Yisrael Schachter was a bystander during Operation Torah Shield, when a few hundred students from Yeshiva University and Stern College for Women flew to Israel on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War on a solidarity and learning program.
"I was too young," in elementary school, he says. His father, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at YU, and three sisters joined the mission.
During Torah Shield II, during Intifada II a year ago, Schachter was a participant.
Torah Shield III, coinciding with Purim and the American deadline for Iraq’s disarmament, took place this week with Schachter as its leader.
A hundred students, 50 each from YU and Stern, left Sunday night with a musical sendoff at Kennedy Airport for a week in Israel that was to include a festive reception at the Western Wall, a week of Torah study, visits with terrorism victims, and possible introduction to gas masks and sealed rooms if war began and Iraq sent Scud missiles at Israel again.
"I think Israel is the safest place to be," Schachter, 21, a YU junior said as he prepared for the last-minute trip. "All the kids who are coming, their parents are cooperative."
Schachter organized the subsidized trip, which has the blessing of the university’s administration and the financial backing of an anonymous Florida philanthropist, as the U.S. deadline approached. Notices for the available 100 spaces on the El Al flight were posted around YU and Stern; within two hours 300 students had signed up on-line.
The participants were chosen in the order of their registration.
"We want to show our support" for Israel during the ongoing Palestinian violence and the possible Iraqi attacks, Schachter said.
Jacquelin Rechnitz of Los Angeles, a senior at Stern, said she signed up for the mission "because it’s a critical moment in history."
Her mother was "a little nervous" but was supportive of her participation, Rechnitz said. Her brother Jonah, a YU student, went too.
"We are going to demonstrate to our fellow Americans that … we have complete confidence in the security arrangements Israel makes for its citizens and visitors," said Eli Renov, a YU student and mission organizer.
Torah Shield III is supported by the National Council of Young Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the Jerusalem Reclamation Project.
The students were accompanied by Brooklyn state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Jerusalem Reclamation Project President Joseph Frager and two Yeshiva University rabbis, Hershel Reichman and Daniel Feldman.
Based at Modern Orthodox yeshivas and seminaries in Israel, the students, who missed a day or two of classes, are being accompanied by armed security guards while visiting hospitals and army bases.
In addition to the American students who have remained at their yeshivas and rabbinical schools in Israel during the current Palestinian uprising and the growing risk of war, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America sent more than 100 students, designated "Tourism Ambassadors," to Israel in January to learn how to present Israel’s message in the United States. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sponsored its 15th annual Israel Seminar earlier this winter.
Schachter, who lives in Washington Heights, said he has heard stories about the original Torah Shield from his father and sisters over the years. Twelve years ago, Schachter said, his father "didn’t see any fear in anyone’s faces" during the Scud attacks.
This week Schachter could see for himself.
His parents, with obligations on Purim, had to stay in New York.
"My father wanted to come. He was very emotional" about the chance to be in Israel" this week, Schachter said. "My mom wanted to come also. My whole family wanted to be there."