Photo Credit: Rabbi David Zahtz
In Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, students learned in capsules during Covid-19.

During a regular year, the summer months are a whirlwind of activity for students preparing for a year in Israel. Yeshiva boys arrange dirahs (apartments) and chavrusahs; seminary girls shop for clothes and stock up on American tissue boxes. Their frantic parents, meanwhile, navigate the legal maze of passport renewal and entry permits.

This year, however, is no regular year. Compounding the usual flurry of preparation that goes with sending a teenager abroad is an entirely new phenomenon: the vaccine rush. Not only must incoming students follow a complex set of Covid guidelines, but just a month before the Rosh Chodesh Elul deadline, the Yeshiva and Seminary Coalition for Bnai Chul – commonly known as the Igud – conveyed a firm ultimatum: no recovery or vaccine, no entry.

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“As per the State of Israel’s new laws,” the letter stated, “everyone entering the country must be vaccinated or recovered from Corona.” Rabbi Nechemya Malinowitz, director of Eretz HaKodesh and founder of the Igud, explained that antibody results are not accepted due to the countless tests available. When one standard unit is recognized, antibodies may be enough.

To be fair, the vaccine stipulation was not a total surprise. Although previous statements regarding the country’s Covid guidelines were vague, incoming students knew to expect some form of a vaccine policy. Nevertheless, for many, the vaccine mandate was a drastic letdown. Students with high antibody counts, yet without proof of exposure in the form of a positive PCR, could not attend their programs unless they got the inoculation – and quickly.

Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of Overseas Students in Yeshivat HaKotel.

For Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat HaKotel, getting foreign students into Israel has been “challenging.” He says that the circumstances created extra work for yeshivas in terms of collecting documentation and arranging permits. However, the pressure on institutions was greatly mitigated by the tireless efforts of the Igud.

Founded by Rabbi Malinowitz, the Igud helps students gain entry to Israel by serving as a political intermediary. Rabbi Malinowitz says that the organization is unique in that it represents institutions from across the religious spectrum. Originally launched to give charedi schools a voice during Covid-19, the Igud quickly earned the trust of the Israeli government, who granted them the exclusive right to provide entry permits to students.

Rabbi Malinowitz admits that the development was unexpected. Previously, institutions were required to follow Covid guidelines, but did not need to officially join the Igud. Rabbi Malinowitz believes that the change in policy was in response to the “hefker” environment last year, in which any school could freely admit students. With the new approach, institutions must use the Igud’s portal, and students need to submit a specific set of documents.

Rabbi David Zahtz, Director of the Overseas Program at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh.

Rabbi David Zahtz, director of the overseas program at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, believes that the new protocol actually simplifies entry into Israel. Having remained in business throughout Covid, Rabbi Zahtz is able to compare these guidelines to previous restrictions. Whereas last year’s students struggled with last-minute changes, he says, current expectations are clear cut.

Rabbi Taragin explains that the process of traveling to Israel has two components. The first is to obtain the documents necessary for boarding a plane, such as a negative PCR within 72 hours of flight. The second is the state’s policy governing entry into Israel, which includes proof of vaccination or recovery, as well as a serological test for antibodies upon arrival. Because Yeshivat HaKotel began before the Rosh Chodesh Elul deadline, students had a relatively easy time entering Israel. For future students, though, the process will include a week of quarantine.

Kerem B’Yavneh likewise commenced before the cutoff date. Some almost missed it, but Israel’s three-day extension – from Sunday to Wednesday – enabled their entry without quarantine. Rabbi Zahtz feels that the deadline was extended because of media pushback. The government agreed to alter the date to accommodate the start of the new zman.

Did the vaccine requirement pose an obstacle for Kerem B’Yavneh? Rabbi Zahtz says that the yeshiva anticipated the vaccine mandate long before guidelines for entry were finalized. Thus, they were able to advise incoming students to submit their vaccination records in advance.

Not everyone was so lucky.

With merely four weeks until D-day, nervous teenagers flocked to Covid vaccination sites. Others debated their course of action ad nauseam, pressing their luck until frighteningly close to the cutoff date. Blimi, a high school graduate who asked that her last name not be used, was in the second category. Her parents were initially concerned about the lack of vaccine-related research. After asking around, they decided to proceed with vaccination.

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“People who needed it were getting it,” Blimi said, adding that in her community, those with pressing circumstances were being inoculated. Apparently, seminary attendance was considered pressing. With merely four weeks left, Blimi received the Moderna vaccine. She will receive her second dose exactly ten days before departing for Israel.

