Operation Torah Shield — 30 Years Later
In a video shown at Yeshiva University’s 2021 tekes ma’avar for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Rabbi Elie Mischel described how in 2003, when Saddam Hussein threatened to bomb Israel, YU sent 100 students to Israel on “Operation Torah Shield” to volunteer with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), sing and dance in vulnerable yishuvim and to show that the Jewish people “weren’t afraid.” “I felt the pride of Jewish nationhood, a certain fearlessness and strength that was different from our normal experience here in America and in exile,” reflected Rabbi Mischel.
The 2003 trip was modeled after an earlier trip in 1991, also called Operation Torah Shield, in which over 400 people were sent to Israeli yeshivas in the midst of the Gulf War through a trip organized by YU students.
As The Commentator reported at the time, an anonymous philanthropist “was becoming increasingly disgruntled with TV programs depicting hundreds of Jews leaving Israel.” He therefore decided to charter a Jan. 15 flight transporting Yeshiva students on heavily subsidized tickets “to counteract Israel’s sinking morale.”
In the week leading up to the flight, during finals season, $50 tickets to Israel were distributed by student leaders and snatched up by eager students in the dorms, reserving an entire plane in a few hours with hundreds of others being placed on waiting lists. Rebbeim were able to travel free of charge. The money accrued from ticket sales was used to pay for clothing distribution to poor Russian immigrants to Israel and other charity endeavors, in addition to the transportation costs for the passengers once they were in Israel.
The trip was almost canceled prematurely; to make it a tax-deductible transaction, the money for the trip needed to be funneled to El Al through a non-profit. Yeshiva declined to act as the non-profit since the administration was afraid that the dangers the trip posed might have resulted in a major lawsuit, potentially resulting in an auction for Belfer Hall to pay off damages. Indeed, before the trip, organizers, apprehending potential liability claims, handed out flyers to students informing them that the “U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory urging people to stay away from the middle east including the State of Israel.” In the end, the trip was saved by American Friends of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, which acted as the necessary non-profit.
Over 200 individuals canceled their planned flight to Israel with Operation Torah Shield allowing for the replacement of their spots with people on the waitlist. After word spread through the Modern Orthodox community, around 25% of the flight consisted of passengers who were unaffiliated with Yeshiva who were charged $100 per ticket. The reasons for the cancelations varied. Many had legitimate fears of terror attacks. Others were pressured by family members to stay. “I was going to go, but honoring my parents took priority. When I saw how concerned my parents were, I realized that I could not have gone,” explained one student.
After a long flight, the passengers arrived in the Holy Land where they began to excitedly dance on the airport tarmac and kiss the ground. “When we got off the plane, people dropped their bags and were dancing; everyone just started dancing,” recalled Barry Gelman.
Program participants were immediately greeted by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among other Israeli officials. “Atem chelek mimenu — you are part of us,” Netanyahu told the visitors. Reflecting on Netanyahu’s words, a student said, “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.”
Once in Israel, visitors stayed at 15 various Israeli yeshivas. Some provided medical and food assistance. Others spent most of their time learning Torah. One student expressed, “By learning, I helped more than giving out food to old people or anything else. There is nothing like learning in Eretz Yisrael.”
Soon after Operation Torah Shield was in full throttle, on Jan. 18, the Iraqi government fired Scud missiles into Israel in an attempt to drag the Jewish state into the war, during which visitors to Kerem B’Yavneh watched the missiles fly through the air. Students often were forced to run to shelters in response to air-raid sirens. Some thought that Armageddon was nigh.
The goal of the trip was to provide moral support to the Israelis, which was certainly accomplished. The visitors stayed resolute through their visit and returned with feelings of growth, in a spiritual sense. As one visitor put it, “Davening in yeshiva, in Israel, there was so much kavanah. Watching my friends pray was inspirational. Miracles were going on. Scuds were landing without exploding.”
Around a month after Operation Torah Shield commenced, the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) organized a forum named “Operation Torah Shield II,” featuring Rabbis Norman Lamm, Zevulun Charlop and Meir Goldwicht in the Zysman beis medrash, to look at the Gulf War in retrospect and find meaning in its events for Israel and the Jewish people.
President Lamm, along with other students of Yeshiva, took action in 1948 during the Israeli War of Independence, developing munitions for the young country. “We are following the same
tradition as 43 years ago,” he said at the forum. “But now we are not called upon the physical side of the equation but rather to exercise our spiritual strength. That was the purpose of our trip (Operation Torah Shield), and that is the purpose for tonight.”
Wednesday’s tekes ma’avar was Yeshiva’s biggest in-person event held since February 2020. Speeches were made, candles were lit, songs were heard, all in the spirit of standing strong and unified with the State of Israel. Currently, we thankfully live in an era during which peace deals are more common than Scud missiles. However, there is always the danger of terror on the horizon. Students must ask themselves what they will do when Israel is plunged into danger. What actions will you take to provide aid in times of necessity?
Photo Caption: Operation Torah Shield in 2003
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University