ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 257

The Bar-Ilan University campus, on January 31, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
The Bar-Ilan University campus, on January 31, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
'We’ve never had anything like this year'

Released IDF reservists head back to school, but not everything is a matter of course

A visit to Bar-Ilan University reveals some of the difficulties facing returning student-soldiers and how administrators are attempting to address the challenges

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

When he was called up for reserve IDF duty in the wake of the October 7 Hamas massacre, Dvir Fried, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Bar-Ilan University, was in the middle of choosing his PhD thesis topic.

“I printed things out before I went, I put articles in my bag between my equipment, but I couldn’t work on ideas. I would sit and only could read half a page,” said Fried, 30. “Sometimes you have time, but you don’t have the headspace for that, even if you want to.”

Fried served in Gaza as support staff in a medical unit. He was one of the thousands of reservists who were enrolled in university at the time of their call-up for the Israel-Hamas war and have recently been released to resume their studies.

“It was not easy to come back. It takes time to activate the brain again after weeks when you are used to being in combat,” Fried said. He noted that the greatest difficulty in returning to academics is that “you aren’t used to focusing on one thing for a long time.”

The Times of Israel spoke with Fried and a handful of other just-returned student-soldiers during a recent visit to Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. Students were out and about, socializing and rushing to classes in a welcome return to routine. Even though they had been allowed by the IDF to return to their studies, the returning reservists interviewed by this reporter still carried their service weapons on campus.

Students returning for their reserve IDF duty attend a special orientation at Bar-Ilan University in Givat Shmuel, on January 23, 2024. (Courtesy)

After the shock October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel — which ravaged whole communities and saw some 1,200 people murdered, most of them civilians, and 253 more abducted to the Gaza Strip — the Israeli government declared war on Hamas.

Out of some 360,000 reservists subsequently called up by the IDF, an estimated 100,000 were enrolled in one of Israel’s major universities — accounting for around 30 percent of all students enrolled for the current academic year, according to the Association of University Heads.

The school year was to have begun on October 15 but was delayed several times due to the ongoing war and the immense number of internally displaced people in Israel as a result of the terror onslaught in the south and subsequent Hezbollah attacks in the north. It was eventually decided to start the first semester on December 31, with student reservists starting several weeks later in a staggered system.

With the IDF continuing its military operation in the Strip, it is unclear exactly how many reservists have been released, students or otherwise.

At Bar-Ilan and many of the other universities, a special orientation period was held for the reservists during the last week of January, which included condensed lessons intended to get them up to speed on missed material.

Fried had been released earlier than most and was able to begin on December 31. Others, such as Eliyahu Houri, were only recently let go. He met with The Times of Israel in a busy student cafe while still in his IDF fatigues.

Bar-Ilan University student Eliyahu Houri on the Givat Shmuel campus, January 31, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Houri, 27, in his last year of a double BA program in computer and brain science, described a very hectic period in his life. Although ostensibly released to return to his studies, he has still been obligated to continue some of his duties as a communications officer in the north and has been going back and forth between that and the university for several weeks, sleeping four to five hours a night and listening to recorded classes to keep up.

“Hopefully a few more weeks of this, and that’s it” for reserve duty, he said. “It’s difficult, but I always tell myself that I will succeed.”

In his final year of a challenging academic program and soon to be married, Houri said he hopes he will be able to finish and then start a master’s degree in the summer. He noted that many of the students in his program who weren’t in reserve duty had already completed their final projects, which they did during the months-long period before the delayed academic year began.

Tal Charash, 28, is a fourth-year law student in the reserves as a company commander in the Home Front Command. His wife is a career logistics officer and they have a two-month-old daughter who was born during the war, “so there’s a lot going on,” he said dryly.

Bar-Ilan student Tal Charash, on January 31, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Charash, a member of the student council at Bar-Ilan, was involved in discussions with the university administration on how to best integrate the returning soldiers.

“I think they have done the best they can, but not everything is resolved. The mindset of three months with no sleeping, no schoolwork — it’s hard to sit in class now,” he said.

Although the university has provided a lot of assistance, teachers and staff still “need to be on the lookout if someone is struggling,” because some students might not avail themselves of these resources on their own, Charash pointed out.

Some students still haven’t finished their military reserve service yet, he noted, and it’s unclear how they will join mid-semester — or if they will even be able to.

Helping hands

All the universities have announced aid packages designed to help reserve soldiers return to university studies. The packages differ from university to university but generally include financial grants, individual tutoring options, more flexible testing periods, recorded classes and other benefits.

In December, the Knesset passed legislation to fully cover the costs of an academic degree for discharged combat soldiers, as well as a few other special categories including lone soldiers, new immigrants and minorities.

At Bar-Ilan, returning soldiers are to receive recognition of IDF service for academic credits; a pass/fail grade option for certain courses; flexibility with retaking and scheduling exams; academic assistance including recorded lessons, private tutors and extra lectures; and special scholarships ranging from NIS 1,000-6,000 ($270-$1,640), among other benefits.

These scholarships have already been distributed to 2,500 IDF reservists and 200 evacuees from the Gaza envelope and the Lebanon border communities, the university said. Bar-Ilan has a student body of around 20,000.

Prof. Arie Reich, Bar-Ilan University vice-rector, on January 31, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

“We’ve never had anything like this year,” said Bar-Ilan vice-rector, Prof. Arie Reich of the Faculty of Law. Reich, who himself has a son serving in Gaza, has been in charge of interfacing with the IDF and preparing the university to receive the released reservists.

Half of Bar-Ilan’s 2,500 reservists had already arrived by December 31, and a further 25% returned by January 23 for a special orientation event, he said.

Like most of the universities, because of the late start, Bar-Ilan has implemented an academic year of two shortened semesters of 10 weeks each instead of the usual 14, and a summer session of 5-6 weeks.

“It’s not just that we cut down the semesters, but we have also made sure that all the professors have cut down on the material,” Reich said, so that returning students won’t have to make up extra lessons on their own time. “We are trying to juggle between maintaining a reasonable level of studies, while also accommodating the reserve students.”

“Some people haven’t been in Gaza. For those who were, there is a whole process of moving your mental state out of survival mode, and that takes time. For some people it can take a long while,” he said. He noted that the university tripled its number of psychologists and held special staff training geared toward assisting returning soldiers.

More service on the horizon

The IDF has said that many of the recently released reserve soldiers can expect to be called up again in a few months, in what is widely understood as a preparatory step for a potential expanded confrontation with Hezbollah in the north.

“Many of those who are back will be called up again, we know that. It’s a big headache,” Reich said. He stressed that the university will do all it can to ensure that every soldier-student can receive credit for this academic year.

Bar-Ilan University student David Ovadia, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

“Everything is dynamic. If things heat up again, then of course I’ll return” to the army, said David Ovadia, 26, echoing what others interviewed for this article expressed when asked about returning to full-time IDF service if necessary.

Ovadia, a third-year physics student who serves as an intelligence officer, said, “I have only good words, I feel there is great support from the university.” The physics department, in particular, “is going above and beyond” in terms of helping the reservists adjust, he said.

Still, given the situation, he worried that the reservists as a whole might be left behind academically or be looked upon differently because of the circumstances of this chaotic year.

“The bottom line is we need to see that we finish all our exams and not be damaged by our reserve duty,” said Ovadia. “If the average grades for the reservists are below the average grades for the rest, that will be a problem.”

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