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Jewish Journal

Majoring in Courage

Local students elect to remain in Israel during fighting.

by David Evanier

November 2, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Choosing to stay: exchange students at Hebrew University of Jerusalem .  (Archive Photo)

Choosing to stay: exchange students at Hebrew University of Jerusalem . (Archive Photo)

These are tense days for the Los Angeles parents of Jewish students studying at Israeli universities and yeshivas. Their sons and daughters are among some 4,000 Americans studying in Israel this year in a wide range of programs. Major universities, yeshivas, kibbutzim, the Israel Defense Force are just a few of the institutions that offer American students programs in Israel. According to the Israel Aliyah Center, there are l00 students from Los Angeles currently studying in Israel.

With the escalation of violence engulfing the Palestinian territories, the parents of these children worry and ponder issues of safety and security while maintaining close daily contact with their sons and daughters by phone and e-mail. When the crisis intensified, it was expected that many students would return to their homes in the U.S. Instead, 97 percent of the students from the L.A. area have elected to stay in Israel, maintaining their studies and offering their moral and physical support to the embattled Jewish state.When it became clear that the cease-fire was not holding in the conflict, and alerts were issued to the students by the State Department, Dana and Gary Wexler told their daughter Miri, who is 20 and studying at Hebrew University, that they wanted her to return home.

"We have been very concerned for her safety," Dana told The Journal. "We trust her judgment, but you never know when you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. " But Miri chose to stay."She loves Israel," Dana said. "She's thrilled being there. She knows the language. She took the ulpan and is very fluent."

"This crisis brought me face to face with all the issues of my Jewish and Zionist ideology, of what would I do," said Gary. "Would I take my child out if push came to shove? And I realized I would. My first priority as a Jewish parent is the concern for my child's safety, not my responsibility to Zionist ideology. But my daughter chose on her own to stay."

Asked how he felt about his daughter's decision, Gary replied, "I'm frightened, I'm jittery. On the other hand, I'm proud of what Miri has chosen to do while she stays. She went and got herself a job at the YMCA kindergarten, which is a coexistence kindergarten of Jewish and Arab kids. Because she really believes that they need to learn to live together."

Gregg and Merryl Alpert's daughter, Sarra, 20, is also studying at Hebrew University and has also decided to remain in Israel. A literature major, Sarra won a national essay contest prize from Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel, for an essay in which she wrote about her relationship to Israel."We feel our primary job has been to support her in how she has worked through this decision," Gregg said.

"We told her, of course, we're concerned for her safety. But this was a decision she needed to make. We were there to advise her and to help her think it out and offer her whatever support she asked for. We wanted to make sure she knew she had our permission to get on a plane and come right home if she wanted to. I was proud of how she thought it through." he said.

In Sarra's prize essay, which was titled "The Lizard's Tail," she described the tension between the desire to seek the richness of life and the knowledge there are really frightening situations in the world. "And now, in Israel, there's a classic example of that situation," said her father.

Sol and Pearl Taylor's son, Benjamin, 23, is studying at Darche Noam, a yeshiva in West Jerusalem. Benjamin graduated from UC Santa Barbara, majoring in political science, and had previously spent his junior year at Hebrew University. "We keep in touch daily," Sol said. "I would prefer he be here, but if he feels he's comfortable there, it's okay."

Sol described how Benjamin developed a strong feeling for Israel. "We come from an orthodox background," Sol said. "Benjamin started going to an Orthodox shul, Shaarey Zedek, becoming shomer shabbos. He's similar to his grandparents.They were founding members of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights."

While Sol emphasized his family's support for Israel, he too cited the Palestinian conflict as a source of unease. "Those Jewish settlements in Gaza: who would want to live in such a Godforsaken place? And they're just another thorn in the side of the Palestinians living there."

Yael Weinstock, who is 18 and planning to become a rabbi, is studying in Jerusalem on a program called Nativ, a United Synagogue project of yeshiva study for Conservative youth. Her parents, Alan and Judy Weinstock emphasize that Yael's choice to stay in Israel was "her own decision."

"We've been quite calm about it," Alan said. "We have only asked her once if she felt a desire to come home. She said no. Each family has to make their own decision."

For the Weinstock family, as for so many others, the Holocaust remains a cornerstone of their love of Israel and their belief in its importance. "My parents are survivors from Poland," Alan said. "So when my daughter went to Israel, she could meet family and friends of my parents for the first time, people she'd heard about for many years. They were the real chalutzim of the country. So for my daughter, that connection to Israel is very strong."

"We're proud of her all of her life," Alan continued. "She's a very special young lady."

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