My assignment this week was straight-forward and predictable: with hostilities heating up in Israel, with Hamas missiles from Gaza starting to aim at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with tens of thousands of reserve soldiers being called into active service, with Israel standing on the brink of war, I was to look into the situation of the thousands of teenage students from the States who are spending their gap year learning in Israeli yeshivot (the boys) and seminaries (the girls).
How are they holding up? Are they nervous? Are they coming back to the US or making plans to? Are their parents nervous, pressuring their kids to leave Israel until things calm down?
The answer, in phone conversations and email interviews, was unanimous: we’re doing fine, the students say; no, we’re not coming back or thinking of doing so. No, the parents say, we’re not urging our kids to pull out of Israel when the sirens wail; we’re not even discussing it.
It sounded familiar.
In 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, when Scud attacks from Iraq loomed and most Americans were leaving Israel as fast as they could move up their return reservations, a group of young, Modern Orthodox American Jews were going in the other direction. Yeshiva University, on short notice as the US deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait approached, organized a study mission to Israel.
The school sent several dozen men and women to study at Torah institutions around the country; the heavily subsidized mission, YU felt, would be good for the students’ sense of the importance of the Jewish State, for Israeli morale, and for both the Americans and Israelis, who would see how connected to each other they are.
I covered the students’ departure one night from JFK Airport. It seemed like any other flight going to Israel, full of high-energy young Jews. They chattered in line. They danced in the El Al lounge. They kissed their parents goodbye.
“Learn well,” the parents told their departing kids, the standard wish when students go away to learn.
Everything that night seemed standard. No extra hugs or tears. As if the kids were going on a regular visit to Israel, as if the kids wouldn’t be wearing gas masks and rushing in a few days into sealed rooms. Which many members of the YU group did.
This façade will fade once the kids get on the plane, I thought. Then the parents will break down, they they’ll reveal how nervous they are; then they’ll have second thoughts about sending their sons and daughters into possible harm’s way.
I was wrong.
I got a ride home with one set of parents. The conversation in the car was like any other with folks who’d just sent their children to Israel. No nerves, no nervousness; just the usual talk of where their kids would be and what they would be doing.
They simply were proud that their children had a chance to spend some time in Israel.
Which is exactly what the students and their parents with whom I spoke this week said.