After the fire: A Torah’s trip to a secular kibbutz

We land at Ben Gurion Airport in the heat of winter, on the first day of Chanukah.  At 11 a.m. Dec. 2, already it is 82 degrees in Tel Aviv—unusual weather for the rainy season in Israel. And it will get hotter. Much hotter.

Moments before our wheels touch down, a brush fire breaks out in the Carmel Valley, near Haifa. By the time we make it to our taxi it is a news item on the radio. You don’t need to be a fluent Hebrew speaker to know that something is happening. The cab drivers are clustered, standing by their cars with the news blaring on the radio, smoking, not talking. They are listening intently.

The ride to meet our friends who had arrived on separate flights gives us the opportunity to catch up with our driver. A fire in the Carmel is burning out of control, he tells us. Local firefighters are overwhelmed. Rumors are flying as to the cause.

By the time we check into our hotel at 4 p.m., the fire has become a national disaster; by dinnertime it is a national tragedy:  Forty prison guards and their bus driver perish while being evacuated. And the fire is getting stronger, engulfing a larger area and completely overpowering the available resources. In the fire’s sights are a school for troubled youth in Yemin Orde, an artist’s colony in Ein Hod and Kibbutz Beit Oren. Everyone knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who is directly affected. All army reservists with any firefighting experience are called and told to get to Haifa immediately.

By the time the sun goes down on Shabbat, the fire is extinguished. A converted 747 from Arizona designed to fight wildfires in California drops a huge blanket of chemicals to put out the blaze, but the destruction it leaves is smoldering and raw.

On Monday morning we visit Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular group of New Age kibbutzniks who have championed a model of the collective community concept that is controversial and sustaining. Their primary income is derived from a hotel-resort operation combined with eco-tourism for nature lovers in the Carmel Valley. Kibbutz members not involved in the daily hotel business are employed by outside businesses or run home-based independent businesses from inside the kibbutz. One business, a pottery studio, belongs to an artist name Imi. Imi is married to Ran, who serves as the kibbutz manager. Ran leads us on a tour of what is left of Beit Oren.

Amazingly, much is spared. The main guest house and outbuildings used for the hotel guest business appear untouched by the fire. But the homes of many kibbutz members, including Ran and Imi’s, are destroyed. Imi’s studio, which contained many unfinished pots awaiting glazing in a high temperature kiln, is reduced to clay ashes.

Inside Ran and Imi’s house, food on the table is blackened. They explain that they got the call to evacuate in the middle of dinner and literally grabbed their laptops and cell phones before leaving for the waiting shuttles. The images of pictures affixed to their refrigerator door with magnets have literally melted from the intensity of the heat. Nearly everything is black and burnt; the smell reminds us of a campfire. Strangely, the only thing we notice that is not burnt are the wooden logs in the fireplace, somehow protected by the stone masonry that surround it.

It is an emotional scene for Ran and Imi, returning to their home this way, and we get caught up in the intensity of their feelings. You can see their pain of loss surrounded by their thankfulness for survival. It is on their faces, in their bloodshot eyes and in their choked-up voices.

We are compelled to do something for these people, some act of service or kindness to show them we are moved and that we care. So I ask, “What can we do for you?” expecting to write a check.

Ran pauses, takes a deep breath and replies.

“We will be OK, eventually. The insurance should cover our losses,” he says. “But there is something we would like to have.”

Excited at the prospect of any request, and raising my voice above the ever increasing sound of workers beginning their demolition work, I shout back at him, “What? Anything you want. If we can do it, we will. What do you need?”

We can barely hear each other above the bulldozers.

“A Torah,” he screams. “We need a Torah.”

At that moment I knew why we had come to Beit Oren that morning.

Ran explains that although they are a secular kibbutz, the residents do perform rituals and observances. They occasionally hold Shabbat services, officiate b’nai mitzvah and organize High Holidays services.

In Israel, Torahs are distributed by the nearest local chief rabbi. In Haifa, the chief rabbi, as in all Israeli cities and towns, is Orthodox; very Orthodox. In the chief rabbi’s view, Ran says, Beit Oren is not Jewish enough to merit a Torah because men and women sit together when praying. For an American Reform Jew, this is outrageous, and everyone in our group is appalled. My wife, Trudi, and I now have a mission. And we have a plan.

