Memories of a Mission (Vol. 56, Issue 8)
Operation Torah Shield brought fame to Yeshiva University and much needed moral support to the people of Israel. However, for the hundreds of students who participated, Torah Shield also involved sharp emotions and intimate experiences few will ever forget. Long after the war is over and the media has forgotten about the trip, these memories will linger on.
Exhausted from finals week, few students were able to contemplate the meaning of the trip or the dangerous situation they were entering as flight 012 took off. Some students sang Hebrew songs as the plane headed towards Israel, but most simply tried to recover. "All I could think about was sleep," recalls YC Sophomore David Saltzman. However, as the plane landed, students began to sense the importance of their journey. "When I felt the wheels touch down, I was ecstatic," claims one student. "These feelings grew when I looked out the window and saw the welcoming crew. I understood that we were doing something important. I hoped that we would be able to do what we came for, what the people in Israel expected of us.”
Avraham Abboudi remembers people kissing the ground as they exited the plane. “At that moment, I was overcome with a tremendous love for the land of Israel and everything it means to me,” he says.
Barry Gelman describes the scene as euphoric. “When we got off the plane, people dropped their bags and were dancing; everyone just started dancing.”
The students were greeted by a host of officials who spoke about the importance of their visit. Pre-med student Bentzie Schlakman found Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s greeting particularly powerful: “Atem chelek mimenu”, (you are part of us). Schlakman believes that "to come at that time really showed that you were coming home. [It] showed how you really felt."
The minister's words also struck a chord with Avraham Abboudi. "American Jews have a tendency to consider themselves separate," he explains. "Israelis do too. I think Torah Shield proved to ourselves and our families that any danger to the Israelis is a danger to us, and that we identify with their pain."
All the students interviewed agreed that even if they had not truly identified with the land of Israel before, this trip solidified their relationship with both the people and the land. “It felt comfortable being in Israel," remembers David Matkowsky, a graduating senior. “I felt at
Although many students admit they did not expect Saddam’s Scud missile attack, they say they were shaken up, but not actually scared. All interviewed say they never doubted for a moment that they were safe.
Abboudi describes the first night of attacks as follows: The first alarm was Thursday night at 2:00 a.m. and they told us to put on the masks. We all thought it was a gas attack; we thought this is it, this is Gog - Umagog (War at the end of days), I couldn't think of a better place to be.”
As the missile attacks continued, students grew braver. Students staying at Kerem B’Yavneh, counting on the fact that they were far away from Tel Aviv, actually stood outside and watched the Scud and Patriot missiles soar through the air.
Barry Gelman, an ex-BMT bachur, relates an experience which occurred during one of the many air raid sirens. “I was spending time with my cousins. They're a large family and I got a real sense for the hardships they faced. I helped make sure the children were safe. It was really difficult. I found myself grabbing two kids off the floor and carrying them upstairs to the shelter.”
Students describe their time spent in sealed room as burdensome. At times, they had to spend several hours locked up in a crowded room, with plastic sheets over the windows preventing any circulation.
A major goal of Operation Torah Shield was to lend moral support to the Israelis, especially at a time when many American yeshiva students were leaving Israel. This goal, according to all the participants questioned, was achieved beyond what they had imagined possible.
“The best feeling was when the Israelis in the yeshiva hugged us and told us how much it meant to them that we were back,” exclaims one student. “Even the cabbies in Jerusalem heard about us and appreciated us.”
David Gershbaum says that several Israelis told him he was “crazy- daffy as a duck- but they thought it was great that we were showing our support.”
Former Yeshivat Hakotel student Azi Cutter feels the trip went beyond moral support. “I not only felt it was a Kiddush Hashem, but that we were making history,” he says.
Another important aspect of the trip was to have more students in Israel learning Torah. However, the students encountered many obstacles. “Learning was more difficult physically, but it was much more intense and fulfilling,” says Gelman. “Everyone was waiting for the next air raid or the sound of chairs stirring. People were preoccupied with the war.”
Despite these obstacles, the Torah Shield participants still accomplished a great deal of learning. Some, like David Saltzman, remained in yeshiva for most of the two weeks. Saltzman says he went specifically to learn. “I didn’t want to give medical assistance. By learning, I helped more than giving out food to old people or anything else. There is nothing like learning in Eretz Yisrael.”
For many, Operation Torah Shield revitalized lost religious feeling. One student planned on reading English books in the yeshiva library while he stayed there, but after a day or two, things changed. ’The davening was different. I was inspired religiously. I wanted to grab hold of what was going on.”
Gershbaum experienced similar feelings. “Davening in yeshiva, in Israel, there was so much kavanah (intensity). Watching my friends pray was inspirational. Miracles were going on. Scuds were landing without exploding. They don’t talk about those on the news.”
Not surprisingly, some of the students wanted to remain in Israel after the trip had finished. Matkowsky expressed a desire to help out. But he says that “since there was no major war going on, there were no jobs in Israel that needed to be filled.”
“When I left America,” recalls Abboudi, “I thought I'd be happy coming back safe and sound. But when we got on the plane [to go back] we all felt like traitors, like we were leaving behind our friends.”
“As the plane was leaving, I felt I was leaving a great deal,” says another student,summing up the general feelings of the other participants. “The small thing we did was the right thing to do and we accomplished what we set out to do."