Zooming from Jerusalem: My Year of YU From Abroad

By: Avigail Winokur  |  May 20, 2021

By Avigail Winokur, Arts and Culture Editor

When the pandemic began, I, like most people, thought that we’d be back in person by Pesach (Passover), at latest. Little did we know that March 2020 only launched the start of our months-long battle against COVID-19. Like most, I moved back home from March 2020-August 2020. However, when granted the opportunity to spend the semester with friends in Israel, I, along with four good friends, seized the opportunity. 

We were attending the Rimon Fellows Program, a new program started for religious students to take a gap semester in Israel. It was specifically created  to give Orthodox students a means of entering Israel to take their home university courses from abroad. 

I remember that many of my friends thought we were a bit insane. After all, we weren’t even sure the program was officially happening until four weeks before we were scheduled to leave. Then, there were the bureaucratic pieces: entry permits, visas, Hebrew University courses, payments, quarantine, dorms. But finally, after a flight from Laguardia to Toronto and then from Toronto to Tel Aviv, we landed. 

Back then, though it sounds crazy now, you didn’t need a coronavirus test to enter the country. Rather, just a willingness to sit inside a tiny Hebrew University dorm apartment with four other people and minimal access to food for two whole weeks. As we closed the door to our apartment, we knew that anything would be better than another six months sitting at home, especially now that we got to be in Israel. 

Two weeks of grilled cheese, nocturnal sleep schedules, and minimal movement somehow passed, and Jerusalem welcomed us with open arms. We were living on the Mount Scopus campus, near the heart of East Jerusalem. Though I’m writing this on a day of extreme tension between us and our Palestinian neighbors, I found the diversity of the Hebrew community to be quite interesting. I was lucky to be able to meet fascinating people: Jews and non-Jews alike. I spoke with German Catholics about the Holocaust, Palestinian Muslims about the conflict, and fellow American students about what led us here. 

Then, there were months of lockdown: holidays celebrated in pods on the Hebrew Campus instead of with family, illegal walks in violation of Israel’s 1k policy from Mount Scopus to town, treks to Ramat Eshkol for underground smoothies, and a lot of shabbatot with fellow students from Rimon. I have to say, lockdown brought some of my fondest memories from the year. We spent Yom Kippur facing Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount), with music blasting from someone’s dorm room as we sang Kol Nidrei (a Yom Kippur prayer). We ran from the police during our (approved and legal) Simchat Torah meal because it appeared to be against the law. We laughed and celebrated our Judaism together, in the oddest of circumstances: the middle of a pandemic, in East Jerusalem, together, all from different universities. 

Classes began at four pm, so while I’d like to say I started my day bright and early as some of the ivy league students on the program did, that would be quite dishonest. I had the luxury of sleeping late, going on mid-morning runs (on occasion), and staying up until dawn if I felt it was warranted. It was a wonderfully confusing schedule, unlike one that I’ll ever have again. 

As the first semester came to an end and lockdown restrictions waxed and waned, we began to debate what our next steps would be. New York was still in the depths of the pandemic, and although  Israel was certainly not much better, we had the luxury of independent living and being in Israel. 

So, together with my fellow four friends who have been with me on this journey, we moved to the German colony where many of our friends who moved to Israel currently live. Though the pace of life in the German colony was certainly slower than that of a college campus program, there was a peaceful charm to Templar mansions and endless restaurants. 

During the pandemic, Zoom has afforded me the ability to listen to lectures on the beach, spend Pesach traveling the country, and get a taste of what life could be like once I finally can move. In that sense, I’m grateful for the opportunities that I had because we were willing to pick up and move to Israel in the middle of a global pandemic. And I can’t say that I regret a thing.