Just weeks before we left for Israel, the rabbi at our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., suggested that the congregation consider what to do with the additional Torah scrolls that we acquired as part of a merger with another Reform synagogue.

We leave Ran and Imi at Beit Oren. I call our rabbi, Steven Kushner, and tell him I have an idea for one of the scrolls. I can hear him smiling into his iPhone. We return to New Jersey a week later, arriving at the airport in Newark at 5 a.m., and go before the temple board that same evening. Jet lagged but no doubt energized by the opportunity for mitzvah, we tell our story with considerable emotion. We talk about the fire, Ran and Imi, and the need for a Torah. We ask if the board would consider donating one of the temple’s. There are a few questions and the president calls for a vote. Twenty-five hands rise—the consent is unanimous.

It is a hot Friday in July when we return to Israel with the Torah scroll. After Kabbalat Shabbat services in Haifa, we head to the kibbutz. Walking up the steps into Ran and Imi’s house has a surreal quality. While I have only been there once, it seems so familiar. Perhaps the memory is so strong because of its tragic nature? Ran is happy and proud of his newly renovated home and eager to point out both the replaced and upgraded amenities.

Before eating we welcome Shabbat. There are guitars, ukuleles and drums, niggunim to get in the mood, and Shabbat songs. We sing, make blessings, eat great food, drink wine and sing some more, all underneath the star-filled sky of the Carmel on a beautifully restored deck. There is much to be thankful for this night in their house—a house rebuilt after the fire.

Despite its secular bent, the kibbutz has a shul. Construction began a few years ago after the passing of a longtime kibbutz member who made the provision in her will. By the looks of the fresh paint, clean floors and newly refurbished ark, our impending arrival may have given added purpose and priority to its timely completion.

Walking us back to our hotel bungalow, Ran tells me to leave the Torah in my room when the community first gathers the next morning at the shul. He says the residents will march to my room to “receive” the Torah from us and parade it back to the shul.

The next morning Ohad, a Jewish Renewal rabbi with a new age focus, officiates at the ceremony. He lives on the kibbutz and conducts seminars, meditations and gatherings in his spirituality center. He also operates from an encampment deep in the kibbutz’s forest, where he conducted a Jewish Shaman ceremony the night before. He looks like he has been up all night. About half of the community’s 170 members are gathered just outside the little shul for some opening remarks.

I lead the assembled multitude back to my hotel room to receive the Torah. There is genuine excitement, not merely polite participation. Soon I’m inside my room, lifting the Torah from its resting place. I turn and walk out the door.

There is singing, crying, laughing, kissing, hugging—first the Torah, then me, then each other. It is Simchat Torah times a million. A tallit is stretched out and raised as a makeshift chuppah. It is placed over me and the Torah, and the kibbutzniks begin to lead me back to their shul. A man comes up next to me, motioning to cut in, like you would with a dance partner. I hand him the Torah and he dances with it, tears streaming down his cheeks. Imi tells me he is a cancer survivor who is missing his vocal chords.

He is also a Yemenite, which happens to be the nationality of the chief scribe for this 110-year-old scroll—a fact I had passed to the group during my earlier remarks. The man is dancing with the Torah as though it were a long-lost relative.

From person to person the scroll is passed and shared. There is rejoicing under the chuppah as the procession slowly makes its way back to where we began.

Then I hear the blasts—long and loud, then short, rapid staccato with piercing highs. It is the sound not of one but three shofars. The horns are several feet long and curled about three-quarters of the way out, held high and played like trumpets announcing royalty. The energy is as palpable as it is powerful.

We return to the shul for a Torah service, then more singing and dancing with the Torah, a few closing remarks by the rabbi and lots of hugging and kissing. I am a popular target for demonstrative affection; it’s like being attacked by a dozen grandmothers at once. My favorite is a woman with a heavy Polish accent to her English, her mascara now in small clumps on her face.

“When I saw you come out with the Torah, I pished from my eyes,” she cries at me.

That pretty much sums it up. Of course, she also wants to know if I am hungry, married and if I have a place to stay that night. So Jewish.

After the crowd disperses, I have some alone time with Ran. He is much quieter than he had been last night and earlier that morning. I can see he is reflecting.

I start the conversation with a question: “Why did you ask me for a Torah?”

