JERUSALEM – Meira Saffra, the daughter of Yael and Norman Saffra of Lawrence, is a graduate of Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) 2019. She is studying this year in Midreshet Lindenbaum, of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, in Jerusalem, in a capsule.
“When Barnard went online at the end of August, I knew this was my chance to come back for shana bet (a second year). Three days later I was in Jerusalem! With doing college online from here, I have the best of both worlds.”
Gila Linzer, daughter of Elliot and Lori Linzer of Bergenfield, NJ, went to Ma’ayanot High School. This year she, too, had planned on attending Midreshet Lindenbaum. Then Covid happened. She came anyway, and is studying in a capsule “I knew that coming to midrasha would allow me to have real life experiences, such as meeting girls from all over the world and living in Israel, even if we were limited by Covid restrictions.”
Same story with Sara Tehila Cohen, from Teaneck NJ. “When Israel announced that it was granting entry permits, I didn’t have any reservations because I had been looking forward to this for a while and didn’t really focus on the Covid aspect at that time.”
Rebecca Wernick, a graduate of YULA Girls High School in L.A., says, “I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Also Zoom college didn’t sound so great.”
So how does the midrasha manage during Covid? To quote Rabbi Shlomo Brown, “Through nylon, wood and creativity.”
Rabbi Brown has been the executive director of Midreshet Lindenbaum since 1998. He’s taught in the school since 1986, with a four-year break for shlichut in Canada, and also teaches Tanach and Jewish Thought. When Covid-19 struck, he, like all midrasha and yeshiva directors, had new challenges to face, including the building of capsules within the study areas.
What is different for Rabbi Brown, who studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received his teaching degree from Herzog College, is that he has a beloved hobby – carpentry.
“When we started to deal with the Covid situation, we were sent many files of instructions. We built capsules but it wasn’t clear how we would use them, or for how long, as the guidelines of the government kept changing.
“After the chagim we realized that it will probably be for the whole year, so we decided to rebuild everything, using wood frames and very thick nylon that can be fixed or replaced if it tears.
“We also discovered that we should build a separate capsule for the lecturers. I consulted with an epidemiologist who said it should go all the way up to the ceiling, so if anyone is discovered to have been sick – the teacher or a student – the other side won’t need quarantine. The lecturers teach without a mask.
“We built four or five capsules in each classroom. Then we built eight capsules in the beit midrash and when we finished, all the students said you don’t feel like you’re in a capsule, because it’s so high and the nylon is almost invisible.”
“Carpentry is my hobby, but we also learned during the process. I was helped by Ada Leshem, our Logistics Coordinator, and by two maintenance people, who did most of the work. I brought all the tools I had in my house and we opened a carpentry workshop on the lower floor of the building.
“It took us almost a month to finish. It’s successful because it is a team effort. We were the first ones doing the first version of capsules and other schools came to see it. When we have a good idea, we let people know, and we also learn from other schools. All the schools help each other. Even though there is competition over recruiting students, there is no competition about making life good for the students, and that has been the same way for years; we share information. There are no secrets here, no intellectual property; I don’t believe in that in chinuch (education). I see this as a tikkun to the machloket (a repair of the disagreements) in Israeli society – the fact that we are all helping each other now. At least in our small world, may this be a tikkun for Am Yisrael.
“Each program in the midrasha had to think about how to be supportive and sensitive to the other programs, which total more than 200 students, including from English-speaking countries, from Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, a Special Ed program called ‘Darkenu,’ and 100 students from Israel, including our Hadas (pre-army program). Each student has her assigned capsule, which demands a lot of coordination; we stagger ten groups who go to lunch according to a schedule.”
They found solutions to other problems. “We have a social worker, so we built a room divided into two sections, with nylon in between, with room for the social worker on one side and a student on the other. We built places where regular students can learn b’havruta with ‘Darkenu’ students. We are trying to find a way to create places for students to do exercises. As soon as there is a challenge, you find a way.”
What will the girls take with them, after this surrealistic gap year?
Rebecca: “I love all my classes and teachers. Decorating the sukkahs during lockdown was a true bonding moment and perfect way to start a great chag. I try not to think about how things could have been. I’ve seen a different side of Israel by walking past many different types of people and spending time with friends in parks.”
Meira: “Rabbanit Sally Mayer is teaching an amazing class this year. We read and discuss famous Jewish articles. I love being a part of the conversation about Jewish ideas. A few weeks ago, Lindenbaum relocated our campus for Shabbat to Shadmot Mechola, a yishuv in the Northern Jordan Valley. Then we went on a tiyul. Lindenbaum has been so creative. During the seger (lockdown) they bought us trampolines and ping pong tables! Everyone always has a positive attitude and is just happy to be here.”
Gila says, “One of my most special learning experiences this year has been learning from Dr. Tamar Ross, who teaches Rambam. She is an incredible scholar, author and professor at Bar Ilan. The tiyul that sticks out the most is a trip we took to the beach in Caesarea where we learned about the history and saw the exact spot Rabbi Akiva was murdered. Being able to see the actual geographic location of a classic story was really cool.”
Sara Tehila says, “In one of my classes, we were studying Masachet Taanit, discussing the rain patterns and fast days, etc., and it gave me a new understanding and connection to the land and Judaism, as we are currently experiencing the rainy season.”
Rebecca and Meira plan to attend Barnard; Meira is considering going into Jewish education or into environmental science, and “I hope to be back at Lindenbaum one day as faculty!” Gila plans to attend Stern College next year. Sara Tehilla says, “G-d willing, I hope to study at Bar Ilan University next year and eventually make aliyah.”
Rabbanit Sally Mayer has been teaching at Midreshet Lindenbaum since she made aliyah more than sixteen years ago and for the last three years has been the Rosh Midrasha. She says, “We have to be very creative this year to make sure that the girls have the wonderful experience of learning, growth and experiencing Israel that they have every year.
“The overseas girls are a closed group who went through two weeks of quarantine upon their arrival, with no contact with outside people, and are therefore considered one family. They are with us every Shabbat, and for all the chagim, unlike the Israeli girls, who go home for Shabbatot. We are their home and we are responsible for them. We are blessed with an amazing team who work day and night to care for the students and make this year the incredible experience it is.
“It’s like the story of Ezra, who came back to Eretz Yisrael to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. They were overjoyed at being able to rebuild this center for worship of God and the symbol of Hashem’s presence amongst us! But the returning exiles who had seen the first Beit HaMikdash cried when they saw the new one, since it wasn’t as majestic as the one King Solomon had built. Whose reaction was more powerful?
“Our students are having an incredible year in Israel, not exactly the same as a normal one, but one filled with meaningful learning and growth in midrasha, close friendships, and deep connections to the Land and State of Israel. Just like at the time of Ezra, the challenges of this year are overcome by joy and the fulfillment of their dreams.”