Yom HaAtzmaut in quarantine
For some of the students, bidud has been a gift
One of the beautiful things about Independence Day fireworks in Jerusalem is that without a body of water nearby, they are launched from the heart of the city, creating beautiful images of light reflecting off the Jerusalem stone and glass towers. Those images of fireworks against the Jerusalem skyline were readily visible to some of my students whose ‘mirpeset (balcony) time’ coincided with the fireworks last week. They were somewhat less visible, however, to those confined to rooms with only a decent view, and just barely visible to still others who had to lean their heads out their windows, craning their necks to the right, and trying to get a good angle between our hostel and the neighboring building. But such is life in bidud (isolation) – a new Hebrew phrase I’ve added to my repertoire – on Yom HaAtzmaut.
The biggest question all year for the senior class at the Leffell School in Westchester, NY, was: will we be able to go to Israel? Since the high school’s founding twenty years ago, it has been a rite of passage for the senior class to finish their academics by January of twelfth grade and spend two months during second semester traveling, first with a week in Poland, and the balance of the two months in Israel. As a result of the pandemic, it was clear that visiting Poland would not be possible, but we wondered if there was a way for the senior class to get to Israel, with whatever precautions and Ministry of Health requirements would be necessary.
The answer came just before Pesach, and miraculously, the answer was yes. As high school all-but-graduates, our students would be eligible to enter Israel under the umbrella of the Jewish Agency’s Masa Israel Journey Program, and in partnership with the Aardvark gap year organization. They’d need tons of extra paperwork, a series of negative PCR Covid-19 tests, and to isolate for ten days upon arrival, but they were cleared to enter. Families and the school immediately went into high gear gathering the necessary documents and forms to make this trip a reality. The plans were real; so too we learned was the isolation quarantine period, referred to in Israel universally with one word: bidud.
For their first ten days in Israel, the students would be podded in groups of six, assigned a set of rooms in which they would sleep, eat, and live, and be otherwise set off from the rest of the world, and even, from the rest of the group. But this was worth it, right? The price of six and a half weeks of educational opportunities and relative freedom in Israel was ten days of bidud, but we could do this! Right?
For some of the students, bidud has been a gift. Ten days of uninterrupted time with close friends whom they could only see masked in school or in backyards all year. This would make up for a year of sorely missed in-person parties and study sessions, Shabbatons, sleepovers, and other teenage hangout time. For others, it has been an agonizingly difficult time of confinement, complete with takeout meals left outside their doors and Zoom sessions, interrupted only by a rotation schedule of outdoor time on the one large balcony they have access to. For everyone, though, it has been a new and different experience to be present for one of the most important weeks in the Israeli calendar, and yet to experience everything through their hostel windows, or from their balconies if they are lucky enough to have one.
On Yom HaZikaron, first at night and then again during the day, students paused at the sound of the siren in honor of the fallen, standing at attention in their windows while watching the cars and pedestrians on Agron Street below similarly stop wherever they were and stand in reflection. On Yom HaAtzmaut it was the opposite. Our students were again standing at their windows and railings, but for 24 hours they watched the city swirl around them in constant motion and celebration of not only Israel’s Independence, but Israel’s national recovery from Covid-19, to the point that such a celebration was even possible.
The students smelled the al ha’esh (barbeque) of family picnics in the Gan HaAtzmaut park across the street from our hostel and watched the Israeli Air Force air show as a series of jets and other planes flew over Jerusalem. Inside the building, they participated in Independence Day Zoom programming as they might have back in New York, but they did so knowing that they were so close to the real thing.
As Shabbat set in on Friday, we watched families walking to shul and to the park to relax, knowing that for us, that would have to wait until next week. And as Shabbat ended and the intersection out their windows flooded with the weekly anti-Bibi protesters, they were glued to the music, speeches, and protest chants, many of which repurposed Purim songs with messages telling the Prime Minister to go. Some students could see a slice of the street and the demonstration, while others could only hear the sounds of the protest echo off the Jerusalem stone. I imagine that many of the students were thinking that by next week, if desired, they could mingle with the protesters and understand better their chants and their vision for Israel.
In a couple days, we are set for our second round of PCR Covid-19 tests since we landed. Assuming they all come back negative, the students will exit bidud and be free to appreciate Israel in all of its beauty and complexity, and as opposed to this first ten days, they will be able to understand Israel from up close. I don’t think they will ever again opt to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut in bidud, but at the same time, I bet they will never forget it, and because of it, their real journey can now begin.
Rabbi Harry Pell is Associate Head of School at The Leffell School in Westchester, NY.