Yeshiva has mind on war, not basketball


NEW YORK -- Yeshiva University's basketball team is off to its best start in 30 years. Or was. Even basketball has become stitched into the embroidery of war in the Persian Gulf.

One of Yeshiva's top players -- who is also one of the nation's top freshman players -- 6-foot-3 Miko Danan, was called to active duty in the Israeli army. The team hasn't won since.

The assistant coach, Mike Cohen, a former Israeli soldier now in the Israeli reserves, is waiting for orders that could come at any time.

"I carry my passport in my pocket," said Cohen, who also is Yeshiva's sports information director. "When the call comes, I'm on the next plane."

Yeshiva, with a predominately Jewish enrollment, got some potentially good news recently when Danan phoned to say that he had been returned temporarily to reserve status because Israel had not entered the conflict against Iraq. He must decide whether to wait for a possible call-up or re-enter school, realizing that he may have to return to Israel at a moment's notice.

"Probably I will go back to school next week; it is very hard to decide," Danan said in a phone interview. "Things can change every day. If a chemical bomb falls, I believe a lot of people will be injured. That would be too much for Israel. But I decided to continue my life and start playing basketball. If something changes, I will go back."

Danan was hardly the only student from this Manhattan campus who was in Israel last week. Three hundred of Yeshiva's 1,600 students are studying in Israel, and 400 more flew to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to show their support the night before the Jan. 15 war deadline.

An anonymous donor spent $250,000 to charter an El Al jumbo jet, said university president Norman Lamm. Each of the 400 students contributed $50. Some stayed for six days. Others for 10. Some stayed for two weeks, not arriving home until Sunday night for the resumption of classes Monday after semester break.

As classes resumed, there was a certain inwardness on campus rather than the sense of renewal and expectation that a new semester usually brings. A moment of silence at morning prayers. Beefed-up security. Students, employees and visitors had to show IDs upon entering campus buildings. Packages were requested to be opened upon delivery.

One student stepped onto an elevator, spotted a couple of reporters and wanted to know if they had heard of SMASH -- Students Massed Against Saddam Hussein. He wore a "Free Kuwait" button on his sweater and said there would a rally on Sunday.

"Can you believe a Yeshiva kid walking around with a Kuwaiti flag on his shirt?" asked Cohen, the assistant coach. "War makes strange bedfellows."

During a recent basketball game against New Jersey Tech, Yeshiva players wore both the U.S. and Israeli flags on their jerseys. Everyone on this campus knows someone in Israel. A relative, a friend, a classmate. Everyone has some connection, some story to tell. Etan Tokayer, a Yeshiva senior who made the trip to Israel, cannot get the sound of air raid sirens out of his head.

"When I got home, someone behind us was beeping his horn, but I didn't hear the sound of a horn," said Tokayer. "It sounded like a siren."

Cohen was thinking of writing a letter of thanks to Cable News Network. When Iraq fired its first missiles at Israel, Cohen was watching CNN. He called his parents, who live north of Tel Aviv and had not heard the sirens. His parents woke up the rest of the neighborhood, grabbed the startled family dog, Bibi, and pulled the pet into a sealed bedroom.

"The dog was on the floor, its tail between its legs," Cohen said. "It was looking up at my parents, with their gas masks on, and it was shaking more than they were. And this is a dog that has been through three wars."

The trip by Yeshiva students was dubbed "Operation Torah Shield," a spiritual mission to accompany the military "Operation Desert Shield."

"Many people don't understand that even those [Jews] born after the Holocaust have this ingrained in their consciousness, as part of the national subconscious that goes on from generation to generation," said Lamm, the university president. "We know what happened, and we know how the world fled and sometimes we're embarrassed that we didn't do enough for those who could have been helped.

"Here was an occasion when the Israelis began to feel depressed at the exodus of people from Israel at the beginning of this crisis," he continued. "And so these young men and women determined that it was not going to happen again. And they were going to come there to show their solidarity, their fraternity, they were not going to abandon Israel. Interestingly, it had an enormous effect boosting the morale of the country."

Some students showed their support through study, others by volunteering. They instructed the elderly in wearing gas masks and sealing a room against chemicals with tape and plastic. They worked in hospitals and assisted with the tomato harvest. What struck the students were changes in the ordinary. Empty streets, closed shops during the day. The apprehension of nightfall, fear of sleep.

"You were afraid to take a shower, because you might not hear the sirens or you would be all wet when the missiles hit," recalled Andrew Goldsmith, a senior. "You only had four minutes to get to a safe place. It was almost a relief to hear the sirens. You don't have to wonder where everybody is. You're all together in a safe room with your family and friends. It's OK."

In lighter moments, the students brought blankets into the sealed rooms and cookies and candy for the children.

And they told mordant jokes: How long does it take a missile to reach Tel Aviv? Four minutes to get there, an hour and a half to find parking.

Danan himself was back in Israel, on semester break, when he was called to active duty. He had served three years in the Israeli army, where he was a staff sergeant in communications. When (( the first missiles landed, he was near the Jordanian border, out of harm's way. But when he visited his family last weekend just outside of Tel Aviv, he heard the sirens, grabbed his gas mask and went to a safe room.

"It's a little scary; you know you can't do anything," Danan said. "You just sit and pray the missiles won't fall on your house."

Danan, 21, a swingman who formerly played on the Israeli national team, had joined the Yeshiva Maccabees this season and was the leading freshman in the country for assists (7.6 per game) and steals (6.7 per game). His 77 total steals put him on track to break the national freshman record of 138 set last season by a fellow Israeli, Nadav "the Dove" Henefeld of Connecticut.

With Danan, the Division III Maccabees were 8-3, on their way to a fourth straight winning season. ("People used to expect us to be slow white kids with beanies on their heads," Cohen said.) They are 0-2, however, without Danan and with their minds on a war a few thousand miles away.

"It's always on our minds, whether we're practicing or playing a game," said Jon Rosner, one of the Yeshiva captains. "Always on our minds."

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