Tuesday, May 26, 2020

At most yeshivot, both in Israel and elsewhere, the year is broken into three zmanim, or learning periods. The longest is from Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan until the end of Adar, a couple of weeks before Pesach. Yeshivot in which the students are in dormitories, such as most of the ones Americans attend in Israel, close for the month of Nissan. As a result, most Americans return home for Pesach, enjoying two or three weeks with their families before returning to yeshiva for the summer zman.

Everything about that changed this year. As our Pesach plans, some initially including travel or hotel vacations, dwindled to nuclear families or worse, the same was going on in Israel. They too had “shelter in place” rules, even stricter than ours. So most Americans, not knowing what the future held, found plane flights home and escaped. Often those flights were charters for which the tickets cost twice the normal fare. And what did these students find when they returned? Not much. No shuls, no batei midrash, just competition with their siblings for quiet space to hear Zoom shiurim.

But not the talmidim at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. KBY, the first and oldest of the Hesder yeshivot, decided to welcome those “chutznikim” who dared to stay, and keep the yeshiva open for them. Right after Purim, the roshei yeshiva, Rabbis Gavriel Saraf and Aharon Friedman, and Rabbi David Zahtz, mashgiach of the overseas program, promised the boys that even though things were still unsettled, he would find them a Seder (or two, for those who keep two days of Yom Tov). They would be confined to the KBY campus, but they could continue to learn Torah and enjoy each other’s company, within the government’s guidelines. So 33 chutznikim stayed. Chavrutot learned at opposite ends of long tables out on the lawn, tefillot were conducted with each talmid maintaining a two meter (that’s metric for six feet) space around himself, and life went on.

By the time Rosh Chodesh Nissan arrived, the boys had been in quarantine together for more than two weeks, so they no longer needed social distancing. They cleaned and cooked for Pesach, learning skills and halachot they never imagined, all under the direction of the yeshiva cook, Zalman Eirenshtein. They had free run of their side of the campus (the kollel families were quarantined on the other side), using their ingenuity and whatever materials they could find to create fun activities from “Escape Room” to South African cricket. They strung a wire across some pavement to create a tennis court, and combined a hose and some plastic sheeting for a fun “slip and slide” on a 31-degree day (that’s 88 for us. Jealous?). In short, they had a blast. For the Seders themselves, the boys divided themselves into groups to enable each participant to have time to share divrei Torah, and they found the Seders both intellectually and spiritually satisfying.

Now that Iyar has come and regular learning has resumed, the yeshiva is balancing the needs of those who stayed with those of those who left. Shiurim are scheduled for times when both the U.S. and Israel are awake, and many of the talmidim have resumed their chavrutot over Zoom with friends who returned home. As it seems unlikely that those on this side will be able to return to Israel this school year, this will probably be the plan for the remainder of the summer zman.

Were these 33 boys missed by their families at home? Absolutely. But not a single parent is sorry to have left a son in yeshiva. As Rabbi Dani Davis (father of Avrumi) commented, “The guys at KBY had a better Pesach than anyone else in the whole world this year. Every picture, every WhatsApp and every conversation just emphasized how great they were doing and how well the yeshiva was taking care of them. Unbelievable.” Linda Sragow (mother of Yonatan) said: “Speaking to my son and hearing about his amazing Pesach was like a burst of sunshine in our gray quarantine.”

Thanks to some hardworking, creative and accommodating staff and a wonderful chevra, 33 chutznikim had a Pesach that no one expected and no one will ever forget.

The boys also volunteered to say Kaddish on behalf of friends, relatives, and yeshiva alumni who were without a minyan. While this is normally frowned on for boys whose parents are alive, in this case the yeshiva not only approved but encouraged the boys to volunteer and perform a real service to people all over the globe.

By Murray Sragow