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Shalit Visit Draws Mixed Responses

On October 16, 2012, just two days shy of the one-year anniversary of his release, Gilad Shalit came to Yeshiva University. The former prisoner of war, famous for his five year imprisonment at the hands of Hamas and the lopsided prisoner exchange that enabled his release, was, along with his unit, in New York for a speaking tour that was supposed to help provide closure for the group and assist them to move on.

Approximately two months prior to the event, the university was approached by the IDF and asked if they would like to host Gilad and his unit for a program at YU, a request to which they agreed quite eagerly. YU was not the only place that Shalit’s unit visited, as the group also made presentations in such institutions as Ramaz, Westchester Hebrew High School, and Magen David Yeshiva, among others. As most of the details were being worked out over the break, the various student councils were not majorly involved in the event, though as Adina Poupko, a member of the Office of Student Life (OSL) on the Beren Campus pointed out, “they helped promote it, and took part in the dinner beforehand.” The Director of the OSL, Marc Spear, also stressed that the student councils weren’t intentionally sidelined and that “most of what we do is guide events, but occasionally there is a dignitary, and we take the lead.” He also noted that certain clubs, like Soldiers in Exile (a YSU club made up of students who have served in the IDF), did have the chance to engage with the soldiers at a small dinner reception held before the event. Poupko also made clear that with all the security arrangements required for the event, the IDF preferred to work directly with a university office, and not student representatives.

Students were informed about the event upon their return to campus after the chagim, and were subsequently treated to an all-out publicity blitz including numerous ystud/sstud emails and promotional slides on the flat screens around campus. At the time, the advertisements promoted the event as “a panel discussion featuring Gilad Shalit, half of his unit and accompanying officers,” as that had been the anticipated format, though the final presentation turned out to be slightly different.

A couple of hours before the event the soldiers arrived at YU and were treated to a tour of the facilities, including the Beit Midrash and science labs. According to Poupko, “most [of the soldiers] had never even heard of YU, and were blown away. They had no idea this many students followed them and supported them.” The soldiers also particularly enjoyed the gym, where they played some impromptu basketball with the YU Macabees.

On the night of the event, well over 1,600 people waited in a line outside Zysman Hall that began at the entrance and snaked around the building and up 186th Street. In the end, 1,200 people packed into Lamport Auditorium, while another 400 were seated in overflow at the Fischel Beit Midrash. After all of these seats were filled, some students were allowed into Lamport and told to stand in the aisles. When there was absolutely no room left, students waiting in line outside were simply turned away.

The event began with opening remarks by Daniel Green, (YC ’13), a student who served as an officer in the IDF, and by Rabbi Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future. These were followed by a quick statement by Dr. Hadar, the trauma counselor for the unit. Following Dr. Hadar, Rabbi Brander introduced each of the soldiers in the unit by name, concluding with Gilad Shalit. The very declaration of his presence in the room got the entire room on their feet, and a prolonged standing ovation ensued. After the applause, the commander of Shalit’s unit addressed the crowd, reminding those assembled of the two soldiers who lost their lives during the kidnapping. He also explained the purpose of the trip, stating that it was for closure, and that it was also helpful to “understand that all Jews are involved, and that they are defending all Jews.”

The evening continued with a Rabbi Brander led question and answer session with the soldiers on various topics, including their thoughts on prisoner exchanges, military service, how they dealt with the kidnapping, and finally, their feelings on Shalit’s return. The stage had been set up to accommodate, as advertised, a panel discussion with all of the soldiers, with chairs and individual microphones for each of them.  However, upon entering the auditorium and seeing over 1,000 people, Spear says that the soldiers “were overwhelmed and uncomfortable,” with one soldier even quipping “that it was scarier than being in combat,” and so the soldiers sat down in the front row of the audience instead.

During the question and answer session, all of the questions were asked by Rabbi Brander in English and then in Hebrew, and were answered in Hebrew by members of the unit. These answers were then translated by Green, for the benefit of the English speaking audience. This arrangement was fine for those fluent in Hebrew, but one SCW Junior pointed out that some of what the soldiers said “was lost in translation,” and she felt as if “the translation was more factual, and the emotion was taken out of it.” Another SCW student, Adina Breatross (SCW ’15), voiced frustration with the Q&A in that the soldiers “didn’t really answer the questions they were asked.”

As the evening winded down, Sophie Felder, (SCW ‘13), delivered closing remarks. She was followed by Rabbi Yosef Blau, Senior Mashgiach Ruchani, who led the room in a prayer for the peace in Israel and the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force. Finally the Y-Studs preformed the national anthem and Hatikvah, and the program ended.

Students and faculty exiting the program expressed a range of emotions and feelings. Some were excited at just having been part of the event, as Aliza Abrams, Director of Service Learning at the CJF remarked, it was an “incredible showing of support by the Yeshiva University community. I'm proud YU could host such a special event, and I understand how special it was to have Gilad in the room, even if he didn’t speak.” Others were somewhat frustrated that Shalit didn’t even appear on stage, like Sarah Lazaros (SCW ’13), who explained that she was “a little disappointed. I was expecting to hear or at least see him. They did have all those chairs on stage. People thought they'd be able to get a glimpse, but it was hardly even that,” or Netanel Shafier (YC ’14), who echoed a sentiment held by many that he “really appreciated the event, but it was a strategic error that they let a lot people down. All they really needed was Gilad to say five words.” Other students chose to focus on the other aspects of the night entirely, like Avi Matanky (YC ’13), who said that “I thought the event was really nice since I thoroughly enjoyed hearing and learning from all the members of the unit.”

Poupko explains that “up until right before the event we were under the impression that he [Shalit] would speak, but during the program he was uncomfortable, and then he said he didn’t feel like speaking in front of so large a crowd.” Poupko was quick to add however that the soldiers “loved the large crowd, and they had no idea this many kids supported them.”

The day after the event Rabbi Brander sent an email to the student body explaining why Shalit did not speak, as well as reassuring the students that their presence at the event had not been for naught, saying,  “Let us realize that just as when performing the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim we  provide  care and unconditional support, not looking for anything in return, last night Gilad and other members of the unit expressed that this was an extremely inspirational experience for them that they will never forget.”