Yeshiva University Student Becomes a Witness to History on Trip to Egypt
Sion Setton, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and a Yeshiva College graduate, had no idea that over the course of his short vacation to Egypt to trace his family roots, he would witness the beginning of a historic revolution.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Setton may be a native New Yorker but his roots are Egyptian. “While Egypt’s history with Judaism has been long and often turbulent,” said Setton, “a lot of people might not realize the presence and the value Egypt had for the Jewish nations throughout history. Egypt has housed many sages, from Maimonides to Rabbi Yosef Azoulay, known as the Hida, and even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for several years. There are many synagogues to see and a rich history to learn from.” And so for winter break, he decided to travel from Israel to Egypt to take what he likes to call a “family heritage trip.”
“I wanted to see where my parents grew up, the different synagogues they went to and the streets they walked down. I wanted to go and experience that myself,” said Setton.
Upon landing in Cairo, Setton immediately got hints of the anti-Mubarak sentiments that flourished in the air. “My taxi driver from the airport was telling us all about the amazing sites to see in Egypt but also pointed to Mubarak’s home and expressed ‘we’re not so happy with him’,” said Setton.
Later that night at the hotel, Setton was informed of a holiday that would be held the following day to “honor the police,” as it was explained to him. He was further notified that there might be a few anti-Mubarak protestors and to “be careful.”
“We didn’t think it was such a big deal. When you’re from Manhattan, you think of a protest as peaceful picket signs. We didn’t think it would become something so chaotic.”
Tuesday was Setton’s last evening in Cairo and though he was advised not to go out because the protest might accelerate, he said, “It was my last evening in Cairo and I was not going to just stay in the hotel.” When he left to go to a concert that evening, all seemed fine: people were gathering and police were present but everything seemed quiet. It was after the concert when they were returning to the hotel that things took a turn for the worse. “Coming out of the concert we were greeted by a taxi driver to take us to our hotel. We didn’t know at that time he would save our lives.”
Setton recounts the tale of that terrifying taxi ride. “As we were going through Tahrir square we started to see hundreds of people walking around—some with masks and batons—and we noticed very few cars. Soon we noticed people crowding around our taxi.” At this point the police had used tear gas to contain the riots in the square and the crowds were seeking shelter wherever they could—including in Setton’s cab. “I was in the front locked my door, but my friend in the back didn’t have his door locked and someone opened the door and was trying to get inside.” He continued, “Suddenly the driver just put the pedal to the metal, almost hitting a few members of the crowd and drove as fast as he could away from the square.” It was reported that three people died that night and 74 people were injured while Setton and his friends safely got away. “G-d bless this driver who saved us from that chaotic square,” Setton said.
Despite the terrific events of that night, the next morning Setton awoke unfazed and ready to continue to see the sights. “I thought it would be a one day protest. I didn’t expect things to escalate.”
Setton regards his trip as a series of acts of “divine intervention.” When he originally booked his return flight, Setton wanted to return Thursday but could only get a flight for Wednesday—which turned out to be the last day the airport allowed flights to leave. Setton also had the opportunity to see the pyramids and the Cairo Museum, again on the very last day before they were closed to the public. Most important, Setton got out of Tahrir Square safely and without injury and that he feels was truly Hashgacha Pratit [divine intervention].
Though the country’s future remains uncertain, “there is so much beauty that exists in Egypt and so much ancient history and medieval Jewish history to learn about,” said Setton. “I hope the situation resolves itself peacefully in the near future.”