400 Students Fly to Israel on Eve of Deadline for War

A chartered El Al jumbo jet from New York, packed with nearly 400 Yeshiva University students and faculty determined to demonstrate solidarity with Israel on the eve of a possible war, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday night.

Their mission, officially dubbed “Operation Torah Shield,” was to demonstrate unwavering support for Israel despite the U.S. State Department’s advisory to avoid travel to the region.

There was chanting, singing and impromptu dancing on the tarmac as Israeli well-wishers eagerly greeted the newcomers, who arrived only hours before the expiration of the U.N.-imposed deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait.

Their exuberance contrasted with the weariness and worried looks of foreign visitors camping for the night at the airport, who were there in faint hope of catching a flight out of Israel after most international airlines suspended service to and from Tel Aviv.

According to Rabbi Avraham Weiss, religious leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in New York, “this is the time to run to Israel, not from it.”

His youthful co-religionists agreed heartily.

‘I CARE FOR ISRAEL VERY MUCH’

Tears brimming from her eyes, Gila Kaufman, a pre-law student at Touro College in New York, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “This really warms my heart. I care for Israel very much, and Israel is in my heart at all times,” she said.

Gila sported a sweatshirt with the legend, “America don’t worry, Israel is behind you.”

“Operation Torah Shield” did not benefit from advance planning. Organized only last week, word of the mission spread rapidly in New York and seats on the Boeing 747 filled quickly. Many potential travelers had to be turned away.

“I decided to join five minutes after I heard about the trip,” said Rabbi David Getterman, a Y.U. graduate from Rhode Island. Getterman said he left behind his Israeli-born wife and their 8-year-old daughter, but that he had their blessings.

The trip was an unusual bargain. Student tickets for the 12,000-mile round-trip flight sold for $50.

It was made possible by an anonymous philanthropist, an Orthodox Jew from Miami who donated $250,000 to charter the aircraft. Yeshiva University took care of the logistics.

The donor is known to be close to the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, which officially organized the trip. The yeshiva is located in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ateret Cohanim is one of 15 yeshivot that will house the American visitors during their three-week stay in Israel.

‘THE PLACE WE SHOULD BE’

Many will be sleeping in beds recently vacated by Israel Defense Force reservists called to duty in the crisis, Joe Baum of Ateret Cohanim pointed out.

Ethan Cimant, a 19-year-old Y.U. sophomore from Washington, said he was nervous the week before boarding the plane, but “the second we landed and I set foot in Israel, I felt safe and I knew everything would be fine.”

Cimant said his parents were supportive of his trip. But other youngsters refused to be interviewed, because their parents and friends at home had no idea they were in Israel.

“Israel is the place we should be at this time, and that is why we came,” said a young woman, who would give only her first name, Talia.

Apparently other visitors agree with her sentiments, not all of them Jewish.

On Jan. 18, 120 Christians from the Soviet Union are due in Israel with the patriarch of Moscow to participate in a baptismal ceremony in the Jordan River.

Arrivals on Monday included 132 American Christian leaders, who will be attending a convention at the Holyland Hotel, as well as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and 20 travel agents from Germany.

Another 280 Christians from Finland were scheduled to arrive Wednesday.

An Israel Bonds conference is scheduled to open in Jerusalem on Jan. 21. Eighteen American Christian editors will arrive on Jan. 28 and 300 Jews from London are due at the end of the month.

The World Zionist Organization, meanwhile, has called on young Diaspora Jews “who feel that (the United Jewish Appeal slogan) ‘We Are One’ is much more than just an empty phrase” to come to Israel to volunteer.

The head of the WZO Youth and Hechalutz Department, Bill Levine, on Tuesday issued an appeal for volunteers for a new program called “Yahad” (Together).

Levine said that “if you are between the ages of 19 and 25 and have been in Israel on any one of the Youth and Hechalutz’s long- or shortterm programs, we want you to consider coming here again — now.

“If you are prepared to give of yourself for one month or longer, volunteering on a kibbutz or working in an army warehouse, we want you here — now,” he said.

Volunteers will be asked to pay only for their round-trip air fare, with other expenses covered in Israel. Those interested should contact a WZO shaliach (emissary), any Zionist youth movement or the American Zionist Youth Foundation at (212) 752-0600.

(JTA correspondent Charles Hoffman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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