American and European parents of the many yeshiva and seminary students studying in Israel for the year are not having an easy time. What could be more powerful than parental love for a child and parental desire to protect that child? Israel is at war for the foreseeable future and this reality naturally generates profound anxiety. Therefore, we understand the impulse to instruct or advise children to fly back to the diaspora. However, I would like to offer another way of thinking about this question. Though I frame this as addressed to parents, the discussion is also intended for the students themselves.
Let me begin with two caveats. Families that have already experienced the trauma of loss or students with serious anxiety issues will understandably confront these questions in a different fashion. The analysis below does not apply to them in the same way. Secondly, I cannot guarantee that nothing bad will happen. In my philosophy, doing mizvot, reciting Tehillim, and powerful faith do not provide assurance of safety. In truth, nothing in life endows us with complete protection although we obviously try to minimize potential dangers. Nonetheless, I think there are compelling reasons for students to remain in Israel.
Given the current situation, the risks are minimal. Most of these foreign students study at yeshivot and seminaries located in the relatively safer Yerushalayim and Beit Shemesh areas. They are not close to Gaza or Lebanon nor do these locations receive the bulk of the rocket barrage. Their educational institutions create strict guidelines about travel during these tense periods.
Remaining in Israel strongly sends a message of identification and support for the Jewish people. Imagine how Israelis would feel if every student from abroad left the country; it would be quite demoralizing. Israelis would justifiably say: “Our brothers and sisters abroad love to visit during happy times but disappear when things turn tense.” Thus, the mere fact of staying helps in and of itself. Furthermore, students can actively help in a myriad of ways. In the past two days, Orayta students cleaned shelters, packaged food, babysat children, donated blood, sang at an old age home, and brought joy to a wedding in addition to their learning Torah. Even just shopping or eating at a restaurant may be helping out local store owners in a difficult economic time.
Being in Israel now is not just a responsibility; it is an opportunity. Will our eighteen year olds look back and say I participated in the resilience and renewal of the Jewish state or will they go a lifetime thinking they left when the situation got tough? In 1973, a fellow named David Landes z”l was studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion when the Yom Kippur War broke out. His letters home were recently made public (https://thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/the-yom-kippur-war-and-yeshivat-har-etzion-letters-from-a-talmid/) and they reveal how remaining in yeshiva during this period deeply impacted this young student. David went on to many impressive achievements including serving as chairman of the Etzion Foundation and completing a PHD in Anthropology from Princeton University with a thesis about the YU Beit Medrash (admittedly much easier than spending months in a third world country). I believe this crucial time in Israel influenced David’s fine character and his lifetime of involvement in communal causes.
The following may be melodramatic and we are certainly not asking these foreign students to go into battle or to feel cursed but I cannot help but think of the speech Henry delivers in Henry V (Act 4, Scene 3) on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
There are a hundred differences between Harry’s request of his men and the circumstances of foreign students studying Torah but the parallel of how people will look back remains intact. The fortunate will merit the ability to reflect about a time when they participated and aided in the remarkable story of the Jewish state.