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Jewish Journal

Yeshiva Students Still Going to Israel

by Julie Wiener

August 23, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Jennifer Kessler always knew she would spend a year between high school and college studying at a girls' yeshiva in Israel.

Her modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles, 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 teenage girls that Kessler knew had been planning to study in Israel and decided not to go.

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, that feeling is 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.

Nearly 2,400 American yeshiva and seminary students will be departing for Israel in the next month, according to Sheryl 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 36 yeshivot and seminaries and at Bar-Ilan University, 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 further -- and as a result, the yeshivot are still "on pins and needles," said one official in modern Orthodox academia.

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?

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."

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, Rabbi Shalom Berger, a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum and faculty member at Bar-Ilan University's Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, 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.

Yeshiva officials say another reason Orthodox study programs aren't affected the way other Israel programs are is because their primary focus is on study, rather than traveling around the country.

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.

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."

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