Saturday, May 15, 2021

Hoping to take things from the figurative to the literal after being up in the air for weeks, yeshiva and seminary hopefuls who had been planning to spend the upcoming academic year in Israel are one step closer to taking to the skies after an announcement by two high-ranking government officials allowing diaspora students - both married and unmarried - to enter the country. Arutz Sheva confirmed on Wednesday morning that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had approved the plan, despite Israel’s ban on foreign travelers, three days after word initially surfaced that an exception would be made for yeshiva and seminary students.

Matzav reported that the Israeli government made its decision in response to the efforts of an unprecedented coalition of more than 150 yeshivas and seminaries in Israel representing students spanning an extraordinarily wide range of hashkafot. Led by Rabbi Nechemya Malinowitz, director of Eretz Hakodesh in Israel, and Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, principal of Me’ohr Bais Yaakov, the “Coalition of Yeshivas and Seminaries for Bnei Chutz La’Aretz” is completely apolitical and was created to represent the interests of the more than 12,500 overseas students who travel to Israel each year to study in Orthodox institutions.

The coronavirus pandemic cut the 2019-2020 seminary year short and left many yeshiva students unable to return to the country after the Pesach break, even if they possessed valid student visas. A short-lived program developed to issue special entry permits for unmarried yeshiva students was unexpectedly lifted in early June because of an uptick in COVID-19 infections, with only those who were already on a flight to Israel allowed into the country and all other permits invalidated, reported Yeshiva World News. Further complicating matters, the Israeli government announced that only students enrolled in the more than 50 yeshivas and seminaries affiliated with Masa Israel Journey would be issued student visas for the upcoming year, leaving those returning for a second or third year of study, or those planning to attend dozens of other schools, with no way to obtain visas.

It was clear that something had to be done to advocate for the thousands of yeshiva and seminary students from the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Russia, South Africa, Panama, Mexico and Australia who were being left in the lurch, especially once the Israeli government announced the cancelation of all Masa visas. Leveraging relationships with MK Yitzhak Pindrus and appealing to Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the former head of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem who works closely with Israel’s Ministry of Health, the coalition demonstrated a unified front for the Torah community, paving the way to have yeshiva and seminary students allowed into the country once Israel once again reopens its borders.

“Everyone was extremely impressed by the unity of the coalition, which represented Ashkenazi, Bnei Akiva, Chasidish, Litvish, Mizrachi, Modern Orthodox, Sefardi and Yeshivish schools,” Rabbi Malinowitz told The Jewish Link.

“There is no question that the achdus shown made the biggest impression on the government,” added Rabbi Reuvein Taragin, dean of overseas students at Yeshivat Hakotel and a member of the coalition. “Here was a group that brought together so many different hashkafos that helped the government understand the significance of a year in Israel.”

The announcement allowing foreign students to enter Israel, subject to as-yet-to-be-announced Ministry of Health guidelines, is just one step of many that needs to fall into place for yeshivas and seminaries to open. The fluidity of the pandemic has made it difficult for anyone to plan ahead, but schools have been advising parents of this latest development. A cautiously optimistic letter sent out by Nachlas Bais Yaakov informed parents that details would be forthcoming once they have been clarified by the government, but that students should anticipate a two-week quarantine period upon their arrival, with possible changes to the yearly program and significant restrictions a likely scenario because of the ongoing outbreak. Another letter from an unnamed seminary that appeared on The Lakewood Scoop told parents not to book tickets for their daughters at this time even though school is scheduled to open in a month, since students arriving on a group flight will likely have an easier time entering the country.

Schools are hard at work formulating protocols to ensure the safety of all students, assuming they will be allowed into the country. All plans must be approved by the Ministry of Health, and one possible scenario could include keeping entire schools on lockdown once students have quarantined successfully for two weeks. Another model would divide schools up into smaller groups, each of which would be kept separated from all others, but would be allowed some contact with the outside world. After an initial precautionary quarantine, any potential infections would necessitate that only members of a specific class would be subject to quarantine, while the rest of the school could continue with their normal activities.

While there are those who have suggested that perhaps it might be easier for students to just stay home this year and continue their studies in any of the many fine Torah institutions that exist in the diaspora, Rabbi Greenwald observed that a year in Israel is something worth fighting for. That sentiment made a deep impression on the Israeli government, said Rabbi Malinowitz, with the coalition’s efforts providing officials with an eye-opening look at just how deeply the Orthodox community values the opportunity for Torah study in Israel.

“We all need to appreciate the enormous emes of ‘ein Torah k’Toras Eretz Yisrael’—there is no learning that can compare with that acquired in Israel,” said Rabbi Greenwald. “This is a truth that makes an enormous difference in the lives of thousands of young bnei Torah and bnos Torah every year. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu give the proper guidance to all those who are bringing talmidim and talmidos to make this challenging year a special year of aliyah and hatzlacha.”

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients. She can be contacted at [email protected]