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Tourism is Down, but Orthodox Return to Israeli Yeshivas in Droves

April 12, 2002
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Surrounded by family members who were seeing him off, Ephraim Yarmush leaned on his metal baggage cart, smiled warmly and said he was not nervous about going to Israel.

Yarmush was among thousands of young Orthodox men returning to learn in Israeli yeshivas Wednesday, despite the frequent suicide bombings and Israel’s largest military operation in decades.

But was his family as sanguine about it as he was?

“My mother’s chilled like anything,” said Yarmush, 20, of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. He grinned at his nervous, youthful-looking mother and she nodded cooperatively, a brave smile on her face.

“My father doesn’t show it, and my grandmother cries all night,” he said. “The truth is, the only reason I would’ve considered not going was not to torture my grandmother.”

It has become a truism that the El Al check-in lines at Newark International Airport — and at other airports around the world — have been eerily quiet as few tourists dare travel to Israel since Palestinian terrorism has intensified.

But Newark’s sun-drenched Terminal B was bustling Wednesday — and for most of the week — with sold out flights as thousands of Orthodox yeshiva students returned from their Passover vacations.

Despite the rampant terror and Israeli military response while the students were back in the United States, the overwhelming majority who came home for Passover appeared ready to return to Israel.

While most of the students on Wednesday’s flight were men, many Orthodox women also study in Israel and are expected to return to Israel after the vacation.

Not all the passengers on El Al Flight 018 to Tel Aviv on Wednesday were yeshiva students. But young men — black hats or yarmulkes on their heads and their faces scruffy because of religious prohibitions against shaving between Passover and Lag B’Omer — were clearly the majority, saying goodbye to nervous mothers, bearded fathers and siblings.

Families prolonged their goodbyes, some milling near the check-in counter, others sipping bottles of Coke at the cafe area near the security clearance.

A screeching whistle-like noise — a false alarm apparently triggered by passers-by touching a forbidden door — periodically rang through the area, causing people already unnerved by the prospect of terrorism to get a little more unnerved.

Mostly in their late teens and early 20s, the students tended to deny they were afraid.

Eli Braun, of Baltimore, said he was looking forward to returning to his Jerusalem yeshiva, where he had been studying since last summer, because Israel is the “place to be.”

“That’s where all the kedusha is,” he said, using the Hebrew word for holiness. “That’s our homeland.”

A black-hatted 21-year-old in a navy pinstriped jacket and black pants, who said he was returning to a yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim, said he was “not nervous at all.”

“In my neighborhood,” he said, “there’s no problems usually” — though 10 Jews were killed in early March in a suicide bombing in a fervently Orthodox neighborhood just next to Me’ah She’arim.

The young man said he spends most of his time — from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days — inside the yeshiva studying.

“At these times, the only thing you’re going for is to study,” he said. “You don’t go running around or on vacation. If you’re going on vacation, you get into problems.”

But mothers were more skittish.

“Of course I’m nervous. How could you not be?” said one stylishly dressed Borough Park woman, who identified herself simply as Ruchel and said she was sending her 21-year-old son to a Jerusalem yeshiva.

“We talked it over, we asked a rav,” or rabbi, “and they told us the boys who are learning should go back, so they’re going back,” said Ruchel, clustered with a group of other mothers against a railing while their husbands and sons prayed in another part of the airport.

Many parents said they speak to their sons several times a week while they are in Israel and require them to call right before Shabbat, immediately after Shabbat and any time there is a terrorist attack.

“We were nervous a year ago. Now we’re beyond nervous,” said one Monsey, N.Y., woman. She sat between her husband and their son, who refused to look up from his page of Talmud except to warn his parents that they shouldn’t speak to a reporter.

“This is not anything we’ve said to do,” the woman said. “The rabbis have said for the boys to go back. You have to have a lot of faith and hope for the best.”

Michael Rosen, 18, was one of the few men his age not headed for a yeshiva. Rosen, who grew up in Israel but now lives in New Jersey, said he was headed back to Israel, maybe for good.

Wearing a crocheted yarmulke with swirls of black and neon green, Rosen slouched in a chair near the ticket counter, waiting for his mother who was joining him on the flight. Leaning against his suitcases were crutches: He twisted his foot at a wedding two weeks before Passover.

A volunteer emergency medical technician, Rosen said he had been in Israel for Passover and came back to New York a few days ago. But he quickly decided to drop out of Ocean County Community College and go back to Israel, either to volunteer in a hospital or enlist in the army, he said.

Rosen said he had been just 300 feet away from two suicide bombings in downtown Jerusalem — but he won’t let that deter him from going where he wants, such as the Western Wall and downtown Jerusalem.

“I’m sorry people died, but I’m not going to lock myself in my house and stop my life,” he said.

Ellen Shaffren, of the Riverdale section of the Bronx, was seeing off her son, Eliezer.

“You have to have a certain degree of trust in Hashem,” a term often used for God, Shaffren said.

Eliezer was headed for Yeshivat Har Etzion, a centrist Orthodox yeshiva near Efrat, and Shaffren said most of her friends also were sending their sons back to Israel.

However, they are making little changes. Earlier in the year Eliezer bought his books in Jerusalem, but over vacation he bought several of his books in New York.

The books cost more here, but at least Eliezer won’t have to make the often dangerous bus ride to Jerusalem when he gets back to Israel.

A sack of Reese’s Pieces and other candy in his arms, a crocheted blue yarmulke on his head, Eliezer said he was “very excited” to go back to yeshiva.

“Israel is where we belong,” he said.

Jackie Adler of Englewood, N.J., whose son, Michael, was bound for the centrist Orthodox Yeshivat Sha’alvim near Tel Aviv, said she had considered forbidding her son from going back to Israel, “but he won.”

“He really wanted it and the rabbi said, ‘Send,’ ” she said. “So we’re all sending. And praying.”

She only consented, Adler said, because the yeshiva is in “complete lockdown,” meaning students are not allowed to leave the grounds.

Looking around the food court tables where she sat — filled with Orthodox Jews eating only kosher packaged food or things they’d brought with them — Adler said, a bit wistfully, “It’s interesting that everybody on this flight seems to be Orthodox. Seems to be the only people going to Israel.”

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