Keeping the Doors Open
In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, Ohr Torah Stone’s Amlat Program for women from Spanish-speaking countries continues to run a full schedule for 14 students who decided that “home” was now Israel.
The coronavirus pandemic has posed diverse challenges for people across the globe –changing the dynamics of work and social connection, as we follow increasingly strict regulations to stem the spread of the virus. The crisis has also drastically altered the plans of thousands recent high school graduates from the Diaspora who came to spend their gap-year deepening their Jewish identities in Israel, leading the vast majority to return to their home countries.
In contrast, for most of the students in Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Amlat Program for Latin American students – the only program in Israel offering young Spanish-speaking women an opportunity to study Torah full-time – returning home was simply not a viable option.
“When [ program director] Aliza [Taba] spoke to us about maintaining our health and safety in light of the developing crisis, we were in tears,” relates Valeria Bigio, an Amlat student from Columbia who joined the program in September. “I love my family, but I just didn’t want to return to Columbia now, in the midst of our program. I feel most at home here in Israel, at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and I wanted to stay here during this difficult time.”
In conversations with other parents, Taba discovered that they shared their daughters’ sentiments. Not only were the costs of flights prohibitive (in some cases over $10,000 for a one-way ticket), but parents truly believed their daughters would be better off in Israel. They put their trust in the Amlat program staff and teachers to prioritize their daughters’ safety and continue to run a dynamic, engaging and unique educational program.
Thus, while most Israeli overseas yeshiva and seminary programs have closed their dorms and sent students home, Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Chana and Yaakov Tilles Campus in Jerusalem has remained open for 14 young women from Latin America who have nowhere else to go.
Learning and Growing
Amlat has maintained a full schedule, adapting to the directives of Israel’s Health Ministry as the government regulations grow more and more stringent. Teachers continued offering their regular classes in person for as long as they were allowed to do so, using larger classrooms and maintaining the required distance among students, but the curriculum was moved online once teachers were no longer able to visit the campus.
Always one to look on the bright side, Taba notes that “the silver lining in moving classes to Zoom and other online apps is that it has re-opened our curriculum to hundreds of alumnae around the world can also take part. They are thrilled to be able to return virtually to the beit midrash, to recharge and be inspired,” she says.
In addition to these online classes, students’ daily programming also includes Hebrew Ulpan, chavruta (paired learning), and evening activities within the building such as a Master Chef competitions and a theater workshop which provides an outlet for emotional stress.
The students also work with the school’s cook to ensure that they have appropriate meals, and they are now preparing the kitchen for Pesach alongside learning the festival’s laws and traditions, as it becomes increasingly clear that they will spend the holiday in the building and make Seder on their own.
“In this way,” says Taba, “even as our students are observing the restrictions imposed by Israel’s Health Ministry, we’re enabling them to continue to learn and grow with the support of their teachers and community of peers.”
“Gaining so much”
It is not easy to run the program under these circumstances, but the students’ passion for learning and being in Israel make it worthwhile.
“It is impossible to fully describe the amazing staff at Amlat, who embrace us and are here to teach and help us every step of the way,” enthuses Argentinian Galit Dabbah, who joined the program in February, just before coronavirus began to impact life in Israel.
Dabbah expresses tremendous gratitude for the program’s willingness to adapt and put the interests of the students and their families first. “While we all look forward to putting this crisis behind us and returning to normal life,” she says, “in the meantime, my friends and I at Amlat are so tremendously grateful to be here, as we gain so much from the learning and love of our community and teachers. There are no words sufficient to fully express our appreciation.”