(Courtesy of The Etzion Foundation) The Jewish educational world has had to adapt to our uncertain COVID-19 reality and Yeshivat Har Etzion and sister school, The Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, in Gush Etzion, have become trailblazers as a result of their “the show must go on” attitude.
Eli Weber, director of the Dr. William Major Overseas Program at Yeshivat Har Etzion (“Gush”), took charge of operations. “We really invest in our students, and this has been exemplified during COVID-19.
“When the yeshiva closed, most boys went home. Our rabbanim gave a full schedule of shiurim on Eastern time until Tisha B’Av and we built a tremendous sense of partnership and trust with our parents and students; they saw Gush as their ‘safe place,’” Eli said.
But, as Eli described, despite going overboard in following procedures, they still had to deal with the unexpected: three students from the U.S. were held at Ben-Gurion as regulations changed mid-flight.
“We used every contact we had, from the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Medan, to the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein. Our CEO, Yoni Holzer, even drove to the airport.” Eventually, the boys were permitted to enter the country and stayed at a quarantine hotel in Jerusalem.
While the yeshiva is currently unable to provide the regular recreational activities, the enormous campus and facilities enable students to enjoy themselves through sports, Motzei Shabbat pizza parties and the popular Thursday night “cholent and chizuk.”
Kovi Smith from Sydney left Israel at the end of March, just a month after having started his MTA program. Due to his determination, he came back on June 17, after a 60-hour flight.
“Coming back to yeshiva was difficult, as I had already started at university. Corona wasn’t really a big deal in Sydney like in Israel. It felt weird leaving a ‘corona-safe’ country and coming to Israel.”
Still, once Kovi obtained government approval, he was on his way back. “Yes, a risk, but well worth it. That feeling of being immersed in Torah in this uncertain time period is really special.”
The yeshiva has continued to enlist soldiers into the IDF, including 13 lone soldiers. Tzadok Cohen, a second-year student, was meant to go back to Chicago for Pesach, but as he had already been drafted, his leave was canceled, and he stayed in Israel.
“It was a relief to come back to Gush after lockdown to an open beit midrash. As I was drafting, the capsule model in the yeshiva helped me to build friendships with Israelis who I’m now in the IDF with. The fact that we were able to have some sort of routine when there was no real one, was amazing,” Tzadok said.
Yaakov Grunsfield, from Brooklyn, had no problem in re-integrating into yeshiva routine when he came back for his second year in July. “I quarantined in the luxurious family suites. Over Shabbat, they had minyanim, zemirot and shiurim outside our rooms.”
Once Yaakov completed quarantine, he, like the other students, learned in capsules. “The yeshiva was really well organized. We sat in the same groups divided by plastic barriers—in the beit midrash, dining room and auditorium.”
The yeshiva provided a full program over the summer break. “We had a schedule of shiurim, daily minyanim and three meals a day. We even had tiyulim!” Yaakov said.
Adeev Segal, from Canada, had no hesitation in coming back for his second year. “I was really impressed with how the yeshiva took care of us during quarantine. We had a packed day—including exercise and social activities.”
Yossi Nadel, from Michigan, who has just drafted into the IDF, stayed in Israel throughout and made a siyum with his chavruta, Rafi Schlager. “When we re-started learning in the yeshiva, the capsule structure helped create a meaningful atmosphere; there was a special sense of togetherness.”
Second-year student at Migdal Oz, Maayan Hirschkorn, from New Jersey, stayed in Israel throughout COVID-19. “Before corona I was friends with Israelis, but always felt there was something different between us. All of a sudden we were equalized; we were in this together and became one big family.”
“After having learned on Zoom for months, we returned to the beit midrash—everyone was so passionate, motivated and excited to learn together again,” Maayan said.
Batya Sarna arrived mid-August from New York for her first year at Migdal Oz. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to hug friends, visit the beit midrash, or meet teachers for two weeks. However, my stress was abated as soon as I entered Migdal Oz.
“One of the most gratifying parts of quarantine was seeing how supportive and caring the staff were—from shlepping our things to rooms and delivering meals to bringing us flavored tea and talking to us from a distance outside.”
That special pioneering spirit at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Migdal Oz has meant that even in these challenging times learning is still going strong, showing how dedication and perseverance can help overcome even the most challenging of circumstances. Hopefully COVID-19 will pass, and learning will return to normal soon; we wish all students a fruitful year.
The Etzion Foundation Dinner will take place online this year on Wednesday evening, September 9. For more information and to register go to www.thegushdinner.org or call 212-732-4874.