COVID-19 may extend their stays
By Deb Silverthorn
Heidi Kravitz and Rina Yahalom, who grew up childhood friends in Dallas and classmates at Akiba Academy, are spending the next part of their lives together too — both made aliyah in the last two years and both serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Each chose to take a gap year after graduating high school in 2017, Heidi from Yavneh Academy and Rina from Richardson High School — Heidi at Midreshet Torah V’Avodah and Rina at Nishmat, in Jerusalem. Within a few months, they made the independent decisions to make aliyah and to serve in the IDF.
Heidi and Rina come from religiously observant families that belong to Shaare Tefilla and are devoted to Zionism. They are dedicated to Israel being “home.” They spent years becoming connected to Israel, to its culture, its spirituality, its everything through years of summertime memory making at the Bnei Akiva summer get-away, Camp Stone.
“We grew up learning that spending time in Israel — making aliyah — was something we should do, not just something we could do,” said Heidi, an artillery instructor who drafted for an 18-month service term in November 2018. “I had been accepted to Rutgers University but I knew, soon, that I wanted to stay.”
The daughter of Drs. Brian and Michelle Kravitz, and sister of David (Sarah) and Jonathan, Kravitz is the third child to take a gap year but the only one to make aliyah. After finishing her service, her plans are to spend the summer in Dallas, then formalize her aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh after Sukkot.
“We’re very proud of her and, inside, we knew she’d stay,” Michelle said of her daughter. “We’re Modern Orthodox Jewish Zionists, and it would be hypocritical to say other than what we have taught. We miss her and we worry, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect her decision.”
Rina made aliyah through Nefesh b’Nefesh in August 2018. She drafted that November, and will finish her service this fall. The daughter of Sarah (Diamond) and Dror Yahalom and the sister of Rachel and Tamar, she works in the war room at the Gaza border, exchanging orders and information between IDF leadership and its troops.
“I’ve thought about making aliyah since I was little but the actuality heightened in my first few months there,” said Rina, who was born in Israel but moved to the U.S. as a baby. “My parents weren’t surprised, and they’ve been incredibly supportive.”
Heidi, based an hour from Beersheva, planned to come home in March to spend time with her family before they would be visiting her for Pesach. The first week of March, with the severity of COVID-19 heightening, it was clear she had to get out of the country, or not be able to, and that the family wouldn’t be coming to Israel.
Members of the IDF usually spend time on base, with time off at home — for Heidi, home is an apartment in Jerusalem and for Rina it is at Kibbutz Saad near Gaza. Notice came the first week of March that essential forces would need to report to base, expecting to be there for a month.
Travel was ordered to be stopped by March 6, Heidi’s flight scheduled for March 5. As she drove to the airport, orders were contradictory as to whether she was permitted to leave. “I kept going because they weren’t sure. I didn’t want to get caught.”
Heidi made her flight and arrived in Dallas, and before warnings to otherwise were made, she visited her brother and sister-in-law in Washington, D.C. Returning, as her younger brother got home from college, Dallas is her home base – for now.
Making aliyah is a generational connection for Rina. Her paternal grandfather made aliyah from Cleveland in the early 1900s, and her mother when she was just 20. Born in Bombay, India (now called Mumbai), with 2,000 years of family history there, Sarah was brought up learning Israel was where she belonged. “I wanted to be Jewish in a place where life was Jewish,” she said, approximating that India has 5000 Jews of its 1.3 billion population.
“The hardest part is that we’re a close family and thousands of miles away is hard. When they’re together, the sisters light up,” said Rina’s mother, Sarah. “We appreciate the host family she has though and know this is the right life for her.”
Rina had plans to meet her family in Florida for a family vacation the first week of March. Sarah and Tamar had just returned from AIPAC, and the reunion for a Disney cruise to the Virgin Islands was long awaited.
“Corona was ‘somewhere’ but not an issue here and not even on our minds,” said Sarah. “We went on the cruise, had an incredible vacation and then — with just two days left, everything changed.”
Vacationers were informed of the changes happening and on board, while no one had symptoms, buffets were closed, meals all served tableside and bottles of hand sanitizer appeared everywhere. This would be the last of the company’s ships out for the duration of the crisis.
“We had no internet, no email, but as soon as we got home I opened a note from AIPAC letting us know of the diagnosis to some participants,” said Sarah. “We came straight home and we’ve self-quarantined ever since.”
Both Heidi and Rina are scheduled to return to Israel the first week of April, but with country borders closing and flights difficult to come by, their plans are unsure. With Passover less than two weeks away, and required 14-day quarantine for travelers, they would find themselves alone for the holiday.
Looking ahead, both women are almost fluent in Hebrew, and applying to universities in Israel to attend once they complete army service. Heidi wants to pursue a career in Israel advocacy while Rina plans to work in computer science.
Aliyah is defined as “immigration to Israel.” For Heidi Kravitz and Rina Yahalom, it seems their hearts were always there; now their commitment, honor and futures are too.