For Rabbi Ira Budow, headmaster of the Abrams Hebrew Academy, the prisoner exchange leading to the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit served as the ultimate teachable moment.
"It's a tremendous lesson on what Israel is all about. We value life," Budow said, noting that the Jewish state was trading 1,027 Palestinian prisoners -- many convicted of taking part in terrorist attacks -- for Shalit's freedom. "There was a debate in school and kids had opinions both ways."
Budow said that during the five years of Shalit's captivity, he tried to personalize the issue for students. During last year's eighth-grade class trip to the Jewish state, for example, students visited the Shalit protest tent outside the prime minister's office and met with members of the soldier's family.
So, in keeping with the joyous theme of Sukkot, Budow decided to hold a street parade in honor of the soldier's release on Tuesday.
His homecoming ended an ordeal that kept the 25-year-old isolated, with no contact with his family or officials of the International Red Cross. He was abducted by Hamas in a cross-border raid back in June 2006.
Upon his arrival home, Shalit met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then went on to his family in Mitzpe Hila.
According to Budow, Shalit's release is a significant moment in Jewish history, an event that reminded him of the day in 1986 when Natan Sharansky, then a dissident named Anatoly, was released by the Soviet Union. "I wanted the students to have something that they take and keep in their hearts."
Students at the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley made signs for a school parade celebrating Shalit's release. The school's director likened the moment to the freeing of Natan Sharansky in 1986.
Like Budow, Jews across the region celebrated images of the young man back in Israel, reunited with his family.
For the past half-decade, and especially in recent months, local synagogues, Hebrew schools and organizations have all campaigned for the soldier's release. The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia distributed 5,000 blue wristbands to show solidarity.
Bernard Dishler, a dentist active with Jewish communal causes, who also met with Shalit's parents earlier this year in Israel, had been wearing one of those wristbands for five years and finally took it off Tuesday.
"It's just such a great relief to know he's finally out of there," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised that he looked relatively healthy."
Yet even with the feeling of euphoria still present, many are questioning whether Israel paid too steep a price. Will some of the Palestinians released go on to perpetrate terror attacks against Israelis? Will the lopsided nature of the deal only encourage Hamas and other groups to try to capture another human "bargaining chip"?
"The deal stems from the Israeli commitment that no soldier will be left behind in the hands of terrorists," said Daniel Kutner, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia. "Every person should be revolted at the sight of the celebrations which have greeted the release of unrepentant terrorists who murdered hundreds of innocent civilians, including children and entire families."
The issue is a personal one for many of the students at the Orthodox Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, according to Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, head of school. A number of students have parents and siblings who have served in the Israel Defense Forces.
School was closed this week for Sukkot, but Weinbach said that he's planning a forum on Oct. 25 during which students will examine what classical Jewish sources have to say about ransom and the redemption of captives.
Rabbi Akiva Pollack, educational director of Congregation Beth Solomon Community Center, an Orthodox shul in Northeast Philadelphia, said the overall sense in the community is relief that Shalit is home, but there is also grave concern about the details of the lopsided exchange.
"Everyone is saying the same thing," said Pollack. "We are very scared about what is going to be. Is there going to be a follow-up terrorist attack? But what we are focusing on now is that our brother is free."
A joint Sukkot celebration for fifth graders from the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School Forman Center and senior citizens at the Klein JCC coincided with the day of Shalit's release.
Chaim Galfand, the rabbi for Perelman's Stern and Forman centers, said he began the program at Klein by addressing the news.
"The overwhelming response from the seniors was that this was a heavy price to pay," Galfand said, adding that the students were generally quiet during the program. "Seniors, who have seen a bit more of the spectrum of life, have good cause to be concerned."
Robby and Tsippi Lasman, Israelis who live in Cherry Hill, N.J., thought immediately of their 20-year-daughter, Leigh, who is currently serving in the IDF.
"Obviously, it's a heartwarming feeling that the country of Israel has given so many prisoners back in return for one soldier. It just shows how the State of Israel is considering the return of the soldiers as a very important task," said Robby Lasman.
Nancy Isserman, associate director of the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, has one son who just finished his IDF service and another who is just beginning.
"I'm really conflicted. I understand what people are saying about jeopardizing others," said Isserman, a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox shul in Wynnewood. "The bottom line is, if that was my child, I would do everything possible to get him home."
Her younger son, Gavi Horwitz, 20, surprised his parents when he returned home for the Jewish holidays for a short break in his service.
Horwitz said he's "ecstatic" that Shalit is back. "It's comforting as a soldier to know that the government cares and is willing do something about it," said Horwitz, who is returning to Israel to finish his service. "It is also scary. Only time will tell what the release of the prisoners will do."
Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Fort Washington, recently returned from spending a year living in Jerusalem with his wife and three children. Earlier this week, the family slept outside in their sukkah. Waxman said that his 7-year-old daughter woke him, saying she'd been dreaming that she was in Israel, celebrating Shalit's release.
"He was a very real presence for all Israelis," said the rabbi."It was a very conscious hole in Israeli society that was obvious everywhere. There was this yawning sense of incompleteness."
But the joy of the moment, he said, is tempered by an awareness of the imbalance of the trade-off. "There is nothing easy about this."