Why I stayed in place

Why I stayed in place

A gap year student tells why he stayed in Israel while others went home

Darius and his friends at Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah; Darius is on the right, second from the last, behind the kid in the baseball cap.
Darius and his friends at Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah; Darius is on the right, second from the last, behind the kid in the baseball cap.

Last year I decided to postpone my college education to spend a gap year in Israel. I wanted to experience the Holy Land, learn more about Judaism, and foster an identity that I could take into adult life. In late August, I began my year at Migdal Hatorah, an Orthodox yeshiva in Modi’in.

This year of uninterrupted Judaic learning — truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — had been immensely rewarding. Then, in mid-March, Israel began tightening the sizes of gathering, which briefly meant an improvised learning schedule. That same week, people were required to stay at home. We were banned from traveling outside Modi’in, and things were looking pretty bleak.

My apartment mates and I watched as the situation worsened abroad. Talk of going home was in the air. Our yeshiva was in a unique position compared to other programs — instead of living in dormitories, we students live in private apartments rented by the yeshiva. Each is about a five-minute walk from the yeshiva building. The faculty announced that students could continue living in these apartments and picking up catered food from the yeshiva as long as it was possible logistically. However, the yeshiva and its faculty would understand if some students decided to fly home.

As my friends started to panic, I tried to maintain a rational outlook. I boiled the question of whether to go home to New Jersey down to a few factors, which I believe have aged well.

First, safety. Israel’s social distance restrictions were severe, were put in place relatively early, and were much more decisive than in the New York area. The United States had far more coronavirus cases per capita, and was behind Israel in enacting restrictions, so I figured I would be less likely to get sick in Israel.

Second, there was the issue of boredom. The yeshiva had announced daily Zoom classes and one-on-one study with rabbis. This would be more inaccessible in the United States due to time zone differences. Besides, it would be more difficult to commit to learning consistently back home, without the explicit pressure of formally being in yeshiva.

Last, there was the social element. An argument that resonated with me was: When all hell breaks loose, wouldn’t you most want to be with your family? The familiarity of my Englewood home would be greatly comforting during a world crisis. Additionally, most of my close friends had decided to leave Israel already, which would make isolation lonely. But I still had friends in yeshiva, and riding out the storm with them might be a meaningful bonding experience.

Ultimately, I made an active decision to stay. Isolation has indeed been difficult in several respects. I was stuck in the same apartment all day with the same four guys. While there was plenty of virtual learning, nothing compares to the open environment of a beit midrash, where you can transition freely between conversations. Outside of daily learning opportunities, sticking to a consistent schedule has been tough. For leisure, YouTube and Netflix cannot hold their entertainment value for too long. Life essentially came to a standstill. For some time it was prohibited for us to venture more than 100 meters from our building for anything other than necessities. Within certain limits, students in the same building were allowed to visit each other in different apartments. While I have become closer to the guys who stayed, I still miss the many friends who left. Isolation hasn’t been easy without them.

And yet I believe this was the right choice for me. With all the programming Migdal Hatorah has provided and the projects I have undertaken, the experience overall has been a positive one. I continued my daily Talmud study over WhatsApp with a friend who returned overseas. I even reached my goal to complete the 24 books of Tanakh!

Despite all the reasons to go home, a majority of Migdal Hatorah students stayed. I believe this speaks to how well the yeshiva adapted to the crisis, compared to other programs that had no choice but to close early. I’m also fortunate that circumstances allowed me to choose to stay or go home.

Throughout isolation, I have tried to remain aware that this crisis has left people in far worse circumstances. Countless people are in dire economic need. Some are trapped in unstable households. Essential and medical workers risk their lives interacting with viral patients. Many families have experienced tragedy due to the virus. I am still counting my blessings. Due to Israel’s severe measures, nobody who remained in yeshiva has been infected or quarantined.

In a sense, I am fortunate that I chose to stay in Israel. The gap year in general is a chance for teens to gain independence. But I never anticipated how independent this lockdown would force me to be. I cooked and cleaned for myself far more than over the rest of the year. I became more flexible with social situations as my friend circle diminished. For the first time, I helped organize and run a Pesach seder with the other students.

In early May, learning in the beit midrash resumed in a limited capacity. Hopefully, we will be allowed to reopen more fully as Israel relaxes its restrictions. In June, though, my year will draw to a close. Though it certainly wasn’t the year I was expecting, it has been a memorable one, full of unforeseen growth. I feel more confident in making tough decisions, and I’m proud that I abided by this one. As this long journey comes to an end, I will return to the United States richer for it.

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