| Magazine Feature |

Locked In

Three months in, with creative solutions and tireless staff members, students are not only surviving, but even thriving

Photos: Pinchas Emanuel

No one was surprised by the Israeli government’s reluctance to admit tens of thousands of foreign students into the country at the beginning of the school year. In the end though, a united effort across the religious spectrum yielded a long list of policies and regulations, as the last weeks of summer were spent making dormitories, dining rooms, batei medrash, and classrooms compliant with Ministry of Health regulations. And now, in the throes of another lockdown and the skies closed again, those thousands of students from yeshivos, seminaries, and other assorted gap programs who made it to this side of the ocean are grateful their schools pulled out all the stops to ensure their year in the Holy Land.

And, say the dedicated staffers, the past three months haven’t been as bad as they thought.

“We had the dreaded quarantine and were really petrified at first,” says Mrs. Beila Lehman of P’ninim Seminary in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. “But looking back, it was such a special part of the year. In ‘normal’ years, the girls spend the first weeks of school running away from the strangers in the dorm to the safety and familiarity of family in Israel and friends in other schools. This time, instead of facing so many new things and meeting the entire school at once, they met just five other girls in their capsule. By the end of quarantine, they had five close friends, and that tight-knit circle expanded to include other girls exclusively in their school.”

The way the different schools banded together to make sure every institution could open went beyond expectations — much to the gratitude of those involved. World Mizrachi and The Yeshiva and Seminary Coalition — better known as “The Igud” — as well as askanim and government officials worked in tandem to get the borders opened for incoming students. Schools from the far right to the far left, schools that were considered competitors, or schools that simply had nothing to do with each other, united to gain entry visas for their students.

“When the opportunity presented itself to join with other schools across the hashkafic spectrum, I felt my father a”h telling me, ‘You have to grab this opportunity to make a kesher between so many different parts of Torah Jews,’ ” says Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald of Me’ohr Bais Yaakov, located in the Beit Hakerem section of Jerusalem. He is referring to his father, well-known political and communal askan Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald. “It was truly incredible. Achdus has a tremendous koach — who knows if that wasn’t the reason we were successful?”

With Whatever Comes

Several months in, schools have figured out how to survive and even thrive. At the outset, institutions could choose one of two plans in order to adhere to Health Ministry protocols: a more open dormitory plan with a greater level of restrictions outside of school, or a more restrictive in-campus plan with more freedom to leave campus. The idea is that if students are more exposed outside of school, then the number of classmates they come in direct contact with must be limited.

This second option (“Capsule Protocol”) divides the school into totally separate capsules. Even within the same school, students in separate capsules must wear masks and social distance when interacting with each other, but do have a limited list of permissible options for leaving school grounds. The plastic sheeting we’ve all become familiar with keeps capsules separate from one another in every formerly shared communal area. Whatever the plan, all teachers and staff must be separated by plastic or Plexiglas barriers.

Programming directors at all of these schools have always had carefully planned calendars, from themed shabbatonim to day trips and overnights. But now, when, where, and with whom students can travel is at the mercy of ever-evolving COVID-19 policy. What was okay yesterday may be off limits today; tomorrow, restrictions may suddenly be lifted.

“Our staff has always prided itself on organization, with every detail planned to the letter. This year we’re learning that we just have to flow with whatever comes,” says Mrs. Lehman of P’ninim.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, the first two weeks of the school year were a time to get to know staff and other students. New arrivals were given tips for navigating dorm life, public transportation, and the neighborhood, with time to unpack, purchase school supplies, explore the city, and visit friends and relatives.

Instead, this year’s students from “red” countries (like the US) were quarantined in small groups for 14 days. They weren’t going anywhere, and anyone visiting from the outside had to do so fully masked, from behind a plastic sheet.

Most of us are familiar with the challenges of quarantine, but multiply that by 15,000 students. Administrators and educators made herculean efforts to keep students sane — some schools even had mental health professionals on hand. The goal was to ease the reality of being stuck with five strangers for 14 days.

Because many schools didn’t have the facilities to quarantine adequately, some of them took over several floors of empty hotels for those weeks. Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh, for example, staggered new students’ arrivals in groups two weeks apart, so they would have room to meet Health Ministry guidelines.

During those weeks, classes were held over Zoom and in hotel hallways. In Yeshiva Tiferet (TJ) in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, rebbis gave shiur from an outdoor courtyard to quarantined talmidim listening from their windows. In Lev HaTorah, rebbis stood on the spacious roof to teach while boys listened from the porches of their rooms.

