Two seminaries that remained opened throughout the crisis: Meorot Yerushalayim and Darchei Binah
By now most Mishpacha readers have probably read the dramatic story of seminaries for American girls in Israel chartering planes on short notice to return their students to their worried parents before a total lockdown went into effect. But there is another story — even more dramatic, in my opinion — of two seminaries that remained opened throughout the crisis: Meorot Yerushalayim and Darchei Binah.
Meorot is a seminary for young women who attended public high schools and/or come from not fully observant families. Rabbi Yaakov Lynn, the head of the seminary, was sitting in his office on March 17 receiving reports of one seminary after another closing down, when one of his teachers entered and told him, "The girls are hysterical hearing about the other seminaries — they're afraid you're going to close too."
He consulted with Rav Noach Orlowek, who told him he was not running a typical seminary, and what the other seminaries were doing had no bearing on his decision. He next spoke to Rav Naftali Kaplan, the head of one of Israel's major yeshivos. Rav Kaplan told him he did not even hear a second side in favor of closing.
Thus reinforced, Rabbi Lynn convened a meeting of the entire student body to lay out for them what might be involved if they really wanted to remain open — including being confined to their dormitory for a prolonged period of time and perhaps being unable to return home for months. They were all in, as was the staff when Rabbi Lynn outlined what remaining open would entail for them.
Rabbi Lynn set two goals for Meorot: First, that the talmidos should experience an uplifting Pesach. Every Meorot student commits to remain for Pesach. Second, that the young women should achieve closure on the year. Each would return home confident of her ability to function as a religious Jew. As one student told me, that meant knowing how to speak to their parents, how to anticipate and deal with situations not conducive to spiritual growth, and how to find a supportive religious community. (At least some of the girls have no Orthodox shuls in their hometowns.) And above all, that they would acquire a solid background in the basics of halachic observance — kashrus and Shabbos — and a deep love of Torah.
THE CONSIDERATIONS FACING Rabbi Shimon Kurland of Darchei Binah were different. He did not have to worry whether his talmidos would have a proper Seder if they returned home, and most of his parent body was urging their daughters to return immediately, some adamantly so. From the beginning, he told the talmidos: "You are free to return home and no one will judge you for doing so. But as long as there is any group of students that wants to remain, and I can legally stay open, we will be here for you." (Both he and Rabbi Lynn were in constant contact with Israel's Ministry of Health.)
Weeks later, one of the thirty or so young women who elected to remain in Eretz Yisrael asked Rabbi Kurland why he had been willing to incur so much expense, including purchasing a new industrial oven for Pesach, to keep the seminary open.
He replied, "A long time ago, I decided that I never wanted to live my life with any regrets as to what I should have done."
One of the students told her friends in the dorm, "One thing's for sure. We have the most stubborn principal in history."
Because the Kurlands were so calm and assured, one student told me, no panic ever penetrated the walls of Darchei Binah.
I taught at Darchei Binah in its first years, a quarter century ago, and I still remember the opening talk of Rav Nachman Bulman ztz"l to the faculty, when he spoke about the awful responsibility and enormous privilege to be an educator. And Rabbi Kurland referred to Rav Bulman in explaining his own decision: "Rav Bulman always told me, a seminary exists for the girls; the girls don't exist for the seminary."
One of the highlights of the Darchei Binah year is the annual trip to Poland, in which all first-year students participate. Many of the classes serve as preparation for that trip. Because of coronavirus, that trip had to be canceled this year, with Rabbi Kurland left to try to recover the money he had already spent on plane tickets and hotel accommodations.
But as Rebbetzin Sheri Kurland told the young women: Poland is an intense emotional experience that provokes many questions and demands a great deal of introspection. This year the coronavirus will be the catalyst for a different kind of introspection. As one madrichah wrote, being able to discuss with the other girls who remained how Hashem could have allowed so much suffering, and then pose those questions to the seminary rabbis, turned the plague into a growth experience.
The prolonged confinement to the dorms proved to be both a test of middos and an occasion to develop them. One of the Darchei Binah madrichot, whose family lives in Israel, remarked upon returning to the dorms after a month away that she could not believe how the girls had matured.
A student at Meorot who keeps a journal made the same point. In her early diary entries, she found herself complaining about how irritating her roommates were. But the latter entries are full of marvel at how caring, how willing to do anything to help another, those same roommates are. She realized that it was she who had needed to change and develop her tolerance.
One of the two Meorot students who was briefly quarantined, after reporting a mild cough, spoke at the final banquet of how her friends showered her with support — singing to her, playing games from the other side of the door, and passing her notes and food.
The Darchei Binah Pesach Sedorim proved to be a unique experience for the participants. Led by the madrichot, the students "hovered over every word, sang every song, performed every minhag (including the fun Moroccan ones), shared their own divrei Torah and spoke emotionally of their yearning for geulah." Both Seders lasted until close to 3 a.m.
Few of the young women at Meorot had prior experience of the intensity of preparations for Pesach, but they turned the shared cleaning into a fun project. The physical preparations were leavened by daily shiurim via Zoom on the laws of Pesach and the Haggadah by Rabbi Lynn, who braved five roadblocks to make it from his home in Beitar to the second Seder in the Meorot dorms. (He did not leave his home for nearly a month so he could join.)
At both seminaries, the students expressed gratitude for having been made part of their principal's family. Mrs. Kurland told one girl that she was elated to have thirty more adopted grandchildren, and proved it with homemade Shalosh Seudos meals and baked goods delivered before her husband's "Ask the Rabbi" sessions on Monday night. A line in one of the many songs the girls composed at night summed up their feelings best: "Nobody's perfect, except the Kurlands."
At the Meorot final banquet, which I attended recently, one of the young women told Mrs. Lynn: "You are mommy, therapist, and advocate." And she thanked Rabbi Lynn "for letting me cry in your office and for teaching me the meaning of life over and over again. You showed me that rabbis can be reliable, humble, and non-judgmental. Boy, have we grown."
But Rabbi Lynn kept the final word for himself, telling his talmidos that in years to come when their children and grandchildren ask them what they were doing during the plague of 2020, they can say, "I was learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael."
"You are heroes," he told them. "And it is I who must thank you for the most meaningful two months of my life. I woke up every morning with a sense of purpose because I knew there was a group of young women who had not come to seminary because their classmates or parents pushed them, but because they yearned to learn Torah, and who would not be denied the opportunity to learn more."