Yeshiva students buck trend, go to Israel

NEW YORK, Aug. 5 (JTA) —Jennifer Kessler of Los Angeles always knew she would spend a year between high school and college studying at a girls’ yeshiva in Israel.

Her modern Orthodox day school, Shalhevet, usually sends at least a third of the graduating class to Israel, and among the children of her parents’ friends, “everyone” goes to Israel.

But when it came time this year for Kessler, 17, to firm up her plans to attend Midreshet Lindenbaum, a prestigious program in Jerusalem, it wasn’t easy.

Her parents, who canceled a family trip to Israel due to concerns about the violence, started worrying. Several other L.A.-area teen-aged girls that Kessler knew had been planning to study in Israel decided not to go.

And a close friend studying in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements near Jerusalem that have long been an outpost of the English-speaking modern Orthodox community, complained to her that the drive-by shootings on the road to Jerusalem kept him virtual hostage at his yeshiva for days on end.

Nonetheless, Kessler remains cautiously committed to her upcoming year in Israel — and is scheduled to depart at the end of August.

In the Orthodox world, she is fairly typical.

While American Jewish tourism to Israel is way down, and American enrollment has dropped sharply at secular institutions like Hebrew University of Jerusalem, post-high school yeshiva programs in Israel are — so far — an exception to the trend.

• Almost 2,400 American yeshiva and seminary students will be departing for Israel in the next month, according to Cheryl Stein, a spokeswoman for El Al Israel Airlines. The number is “a drop” from last year, “but not significant,” Stein said. However, she could not provide statistics for last year.

• Yeshiva University, centrist Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, reports that almost 1,000 recent male and female high school graduates will be under its auspices in Israel at Bar-Ilan University and 36 yeshivot and seminaries, the same as last year. Y.U. officials said very few people left in the middle of the last school year, and virtually no students registered for this year have canceled their plans.

• Yeshivat Har Etzion, a boys’ yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, expects 45 students this year — the same as last year — and had to turn away a number of applicants.

Of course, these numbers could still decrease if the violence intensifies or there is a major bombing targeting young adults — and as a result, the yeshivot are still “on pins and needles,” said one official in modern Orthodox academia.

Rabbi Shalom Berger, a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum and a faculty member at Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, said he recently spoke to a Yeshivat Har Etzion teacher who, commenting on the expected American students, said, “Let’s see if they really come.”

But these potential changes aside, why, at a time when Israel’s tourism industry is on the rocks, are Orthodox students still flocking to the Jewish state?

After all, unlike Birthright Israel participants — one of the only other steady sources of young travelers to the Jewish state since the Palestinian uprising began last September — yeshiva students are not getting a free trip.

And a year at a post-high school yeshiva program costs an average of $10,000 plus airfare, according to Berger, an expert on such programs.

Kessler said she decided to stick with her plans, in part because she’s not the type to “back out of things” and, having already deferred admission at the University of Pennsylvania for a year, wasn’t sure what she would do if she stayed at home.

But ideology also played a part.

“My mother has always said if people stop going to Israel then the Palestinians have won,” she said.

Going to Israel, Kessler said, seemed like an “opportunity to do something good for my people.”

Rachel Singerman, of Baltimore, said, “It makes a difference that we’re going to be with people in a time of crisis. I wish more people would.”

Singerman, who will attend Orot Israel College, which is in the West Bank, 20 minutes outside Tel Aviv, grew up in a family that commemorated Israeli Independence Day with a special meal each year. She says she has wanted to make aliyah since she was a small child.

The Israeli-Palestinian violence did not affect Singerman’s decision, nor did it deter her acquaintances who had already decided to go to Israel for the year.

However, she said, she knows people who had “been wavering over tuition and other issues, and the situation pushed them over.”

Singerman’s day school, Yeshivat Rambam, is sending 13 of this year’s 15 graduates to study in Israel.

In addition to ideology and idealism — and studies have shown centrist Orthodox Jews have stronger feelings of connection to Israel than liberal and unaffiliated Jews — other factors have kept enrollment fairly stable at post-high school yeshiva programs, say observers.

For one thing, pre-college Israel study has become a standard rite of passage for modern, or centrist, Orthodox Jews. In a 1999 study, Berger found that close to 90 percent of modern Orthodox young adults spend a full year studying Torah in Israel following high school graduation.

The fact that yeshiva programs are the communal norm means that most potential participants have either friends or family members who recently attended them and can vouch for their safety.

“A lot of the boys who were going, especially initially, were siblings of boys who were there already,” said Shirley Schuster, executive director of The Etzion Foundation, the American office for Yeshivat Har Etzion.

“The parents were really happy with how their boys did, what the year did for them, and they’re very committed to the yeshiva and feel they get so much out of it,” Schuster said. “They were much less reluctant to send their sons with everything that’s going on than someone who’s never sent a child for the year.”

Another reason Orthodox study programs aren’t affected the way other Israel programs, say yeshiva officials, is because their primary focus is on study, rather than traveling around the country.

“They’re going to a place to stay and the purpose is to learn and develop in their religion and within themselves,” Schuster said. “They’re not just going there and hanging out on the streets.”

That may explain why at Kessler’s high school in Los Angeles, the numbers of students planning to spend a year in Israel did not drop significantly this year, but the school’s 10th-grade trip to Israel was decimated by cancellations.

While the school usually sends almost its entire sophomore class of 60 to Israel for six months, this year, only 30 signed up and only 15 actually went.

Unlike travel programs, many yeshivot — particularly the academically elite ones — have demanding study schedules that last from morning to night and allow little free time for travel.

And most programs have restricted travel further with intensified safety procedures. Many programs brief students regularly on the situation, have extensive sign-out procedures and — in some schools — require that students who are traveling call in to the school after major terrorist incidents, so that the school can notify parents that everyone is safe.

According to a recent study by Dodi Tobin, a fellow with the Jerusalem-based Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions, girls’ schools this year implemented “more specific interventions such as travel restrictions and requiring parental consent to travel to certain destinations than did the male yeshivot.”

Her study also found that the majority of students brought cell phones to Israel and were in frequent contact with their parents by e-mail and phone.

Another finding was that students spent more time studying and less time traveling, as a result of the situation.

Despite the restrictions, Michael Kranzler, Y.U.’s director of admissions, said the same percentage of last year’s students are opting to stay for a second year as always do.

Many students reported, Kranzler said, that the intifada “simply intensified the experience of the year.”

“The fact that they didn’t have free access — that was what the whole country was going through. They were all together living through an intense situation, so they felt even stronger about going back for a year.”

Tobin’s study found that many students reported that the tensions in Israel “had instilled their year with meaning and engendered a strong connection between them and the country and people of Israel.”

Nonetheless, while the prospect of such restrictions may not be prompting cancellations, it doesn’t make the incoming students happy.

“My Israel experience is going to be really different from other people’s experience in the past,” Kessler said. “I’m not going to be able to explore and not going to have the freedom that’s the trademark.”

However, she is looking forward to the intensive education.

“I think the entire year will be more focused on learning than has in the past,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a bad thing — that’s a good thing.”

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