To relieve the boredom, board games and crafting supplies were purchased and distributed in quantity. In seminaries and yeshivos, supplies were distributed to individual rooms with instructions over Zoom or by phone: how to decorate cookies, mold chocolates, make sushi (yes, bochurim also made sushi!). Concerts were held in courtyards. In Yeshivas Bais Yisroel in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov, bochurim watched a barbeque in the making from their windows and then enjoyed the food that was sent up to the rooms. Each apartment in Pninim seminary received its own “escape room” kit.

Some schools opted to start after Succos to avoid having to deal with so many restrictions during the Yom Tov season. But the seminaries that began before the Yamim Tovim had to arrange minyanim and meals on-site for all of their girls. By the time they finally emerged from quarantine, the whole country was under lockdown, which began Erev Rosh Hashanah and was reinforced before Succos.

Bais Yaakov Seminar in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood was officially out of quarantine at midnight before Erev Rosh Hashanah, just when the country was scheduled to go on lockdown.

“There was no way I was having those girls go from quarantine into lockdown without going to the Kosel,” says principal Mrs. Chana Flam. But the Kosel is off-limits to students at high-traffic times, which meant they couldn’t go at midnight when they got out of quarantine, because of Selichos — and the same problem presented itself the next morning at 5 a.m. The school arranged for the girls to go from their quarantine hotel, in separate capsules with a tour guide — at 3 a.m.

What About Learning?

Schools have found creative ways to enjoy what can be done rather than wallowing over what can’t. Of course, that entailed working overtime and programming to the hilt to get students through endless weeks when they couldn’t even leave for Shabbos. Many schools have brought in additional staff to cope with the load and fill in the holes when regular staff is out due to illness or quarantine.

“We’re working around the clock,” says one rebbi, “but with all that together time, I’m mediating a lot more interpersonal issues and listening to students vent their frustrations at not being able to go anywhere. We have to pick up the slack for all the hours students generally entertain themselves by going out with friends, shopping, or davening at the Kosel.”

Event planner Ruth Buchler says her Tourisrael1 business is busier than ever. With students so limited in where they are allowed to go, she’s been tasked to find solutions to occupy them. Mrs. Buchler has brought snow machines, inflatable slides, trampolines, and water tag to campuses to entertain students. Once outdoor activities were allowed, she arranged biking trips, Jeeping, and tours on Raiders (an Israeli invention, like a sit-down Segway) — but all off-campus entertainment will stop again now that the country begins another closure.

Fun and distractions are important for mental health, but what about actual learning? Rabbi Greenwald says that non-normative allowances have had to be made for non-normative circumstances. “You have to remember these young women hadn’t had school since March, six months from when we started this year,” he notes. “We used to have 50-minute classes, but this year we started with 30-minute classes via Zoom in the quarantine rooms, and then moved it up to 40 minutes. Once we were in frontal classes, we were able to increase to 45 minutes.”

Rabbi Avraham Porush, a rebbi in TJ, says that “while the bochurim might need more time to chill, at the same time they feel a sense of achievement that they are here, and that creates an achrayus to do more. They’re more serious — you can feel they have this internal drive to accomplish.”

Many teachers, though, are still skeptical about their ability to reach students from inside their fish bowls. “Honestly, it’s very hard to feel like I’m connecting from behind the plastic, but I guess it’s working since they’re asking good questions and they’re engaged,” says Mrs. Aviva Haymann, a popular women’s educator and teacher in Sharfman’s seminary in Sanhedria, and other Jerusalem seminaries.

One of the fringe benefits of all the closures, according to seminary and yeshivah staff, is that students are far less distracted than in recent years. Faculty has long bemoaned the constant connectivity to home in the last decade, due to email, texting, and rock-bottom calling rates. No one is returning to the days of “when I came to Israel, we waited in line at the post office to call home twice a year,” and students still have constant phone and email access, but with parents and relatives unable to visit and fewer places to go, they’re more naturally focused on learning.

Rabbi Shimon Kurland, who kept Darchei Binah in Bayit Vegan open when COVID-19 hit last March and most other seminaries sent their girls home, said he never had any doubt about opening this year. “We saw how the girls who stayed last year grew more than any other year — it was off the charts. We already learned our lesson. When girls were finally allowed to leave this year for Shabbos, they told me they missed their friends in school. Some of the activities we ran during lockdown were so much fun, we’re definitely going to do them again, even after COVID.”

Making the Best of It

First-year students, who don’t have any other gap-year experience for comparison, are making the best of an unusual situation. Returning students, however, have tasted what a normal year is like, and they know there’s a drastic difference.

“Well, it’s pretty hard not to be able to leave campus and get some air,” says a shanah beit student at Darchei Binah. “It can be a big nisayon in bein adam l’chaveiro, but it’s also a big opportunity. Girls are so much closer to each other, and so much sooner.”