Gavriel Chasky, a second-year student at Yeshivat HaKotel, was among the first group to receive the vaccine at his institution. Having no previous exposure to Covid, he experienced two long periods of quarantine, the second of which he describes as “draconian” and “pretty brutal.” As such, he had no qualms about taking the vaccine, which he viewed as an opportunity.

How does Blimi feel about the Israeli vaccine mandate? Her initial reaction was dismay. “I think it’s communism,” she joked. After mulling it over, though, she understood the necessity of the requirement. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been an overwhelming decision process.

What prompted the onslaught of last-minute Covid guidelines?

Rabbi Taragin says that the stricter rules were in reaction to the new variant that is circulating. “Maybe people should fly El-Al, and then we won’t have the delta strain,” he quipped.

In a statement to The Jewish Press, Eyal Carlin, tourism commissioner to North America in Israel’s Tourism Ministry, shed light on Israel’s border policy. The decision to mandate proof of recovery or vaccination was influenced by the similar policies of neighboring countries, he explained. When pressed as to why immunized foreigners require further PCR and antibody testing, he responded that the additional tests are merely a “measure of caution.” As there is no formal method to verify overseas vaccination, the testing is a means of ensuring that the documents are legitimate.

Rabbi Taragin supports the government’s approach. Although he’s aware that there are students who are reluctant to inoculate, his student body is generally pro-vaccination. He feels that halacha follows the prevalent medical opinion, which is to get vaccinated.

Despite this view, the vaccine mandate has posed a dilemma for some and an obstacle for others. Bina Roth, a prospective student of Bnos Chava Seminary, was one of the lucky ones. Having received a positive PCR earlier this year, she was able to complete her application process relatively quickly. She possesses antibodies and will quarantine upon arrival.

Not everyone finds the decision so straightforward, however. Roth says her good friend got vaccinated despite her reluctance, and that others won’t be attending seminary because of the vaccination requirement. When asked whether she would have taken the vaccine if not for the positive PCR, Roth admitted that she likely would have. For now, though, she prefers to wait. “I don’t know enough about it,” she explained. “I’m not a doctor.”

This approach has been echoed by other applicants. The parent of a potential student, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that her daughter likely won’t be going to seminary despite acceptance to Bnos Jacob Jerusalem, a competitive program. She is quick to clarify that she is not an anti-vaxxer. But due to the limited research regarding the Covid vaccine, she prefers to take a passive approach, following religious guidance not to put oneself in unnecessary danger.

Does she feel that the vaccine is dangerous? “Good things don’t have to be forced,” the parent responded. She feels that the national and media pressure where the vaccine is concerned is a red flag. Patients have the right to make uninfluenced decisions, she said.

Carlin agrees. In his statement, he emphasized that the vaccination requirement is completely voluntary. “Non-Israeli travelers always have the option of postponing or canceling plans to visit Israel if they feel the vaccination requirement is something they can’t comply with,” he said. The guidelines for entry to Israel are transparent, and those who feel reluctant to vaccinate are entitled not to do so – and to stay home.

Carlin says that the Tourism Ministry doesn’t expect these guidelines to severely impact the number of incoming students. Although the past year saw a drop in seminary and yeshiva attendance, he estimates that the number will increase for the following year. Indeed, Rabbi Malinowitz says that 7,000 students have already arrived, and thousands more are expected.

Not all institutions are filled to capacity, however. According to Shayna Katz, head of Admissions at Neve Yerushalayim, the Covid guidelines have impacted Neve greatly. Ordinarily, participants can attend at their own convenience. With the new requirements, many applicants have been forced to withdraw because of the lengthy legal process. Overwhelming to anyone, the process of enrolling in seminary can be especially daunting for newcomers to Judaism.

On a lighter note, Rabbi Taragin says that current concerns that the government might close its borders due to rising Covid cases are baseless. He foresees no immediate closure. On the contrary, Rabbi Taragin predicts that the past year’s challenges will have strengthened students’ ability to overcome obstacles. Indeed, Chasky notes that the pandemic “really made our year more serious.” Rabbi Taragin anticipates an even more powerful year of learning, noting that being in Israel during such a time is a privilege not to be taken for granted.

Rabbi Malinowitz adds that he has received a lot of positive feedback for his work with the Igud. He hopes that the Igud will continue to support incoming students in the future, whether with insurances, army exemptions, student visas, or funding. He feels that the message of the endeavor is that when everyone works together, unbelievable things can happen.

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