“I don’t know,” he replies too quickly, suggesting his train of thought was right where I had jumped in. “That is not like me. I am a business guy. I would always ask for money. But that day, when you asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I opened my mouth and the word ‘Torah’ came out. They were not my words. They did not come from me but through my mouth.”

Ran pauses and turns directly to me.

I am not quite sure what to say, and think I shouldn’t interrupt. He continues, “Then today when I see the people hugging and kissing, people who have not spoken to each other in months, some for years, I knew why we needed this Torah. We had problems here before the fire. The fire just made those problems worse. But now we have a Torah and after seeing this today, I think we can really start to heal.”

We exchange a few more words and I smile at him. Then two men—both Jewish, about the same age, born, raised and living 6,000 miles apart—embrace warmly.

One of the Torah verses chanted that day translates to “you shall pass through the fire and will be purified” (Numbers 31:23).  I think at that moment, locked in each others arms, we both realize we have “passed through” something much bigger than either of us, now forever connected by this fiery Torah. Such a blessing.

Jerry Krivitzky is a businessman living in Montclair, N.J.

Israel allocates millions to repair Carmel

Israel has allocated millions of dollars to repair the damage caused by the Carmel wildfire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz instructed the government to release the funds following a decision made by the Carmel Rehabilitation Steering Committee headed by Eyal Gabai, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The assistance will help in the construction of permanent homes, compensating residents, assisting in the rehabilitation of the communities, rehabilitating the Carmel forests, resuming cultural activities and repairing damages to agriculture and infrastructures, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Some $16 million will be allocated to rehabilitating the flora and fauna in the Carmel forests.  This is in accordance with the outline formulated by the Environmental Protection and Agriculture and Rural Development ministries. This is in addition to the $38 million allocated for the area’s restoration immediately following the four-day fire.

“Today, we are taking another significant step for the communities and the residents who were damaged and hurt in the Carmel wildfire.  These are not statements but steps that are being taken on the ground, quickly and tangibly.  I thank all those involved for acting professionally and for cooperating in order to meet this important goal,” Netanyahu said.

Some 42 people were killed, about 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, 17,000 people were forced to evacuate, more than 12,000 acres were burned and an estimated 5 million trees were lost in the early December blaze.

Federations to dole out $2.4 million in fire aid

The Jewish Federations of North America said the federation system will distribute $2.4 million to help Israel recover from the Carmel Mountain fire.

JFNA, the umbrella organization of the more than 150 Jewish federations in North America, made the announcement Monday.

The fires last week killed 44 people, scorched more than 10,000 acres of forest and burned 100 homes and structures, including much of the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

JFNA, said it will allocate $550,000 to the system’s partners on the ground in Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Trauma Coalition. The umbrella group deployed an initial round of $340,000 on Monday for immediate relief efforts.

It is unclear how much of the $2.4 million was raised from individual donors responding to the fire and how much is coming from the reserves of individual federations. The response campaign received an early boost when the JUF-Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago pledged $500,000 of its own money just after the fire broke out two weeks ago.

The initial money will help pay for activities during the wildfires, such as relief for evacuees, respite activities for youth, and trauma relief and professional support. These programs included the Jewish Agency for Israel’s respite day camps for 4,700 children from the Carmel Forest region; and Israel Trauma Coalition’s direct care of bereaved and injured families and first responders.

JFNA has set up a special Carmel Wildfire Allocations Committee that will research program proposals to address mid- and long-term needs created by the fire, such as programs of the JDC, Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition, and will announce additional allocations based on those needs in the near future.

Palestinian firefighters denied entry into Israel for tribute

Three Palestinian firefighters were refused entry into Israel for a ceremony honoring Palestinian firemen who helped battle the Carmel blaze.

Only seven of the 10 firemen were to be allowed in for the ceremony that was scheduled to take place Sunday afternoon in the Druze village of Usfiya. The ceremony was canceled.

The Israel Defense Forces said the denial of entry for the three firemen was a bureaucratic error. The list of names did not include the firemen’s ID numbers, the IDF said, and that it did not receive the list in time. The army told Haaretz that it is working to get the correct permits and that the ceremony would be rescheduled, Haaretz reported.

Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi called the incident “not just a march of folly or a theater of the absurd but stupidity and the normative lordly attitude of the occupation regime.”

