Lack of involvement during the war is hurting Jewish American college students – why we must push Aliyah straight out of high school.
We all remember the viral clip of presidents from three prestigious universities, who said that calling for the genocide of Jews on campus is only considered harassment “depending on the context.” It stirred outrage as they implied that only once hateful speech turned into “conduct,” essentially, actually killing Jews, it would then be considered harassment. But if we look in the mirror, continuing to enroll in these universities means we are accepting a setting where dangerous antisemitism is okay for us “depending on the context.”
The justification for still enrolling in universities despite the existence or threat of antisemitism include that it’s not so bad, the administration deals with it well enough, or it has mostly stopped. It’s a decision based on the context, because attending these universities would be unthinkable if they were actually Ch’v killing Jews. However, until that extreme point, this implied acceptance hinges on the context within the individual university.
I was very fortunate. Hashem planted a seed in my head out of nowhere urging me to stay in Israel after high school. My connection with Israel through high school was just five weeks on Yad Byad (a travel camp), 2 Israeli day parades, barbecuing in blue and white on Yom Haatzmaut, and trying to decipher confusing maps of the Middle East conflict. My post 12th grade life path was impulsively determined by concluding that I didn’t want to live in the tri state area, coupled with a random conviction that if I’m going to move anyway, I may as well move to Israel. I was pretty sure it was a Mitzvah, knew that Jews live there, and they had a cool iron dome and drip irrigation. With no strong attachments towards any American colleges anyway, my decision boiled down to, “I guess there’s no other option.”
So throughout my Shana Alef I committed to this idea. The Gemara teaches that one should always be busy with Torah and Mitzvot, even if originally for ulterior motives, because, as it famously says: ״שמתוך שלא לשמה, בה לשמה״, out of doing it not for its own sake, one will eventually come to do it for its sake (the right motives). (Pes. 50a) I delved into the extraordinary prophecies of our return to Israel foretold by Yeshayahu and the Neviim Achronim — prophecies that have come to life. I learned about the eternal promise of the land to Avraham, and of all the mitzvot that can only be performed inside its borders. I discovered the physical beauty of the land, the vegetation, the people, and the 2000 year journey and struggle to finally return and build. And I finally grasped not just the personal but now the national mission of Judaism, that can only be achieved when we all return home. In just a few months of really investing, I turned from a dispirited, “I guess there’s no other option” to a resounding and meaningful “There’s no other option!”
I’ve emphasized many times that making Aliyah straight after high school is the optimal time, given the lack of responsibilities and the immense potential one has to give at this age. And this second point is what concerningly became evident throughout the war. Many soldiers, expected to be the most satisfied with their involvement, would say they were capable of doing more than they actually did. Despite proving their capabilities by doing week long drills in extreme weather and accomplishing impressive physical feats, it often amassed to simply standing at a post or doing a small patrol in an outcast area during the war.
How much more so were these feelings felt by Jewish college students in America since October 7. Many friends conveyed to me the meaningless feeling of sitting in college, with Moshe Rabbeinu’s famous question lingering over their heads, “Are your brothers to go to war while you sit here?” (Bamidbar 32:6) Too many people expressed the pain of inaction in a time of need, prompting them to come to Israel to volunteer for anything, yet 3 months late. In this auspicious, confusing, and crucial time in Jewish history, the demotivation of knowing that you could have been giving your all, but were prevented by only yourself, was unfortunately rampant. This system of spending a year in Israel, becoming part of and falling in love with its opportunities and mission, only to then be confined to America, really hurts college students later on when it truly matters. They could have been there, suffering together in Israel, instead of suffering alone in America.
In contrast, there is something for everyone to do for Israel, because it is “a land where you may eat food without scarceness, where you will lack nothing…” Beyond sustenance, both physical and spiritual needs are met, including this need to contribute during challenging times. The Pasuk goes on to say that Israel is “…a land whose stones are iron, and from whose hills you can mine copper.” (Devarim 8:9), where the Ramban explains that in a place you would expect stones, you will find iron. Consequently, there exists an abundance in resources and fulfillment. This foundational belief in having everything we need, makes us limitless, and we can turn stones into iron. This faith is what allows Israel to find water in the desert, lead in innovation, and consistently find fulfillment, because when they expect stones, we know there’s iron.
If it were up to me, I would offer equal or more “Israel Guidance” than the college guidance offered in high school, if we really want to set up our students for success afterwards. This guidance shouldn’t be limited for Yeshiva but should extend for the years after as well. By consistently providing resources and information, we can normalize the idea of staying in Israel after high school, and it won’t be an exception for the select few who then have to start from scratch in Israel. With better preparation and confidence, high school graduates can embrace the move, committing to Israel for more than just summer camps and parades, and having a purpose when Israel needs them.
While moving at this age brings many unknowns, the Gemara teaches that 7 matters are concealed from people, including when the restoration of the house of David and the cessation of the wicked Roman dynasty, the final dynasty before the redemption, will occur. (Pes. 54b) There are instances, where we must enter the complete unknown, like the outbreak of the war. Immediately, I went with 350,000 reserve soldiers to the battlefield with no idea what was going on. It’s an extreme example, but underscores that preparing students already in high school for a life in Israel equips us better for these unknown moments. We’ve felt that exactly in these scary and unknown circumstances in Israel, we’ve discovered where our hearts truly yearn to be: in Israel. How much more so will we yearn to be there for the great victories that we will achieve in the future, whenever that may be.
The clear answer to prioritizing Israel over (even potential) antisemitism filled universities, echoes the words of our new hero Elise Stefanik, “It does not depend on the context; the answer is yes.” We cannot afford to wait until antisemitism Ch’v “turns into conduct” and becomes life threatening to only then come home. Waiting until then poses the risk of not knowing when we might consider the context “too much,” and if it will be too late. The history of the Jewish people in Israel has shown that pivotal moments can happen at any moment. We must be there, settled and prepared, ready to collectively face our hardships, and eventually, our ultimate victory.