By: Martin Goldenberg  | 

400 Fly in Face of Danger (Vol. 56, Issue 8)

Saddam Hussein probably never realized that by threatening to annihilate Israel, he would serve as the catalyst for a dramatic pilgrimage to the Jewish State. Organized by Yeshiva University students in less than a week, Operation Torah Shield sent over 400 people to Israel on a mission which captured world-wide media attention and a sea of praise from Israeli citizens.

The story of Operation Torah Shield began in the living room of an anonymous philanthropist who was becoming increasingly disgruntled with TV programs depicting hundreds of Jews leaving Israel. The threat of war was growing by the day, but the donor decided that he would personally charter an El AL Jumbo Jet and transport Yeshiva University students to Israel. A planeload of Yeshiva students and Rebbeim arriving in Israel on the infamous date of January 15th was what was needed to counteract Israel's sinking morale, he decided. By Monday, January 7th, rumors of fifty dollar round trip tickets to Israel were sweeping through the college dormitories. Pandemonium erupted on Tuesday morning in the middle of final exams as these reports gained credibility.

YCSC Vice President David Borowich took charge of the project, with many others playing integral roles. The project was dubbed Operation Torah Shield after it was decided that as part of the trip, students would be asked to learn for a week in an Israeli Yeshiva.

Student leaders began to sell tickets Tuesday night, booking the entire plane within a few hours. Hundreds more clamored onto waiting lists as word spread of the trip throughout the New York area.

Nevertheless, the project almost collapsed. For the trip to occur, the philanthropist needed to channel his money to El Al Airlines through a non-profit organization, an arrangement which would create a tax deductible transaction. This vital link proved to be the most elusive  component of the operation.

At first, Rabbi Herschel Reichman offered to transfer the funds through the non-profit Torah Study Fund which he administers. However, questions of liability arose. Hebrew Institute of Riverdale briefly entered the scene and agreed to sponsor the flight. According to Andrew Goldsmith, an assistant coordinator of the project, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was also forced to drop sponsorship because of insurance difficulties and legal concerns.

Yeshiva University itself declined to sponsor the project. Goldsmith explains that the “University had an incredible amount to lose if there was a lawsuit and they [YU administration] realized that you are talking about auctioning off Belfer Hall to pay for lawsuit damages. Obviously, this is a worst case scenario, but it was a possibility.”

According to student organizers of the trip, Yeshiva University was very supportive throughout the entire operation providing valuable assistance. Dr. Lamm greeted the students upon their arrival at Ben Gurion airport, and Vice President Dr. Israel Miller, other administrators, Roshei Yeshiva and faculty were on the flight.

But according to Goldsmith, for a half hour period onFriday, January 11th, the trip was actually canceled. That afternoon, the donor contacted American Friends of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, a charitable organization, that agreed to sponsor the flight, saving the operation from failure.

To inform all passengers of the dangers involved in the flight and to disarm potential liability suits, the project’s organizers distributed waivers explicitly stating the dangers associated with the trip. The “... U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory urging people to stay away from the middle east including the State of Israel,” the waiver warned.

Despite the chaotic atmosphere brought on by phones constantly ringing, final exams, and news from the Persian Gulf, student leaders assembled the operation paying careful attention to details. They secured health and bomb insurance for the flight’s passengers and contacted YU’s liaisons in Israel to arrange for gas mask distribution.

As war grew imminent, OperationTorah Shield received more than 200 cancellations, to the benefit of those confined to waiting lists, In the end, over a quarter of the passengers on Flight 012 were unaffiliated with YU.

Organizers charged $50 for YU students, and $100 for those from outside the YU community. YU Rebbeim flew for free.

Thousands of dollars secured from the ticket sales paid for the distribution of over one hundred boxes of clothing for Russian Jews in Israel and for transportation costs accrued in ferrying the flight’s passengers to the Kotel, the Plaza Hotel and the Knesset among othe destinations. According to Borowich, the remaining $5000 will join charity funds; one such fund is designated to help victims of Iraqi Scud attacks.

Operation Torah Shield received television and newsprint coverage around the world. Reported in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, ABC News and numerous other television networks and newspapers, the story reached millions of people.

Landing in Ben Gurion Airport, the El Al passengers were greeted by a host of  reporters, cameras and Israeli dignitaries including Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Yeshiva University students appeared on Israeli television and were later recognized in the streets, restaurants, and taxi cabs of Israel.

Azi Cutter, a YC Junior, feels that when he and hundreds of other Jews began dancing on the airport tarmac with the Israeli flag flapping in the distance, a tremendous Kiddush Hashem occurred. Cutter said that the flight had a profound impact on Israel’s morale. Many participants said Israelis stopped them in the street to say “Kol Hakavod”.

Cutter, articulating many students’ views, claims the positive media coverage and the reaction of the Israelis he met has raised his school spirit and compelled him to realize that YU plays a significant role in the world Jewish community. Says Cutter, “I was proud to say in Israel that I go to YU.”