Report From The Fire Zone in Israel: A Letter from Barry Shrage
I started writing this letter over the Atlantic on my way home after a short visit to our people in Israel, our family in Haifa. We went as we’ve gone so many times in the past, during war and peace, to welcome new immigrants, to show solidarity when rockets fell, to help bury the dead, to visit the sick or to plan for the future of our communities. We and the people of Haifa have been partners and family for over twenty years – and families have obligations to each other. When the fire broke out and Haifa was threatened, they knew we were coming, and we started to pack.
On December 8, the seventh day of Chanukah, Larry Greenberg (chair of CJP’s Overseas Committee), Steve Doppelt (chair of CJP’s Haifa Economic Development Committee), Jeff Robbins (chair of CJP’s Israel Advocacy Committee) and I arrived in Israel to visit Haifa and the Carmel forest. We spent time in Haifa and in the surrounding areas most devastated by the fires.
In Israel we lit the menorah to celebrate the ancient miracles and heroism of Chanukah with leaders of the Hof Hacarmel Region, where the fire did the most damage, devastating several villages, and destroying hundreds of homes, thousands of acres of forest and millions of trees. There we heard modern stories of miracles and heroism, of unity and cooperation and bravery that had taken place throughout the crisis: Israeli Arab volunteers and Palestinians from Jenin worked with valor and courage alongside Israeli firefighters to extinguish the fires and save their city.
Turks and Greeks, longtime enemies, battled the fires side by side among the international force mustered to help extinguish the fire. Israeli firefighters from Haifa risked their lives with inadequate equipment to stop the fire, protect outlying kibbutzim and villages, and save the City of Haifa. These firefighters fought the fire 24 hours a day for three days, the way an army fights an enemy – sector by sector, defending every inch of territory against the flames. The Haifa firefighters made a special point of thanking the international firefighting planes and firefighters who helped them win the battle – especially the Turkish pilots, who they said were the bravest and most deeply committed to the fight.
Before leaving for Israel I finished a wonderful new book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, by David Hazony. Commenting on the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God,” Hazony points to a beautiful teaching by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed. He suggests that the first commandment demands that each of us engage in a lifelong effort to imitate God as a redeemer, whether through actions or words. The redemptive act is, in his view, a form of prophecy filled with the "spirit of God":
"The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand, to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evildoers; to save one noble person, or to bring happiness to a large number of people. This degree of divine influence is called "the spirit of God.”... This faculty was always possessed by Moses who could not restrain himself from interfering when he saw wrong being done – he could not bear it."
Hazony believes that the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God,” proclaims the centrality of redemption – as an ideal and as a mandate for our lives.
I thought of this idea again and again as we met with so many Israelis whose lives seemed to be guided by this very special “spirit of God.” These people seemed determined to do something “good and grand,” who could not restrain themselves from interfering when they saw wrong being done…they could not bear it.
That this would be the theme of our visit became clear at Yemin Orde. Yemin Orde is a beautiful Youth Aliyah village, really a therapeutic community, providing support and help, security and love for 600 troubled children, mostly Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, many of them orphans, whose lives were deeply troubled before coming to Yemin Orde. At Yemin Orde they have found a real home and a real family and healing for their broken lives. Yemin Orde was devastated by the fire, which destroyed half the village, including the library and many of the children’s and staff homes.
The founder of Yemin Orde is a heroic educational leader, Chaim Perry. Chaim is a person who cannot bear to see the suffering of children or the tragedy of wasted lives. His educational philosophy, the guiding principle of Yemin Orde, and the focus of his life, is clear. Chaim taught us that his community is guided by a beautiful educational methodology called “The Village Way” (in Hebrew, “derech kfar”), whose origins lie in the philosophy and values of the founders of Youth Villages in pre-State Israel. These educators established educational environments geared towards character building in service of a great vision – the building of a homeland.
Describing what happens to a society that has lost its way, Chaim quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel:
"We do not teach our kids to experience awe and wonder. We teach them how to weigh and measure, but that feeling of the sublime – that sign of the internal greatness of the soul, the inherent potential within each human being – this is found in only the few. In the absence of this feeling, the world becomes flat, the soul – an empty vessel."