A madrichah at a different seminary agrees. “We didn’t even know each other’s names by Chanukah of last year, and now these girls are already best friends, but missing out on getting to know the teachers in less formal settings is definitely a downside. Last year we went to teachers’ houses for Shabbos and parties or to plan activities. You get to see them interact with their families. It’s a precious kind of learning they’re not getting this year.”

Several returning bochurim say that while it’s hard not to be able to go out, with no distractions, they’ve found a geshmak in their learning they could never have imagined.

Asking a first-year student how this year is different is like asking someone what it’s like to be a twin — this is all they’ve ever known, so they can’t exactly compare. Still, over the years, incoming students have received an evolving list of must-do’s from friends who came before them. They know all the best stores and restaurants, they have directions by light rail and bus, there are lists of families they must go to for Shabbos. This year there’s either a big question mark or a thick black line through them.

Still, these are the kids that lost out on their high school graduations. They’ve been through a lot and are still facing a world of uncertainty, but are rising to the challenge and trying to appreciate what they can do — even as something so basic as going away for Shabbos comes with a whole list of precautions.

This is the fourth year Bonni Herman of Lakewood has sent a daughter to Israel. “I definitely see a difference between her and her sisters’ experiences,” she admits, “but she’s loving every minute and doesn’t know what she’s missing, since she has nothing to compare it to. I feel bad that she’s missing out on getting to know her own family and our friends there. I wanted her to experience how families in Israel make Shabbos and deal with life. On the other hand, I think she’s more into her school than the others were, because they’re there all the time. She can’t just use it as a place to hang her hat. She made great friends very quickly and is learning how to deal with issues that come up instead of always going out.”

Even though students knew there would be restrictions before they boarded the plane, experiencing them is often harder than they’d imagined, and everyone expected them to be lifted sooner. Mrs. Nechama Rosenberg of Bais Yaakov Keser Chaya in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe says she tries to make sure girls understand the reasons for all the rules, as many students find it hard to take an unseen enemy seriously.

“It’s easier for them to keep all the regulations when they realize why they’re important. No girl wants to be the one responsible for sending her entire capsule into quarantine.”

But despite all the rules and restrictions, coronavirus has seeped through some cracks — as it has everywhere. A student in P’ninim had tested negative for COVID before she left home, but when she was coughing in quarantine a day after arrival, concerned staff insisted she take a test, which came back positive. “Her group had to stay in quarantine longer, but aside from those six, no one else got sick. It was gratifying to see the system working,” says Mrs. Lehman.

In Me’ohr, says Rabbi Greenwald, they chose to follow the strictest protocol, keeping students isolated on the campus. Yet somehow coronavirus found its way in, and every girl who hadn’t been sick back home caught the virus. In one yeshivah, a bochur caught the virus — ironically at the doctor’s office. As soon as he showed symptoms, his entire capsule was quarantined, but every time another bochur developed symptoms, quarantine had to be extended for another 14 days. It took several extra weeks until everyone was able to leave the dorm.

Chance to Grow

There is a silver lining though, according to Ruth Buchler. She says she’s reframed, and she now views the restrictions as an opportunity. “Activities have to be coordinated at a time no other people will be there. For example, having the beach all to themselves is a great advantage for a school. Regulations change and the weather may not respect scheduling, but change isn’t a bad thing — it’s a chance for discovery.”

Mrs. Flam concurs. “We normally put up a calendar every month with all our planned upcoming activities. This year we can’t really plan and have no idea when something is happening until the last minute, so we weren’t putting up a calendar. But then I said, why not hang up our calendar anyway? Instead of showing what we’re going to do, we’ll show all the great things we’ve done.”

After all, challenges can bring out the best in everyone, creating an opportunity for growth, resilience, and maturity.

Rabbi Michoel Green of Sharfman’s seminary sums it up best. “Despite the challenges, while studies in so much of the world have been relegated to online learning or over the phone, it’s incredibly heartwarming to see that in Eretz Yisrael, Torah is being learned in person, which is no small feat. After all, when a girl comes here for the year, she returns home with more than her suitcases. She takes with her all that she learned and gained throughout her year. It will affect the kind of person she chooses to marry, and together they will raise a family and influence their community — and the ripples continue. It’s not just a year in Israel — it’s doros.”

