking at a scene of repeated farewells. Here we were parents sending our children off to a potentially dangerous place. But every one of us did it. Over and over again, I watched parents bravely say goodbye and once their child was out of sight, burst into tears.
I know this seems silly - American parents worrying about these things when Israelis have to live with much worse every day. But for us here in the US, to put a child on a plane to Israel is like sending your child into a war zone."
Kayla, a student in Jerusalem, says: "My mom took things hard. We saw these horrible things on CNN. My parents cringed. I felt really bad for wanting to return. I tried to explain that where I am it is relatively peaceful and safe. My parents also love Eretz Yisrael but if I hadn't insisted on returning, I think they would have kept me at home.
"Since returning to Israel, my belief in God has been strengthened and my love for the country has increased tenfold. It is an amazing feeling. Living in Israel builds character. My teachers are so real. There is nothing fake about them. I come from LA where so much is fake. There is no pretense here. I am really glad I came back.
"On Remembrance Day, I went up to a hill near the seminary, and when the siren sounded, I watched how all the traffic stopped and the people stood in silence. It gave me a tremendous feeling of solidarity."
Shana Kramer, like so many other Orthodox parents, remains committed to supporting Israel. "We all wish to be able to do more for Israel," she continues. "A part of me also wants to be in Israel. If all goes well, I hope to be sending two daughters to Israel next September
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