Yemin Orde is not there merely to restore health. Its function is to foster lives filled with awe and wonder, purpose, meaning and heroism, love of Israel and a deep commitment to the well-being of others and of humankind. The graduates of Yemin Orde are taught to be people committed to doing that which is “good and grand,” who would not be able to restrain themselves from interfering when they saw wrong being done. They could not bear it. That was the spirit that filled Chaim Perry as he showed us through the wreckage left by the fire. He swore that all would be repaired and that the village and the staff and the residents would, like the lights of the menorah and the holiness of Chanukah, “increase and not decrease,” go up and not down. And that’s the spirit that has caused the leadership of Yemin Orde to bring its educational model to schools throughout Israel and to create a village in Rwanda to repair the lives of the children who survived the Rwandan genocide.
Yemin Orde will be renewed, the forests restored over time with the help of JNF, and the homes and villages of the Carmel region rebuilt. But more than forty lives were lost in the fire and they will never return. They are gone forever, leaving behind widows and orphans and bereaved fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters.
Most movingly during our visit, we paid shiva calls. We met the family of Yitzchak Melina, a second-generation policeman who perished in the fire. His father is a policeman, as are two of his three brothers. We met them all at the shiva, and they all talked to us about what a privilege it is to be a policeman, to protect the lives of people and to serve the State of Israel. Yitzchak’s widow, Carmit, teaches Bible at our partner school, Ironi Heh and Yitzchak’s surviving brothers were so proud of their brother’s and their father’s service to the people of Israel.
We heard similar words about service, sacrifice and unselfishness from Tzvia Riven, the mother of Elad Riven, the 16-year-old volunteer from the Reali School, an only child who lost his life while heroically trying to save the lives of others trapped in the fire. “When he saw the smoke over the Carmel Mountain, he left school and ran to help out. He was very close to the burning bus; he tried to save lives and was caught in the fire. He was a hero – running into the fire instead of running away from it and saving his own life."
“Elad was my whole life, my only child. Don’t let people forget that he cared,” Tzvia told me again and again as we both cried. “Don’t let them forget that his life mattered.”
I promised Tzvia that I would tell our Boston Jewish community about Elad’s bravery and his loyalty to his people, and as I listened to her and to the family of Yitzchak Melina, I realized that we had been hearing about these values throughout our trip. These values were “derech kfar,” lived by people determined to do something “good and grand,” who could not restrain themselves from interfering when they saw wrong being done…they could not bear it.
What did we learn during our visit?
First, we learned that the fires on the Carmel were a tragedy, but not a crisis. More than forty lives were lost: That is a tragedy. But the physical damage was limited and geographically contained. Israel is not under military attack and the fires were extinguished through the superhuman effort of badly underequipped firefighters.
Second, we learned that our Boston Haifa strategy of partnership, of working with our local community really makes a difference. Our Haifa partners expressed their gratitude for financial support from the US, including the hundreds of thousands of dollars received from Boston. Our relationship was very much evident during our visit to Haifa’s Crisis Management Center which was vital in managing the orderly evacuation of threatened areas of Haifa. After the experience of the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006, when rockets fell for days and weeks on end in different parts of the city of Haifa, it was clear that the city needed to ensure its readiness to face similar and other challenges in the future. With support from CJP, three parallel programs have been launched that have significantly upgraded Haifa's ability to provide emergency care and to mobilize the voluntary sector in an emergency.
Finally we left with renewed faith in Israel and with the beginnings of a plan to help:
• Homes and villages will be rebuilt.
• The forests will regenerate, over decades. Green will be visible by next spring. (JNF will tend to the burned-out forests, but modern forestry techniques mean that we won’t be seeing massive tree plantings as we might have in the past.)
• Yemin Orde, with its powerful philosophy and leadership will, with the help of world Jewry, rebuild and even grow.
Our task as a Federation system is clear and limited: We will help repair and restore Yemin Orde and other damaged communities, partner with JNF around forest restoration, see to the equipment needs of the Haifa and Carmel region’s fire departments and provide some financial relief as well as our prayers for the bereaved families.
I feel proud and honored that together, we, the people of Boston and our Haifa brothers and sisters, are members of a caring, humane village of the kind that Chaim Perry described to me: A village that embodies “derech kfar” at its best, that aspires to greatness, that is profoundly connected to the ideals and values that give coherence and meaning to a safe and good world, that is a homeland that we can and will continue to build together.