Local students head home early from abroad
Photo: Courtesy Zoe Bell
Zoe Bell and her friends wait to board a Jewish National Fund chartered flight, from Israel back to the United States. From left are, Haley Slate (Seattle), Bell, Emily Libman and Anna Raab (Highland Park, Illinois).

Quick farewells are tough

By Deb Silverthorn

Whether it’s gap year or junior year abroad, dozens of local students have had their passports stamped in the last few months, taking them on the adventure of a lifetime. Part of that adventure has been diverted this week with COVID-19 creating its own itinerary.

Max Webb, a junior at George Washington University with 53 countries stamped into his passport, is studying in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for the semester. Monday, he received orders to return to the United States before the end of the week. In minutes he’d secured a ticket.

“While I felt things were relatively under control in Vietnam, it was the reactions coming from the U.S. that were more concerning,” said Max Webb, who turned 22 the day of the return notice. Studying International Affairs, with a dual concentration in International Development and Conflict Resolution, the Frisco resident is getting a quick lesson in resolution, just not in the standard curriculum. “With all the local businesses limiting hours and offerings, and worldwide anxiety increasing, I was getting ready to come home even before the order.”

Flying circuitously, his itinerary has him leaving Vietnam at 8:50 a.m. Wednesday bound for Singapore, then Dubai, and home Friday morning at 9 a.m. Webb is still figuring whether he’ll be able to finish his courses online — his university allowing the students a week to determine their next moves.

Just as this story is going to press, Max’s brother Joey, who is spending a gap year on the Young Judaea/FZY Year Course, before attending American University, was placed in quarantine along with 16 other participants. 

In a letter from Year Course Director Kate Brody Nachman, parents were told the students would be in retroactive quarantine until Sunday morning, March 22. Someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus was in attendance at a party that some of the students attended on the Saturday night before Purim leading to the quarantine.

“They are being really good sports about the whole thing, treating it respectfully but not letting it get them down,” said Nachman, assuring parents that the program would later continue, but that it was up to parents and students to decide about staying.

“Joey doesn’t have it and as of now I don’t think they are testing them. It’s definitely a crazy world experience,” said James Webb, the boys’ father. “I’m glad he’s there because traveling in the midst of all that’s going on is just chaos and they are handling it well. I know he’s happier there than he would be here.”

For many families, the return home for their children is their priority, but many are coming with four-digit airfares and fees. 

For all those leaving, whatever their programs, farewells have been bittersweet with students longing to finish their experiences, coupled with wanting the safety of home. Many of the students are happy to be close, but already missing their friends, disappointed in what they won’t be getting to do – not for now.

Zach Bernstein and Nachi Zucker were spending the year at Yeshivat Orayta based in Jerusalem – like all the students an opportunity of a lifetime that’s been interrupted. Zach, who will attend UT Austin next year, and his family decided he’d stay in Jerusalem with his sister Rosie, who made aliyah two and a half years ago and got married in December. 

Waiting to the last minute to make the decision, Zach’s parents were hoping to find a way to let him stay longer. Orayta’s dorms were closing, like those of many programs, because the requirement for quarantine should the case arise is one person to a room, and one person using a restroom with someone to disinfect it after any use. 

While Rosie’s husband Avi’s sister and brother-in-law offered, ultimately, with everything closing and most of his friends returning home, the family decided that Zach would stay until this weekend – he is now staying with Rosie and scheduled to return Sunday. Plans to work in Greece on a Pesach program, with more travels set for the summer, are all on hold for someday.

“Orayta tried really hard to give the kids some peace, to review the program, to ensure the leadership would be available to them and to have them realize they now have a brotherhood that is lasting, even if it was cut short,” said Jordana Bernstein. “Israel seems to be way ahead in the social distancing, and in how this crisis is being managed, so I don’t think there was any more risk for him to be there, than here, but here – he is home.”

Nachi, who arrived in Dallas Monday morning, found most passengers wearing masks from Israel to his layover in San Francisco, but only a few between there and Dallas.

Karen Zucker, Nachi’s mother, couldn’t wait to hug her son — but she didn’t

“It’s been a tough emotional road, literally, and it was a harsh welcome home because we got home and he was straight to the shower and to his room,” said Karen, who with the family had planned to be in Israel for Passover. The apartment was rented and food and other arrangements already secured. She knew those plans were over when New Rochelle, New York first quarantined. “I look forward to really welcoming him home but, for now, he’s upstairs.”

Many of the students and parents felt torn between leaving or waiting out the current medical crisis. For many, the chance to globehop, to learn among the backdrop of the Jewish People, and the opportunity for independence, has been lost. While children looked to their parents for answers, these are uncharted arenas.

“They are asking our guidance and my husband and I, most parents, don’t know the answer, we just want them safe,” said Dafna Rubinstein, whose son Noah is a University of Michigan junior studying at Tel Aviv University, and daughter Alisa, a Nativ College Leadership Program gap year participant, will join her brother at Michigan in the fall.

Last week, Noah’s university program gave him 10 days, to return home in order to get credit, but no flights were available. By the time Shabbat was over, Noah pushed to move his March 22 scheduled ticket, and hearing the concern in his parents made it happen. He arrived home Monday. Alisa’s program went from offering families the choice of returning on a chartered flight leaving Monday night, reworking the ticket already in hand, or staying in Israel with Nativ. 

“The sense of urgency was changing by the hour and it was time for Alisa to come home,” said Dafna; her daughter arrived safe Tuesday. Both kids were welcomed with Lysol, gloves, a change of clothing and a shower the minute they walked in the door. “I feel for them because there really wasn’t chance to say goodbye, to finish out, to be done.”

Communication by the programs overall, to parents, has been key and while no one can control this moment, the situation and its ramifications are changing rapidly.

Aaron Minsky, a junior at Brandeis University, was studying at the National University of Singapore when the outbreak occurred. Returning home in February, for a week, the concerns not yet reported worldwide, he decided to spend some time traveling and made his way to Europe.

“There was a bit of risk but no one expected it to move, or to move this quickly and so severely,” said Minsky, now home and under quarantine. He and friends made it to five countries in two weeks before the news, and virus, was spreading rapidly.

Sixteen-year-old Zoe Bell is home care of a chartered flight through the Jewish National Fund. She is figuring out what the rest of her semester is like, after returning from the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). The former J.J. Pearce student, who withdrew from RISD in order to participate in the spring semester program, is now at bay. With RISD on lockdown, and reportedly moving to online classes and AMHSI still determining what it might offer online, all is in flux. 

“I was going to see her for Pesach and we were going to travel, and the family was going to connect and do so again when she was done this summer. These are plans that can happen again sometime but, it’s hard to pull the rug,” said Zoe’s mother, Tracey, noting that like most reports of the last week, the urgency wasn’t clear. “She has friends from all over, and it was heartbreaking for them to say goodbye so abruptly. They were together and then not.”

The world is changing, the world will still be there to visit – someday. These students’ passports, and their memories, are stamped forever.

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