EMPTY STREETS, FULL HEARTS

This sunny Chanukah day, Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood was bustling; you’d almost think everything was back to normal — unless, of course, you remember how crowded it used to be on Chanukah afternoons. Over the years, there have been wars, intifadas, and other major tourism deterrents, but nothing in recent history compares to the almost absolute standstill brought by coronavirus. Back in March, there was a mass exodus of students from most Anglo yeshivos and seminaries, leaving many businesses gasping for breath. Hotels usually jam-packed over the holidays, spilling their tourists into the streets, remained empty for Pesach, Succos, and everything in between. The students have only recently started trickling back.

Many of the stores here in Geula have been around for what seems like forever. I can’t remember his face or his name, but I remember one date’s rousing endorsement of the caramel-almond milk at Mitz Uri more than two decades back. It was still on the menu a few months ago, but now the storefront is shuttered. The Geula icon is a victim of coronavirus. Likewise, the sign for Zisalek, the enticing corner ice cream store, is gone; metal grates seal off what was once a full view of mouth-watering temptations. And Shokoland, the candy store students flocked to for years to buy candy platters for Shabbos hosts or to fill a bag with assorted gummies and chocolates for dorm snacking, is nowhere to be found.

Other businesses have managed to scrape by. For nearly 60 years, the Olive Wood Factory on Rechov Meah Shearim has been churning out wood creations and souvenirs, from door plaques to shtenders. But this uniquely Israeli product is almost exclusively reliant on tourists. “We were closed for months, and only in the last couple of months we’ve reopened — and only for a few hours a day,” says an employee who now comes in for only an hour or two a week to do calligraphy on the wood.

Today, the long lines outside Brooklyn Bake Shop on Rechov Malchei Yisrael belie the long months with few customers and the employees they had to let go. Chanukah meant that their mostly American clientele had a hankering for doughnuts, and the owners are hoping customers continue emptying the display cases long after menorahs have been put away.

The good news is that recent years have brought Israeli customers to businesses that once were supported mainly by Anglos, and these local patrons have been able to get them through the tight spots. Pitzuchei Mashiach, Sam’s Bagels, and Uri’s Pizza all have a sizable percentage of Israeli customers. For years, Gal Paz Music was filled with English speakers making their music purchases, but when I ask the man behind the counter about it, he waves me off. “That was years ago. They come in and look and maybe even buy occasionally, but the vast majority of our customers nowadays are Israelis.” Most Anglos get their music online, he explains, but that’s not an option for many Israeli chareidim.

With large parties curtailed, people are ordering less pizza — but it’s still been enough to keep Uri’s Pizza in business. After decades in the same location, the pizza store — known for those iconic caramel doughnuts — has moved to a roomier venue across the street, hopeful that the coming months will allow them to utilize the now-empty sitting area.

But the chairs and tables piled up on the side of Sam’s Bagels spacious sit-down area is a jarring reminder that things are not back to normal. Deliveries have kept them from closing, along with a slow trickle of customers. “How have we been affected? Too much,” admits the assistant manager.

According to Tzvika, manager of the nuts-and-snack store Pitzuchei Mashiach, it’s not just business that’s missing. “The Americans give simchat hachaim to the street,” he says. “Pitzuchei Mashiach has been around for 160 years, and everyone knows us. The chutznikim say they come for two things — the Kotel and, l’havdil, Pitzuchei Mashiach. A few years ago, I was at a shalom zachor in Lakewood, and the table was full of bags from Pitzuchei Mashiach.”

Or Hachaim/Manny’s Bookstore started offering online orders and deliveries to remain viable. Books fill an obvious need for people who can’t do much during quarantine and lockdown, and customers have found the service so convenient, many say they will keep using it even after things return to normal. Still, there’s no replacement for the in-person experience, and Manny’s opens up after hours for schools that don’t want their students exposed to other customers.

Davis Menswear has also managed these difficult months by going online, offering deliveries and easy exchanges. “We’re close to the Mir, and Americans are looking for the service and quality that’s often harder to find here. You see these pants?” says manager David Vaknin, holding up a pair of hemmed pants with the tags on. “Someone bought these six months ago, but he lost 15 kilo and hasn’t worn them. Even if he takes them in, they won’t fit. So I took them back. I’m sure I’ll find someone the same height who wants them.”

At takeout restaurant Hadar Geulah, the man at the register tells us that 70 percent of the store’s business comes from tourists. “Business is about half what it used to be, but business of another kind hasn’t slowed down in the least,” he jokes as he waves through a mother with young children who asked about the facilities.

For some reason this strikes me more than the line of paying customers. How many stores allow the public access to their restroom?

Across the street, someone has installed a water faucet and cups next to a plaque with the brachah, for anyone passing by to help themselves. This is perhaps what makes Geula special, bringing generations back to the same stores. A restroom and a cup of water when you need it? Things may be a little slow now, but these businesses are doing their best to keep the chairs warm until you’re able to come back.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)

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