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority said that “It’s not clear how the same firefighters who got permits to go out and help snuff the fire now are now refused permits to their honoring ceremony.”

“We did this despite the occupation because it was our humane duty,” the PA statement added. “We knew the occupation would still be here after our assistance.”

The Palestinian firefighters were honored over the weekend by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Our neighbors faced a tragedy and it was our duty to do our humanitarian work toward our neighbors to protect the environment and human life,” Abbas said during the ceremony in his office in Ramallah.

Catching the firefighting bug

The death of 16-year-old Elad Rivan in the Carmel Forest fire last week has put the Fire Scouts on the map, piquing the interest of teenagers around the country in what had previously been a relatively unknown organization of volunteer firefighters. In the wake of Rivan’s tragic death, which occurred as he participated in the effort to rescue those trapped in the prison service bus that went up in flames, the Fire Scouts forum on the Israel Fire and Rescue Services website ( ) was inundated with requests from teenagers to join, prompting forum manager Shlomi Sa’adon, to post the following statement on Shabbat: “I see that the whole nation would like to volunteer, and I want to tell you that it’s very heartwarming. But you have to understand. It’s not that the fire services don’t want you, but a volunteer has to take a basic course. If you think we will send you into an inferno like this without prior training, you are wrong. This is not some Lag Ba’omer bonfire. This is real fire, which kills, burns, scorches and consumes everything in its path, so we’re sorry.”

The Fire Scouts was founded in 1959 as a volunteer group for lsraeli teenagers and is currently integrated into the community service projects offered at the country’s high schools. According to the fire services website, the scouts are an auxiliary firefighting force, but they do not operate on the front lines. They also pitch in on holidays when there is a high likelihood of fires, like Independence Day, with its abundance of barbecues and fireworks, and Lag Ba’omer, which is celebrated with bonfires.
Haifa Fire Scouts

There are about 350 Fire Scouts throughout the country. Each is required to do at least one five-hour shift a week at a fire station. Upon admission to the organization, they take a basic three-day course, and about eight or nine months later, a more advanced course. Rivan was supposed to have been an instructor in an advanced course this week.


House of Representatives mourns fire losses

The U.S. House of Representatives mourned the loss of life in Israel’s worst-ever forest fire and pledged to support assistance.

The nonbinding resolution passed unanimously Tuesday “mourns the loss of life and extends condolences to the families affected by the fire in northern Israel” and “supports the Obama Administration’s offer of, and rapid efforts to provide, United States fire fighting assistance to Israel in response to this disaster.”

The resolution, which was sponsored by outgoing Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), also recognized other countries that have assisted, including Turkey. Pro-Israel lawmakers in recent months have criticized Turkey for its deteriorating ties with Israel.

Op-Ed: Fire’s devastation can lead to positive change

It is hard to explain just how devastated Israelis are by the Carmel fire. But it is easier to explain how that devastation can become a positive force for positive change, right now, in Israel.

The fire consumed at least 42 lives, thousands of forested acres and millions of shekels in property. With the assistance of a dozen foreign nations, the beleaguered firefighters finally got the resources they needed to battle a blaze that consumed more than its obvious victims. What may have perished in the fire is Israel’s sense of self-reliance, and the confidence of ordinary people that they can rely on their government and society to meet their needs.

Just as the Second Lebanon War provoked questions about Israel’s readiness to withstand a bombing campaign, the Carmel fire illuminates issues that have been too readily subsumed in the endless attention to the conflict. We at the New Israel Fund are painfully aware that Israel is often seen two-dimensionally, even by its own government. It is of course a priority for Israel to pursue peace and security, but an exclusive focus on these issues skews attention and resources away from an equally critical task.

We, the organization that founded and funded Israel’s civil society and that works every day on intractable social issues, know what that task is. It is building a society founded on equity and social justice, where every person has the opportunity to live a decent life, and building the infrastructure and the institutions that provide this opportunity to all. It is security, yes, but in a sense that extends far beyond fighter planes and a separation fence. What Israel discovered last week is that while it prides itself on its strength, it is in some ways far, far too weak.

There wasn’t the proper equipment for fighting fires, and the supply of fire-retardant chemicals was exhausted even before the Carmel ignited. Just a few weeks ago, when the 40-story Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv was burning, it turned out that the Tel Aviv Fire Department does not have a hook-and-ladder truck that extends beyond 10 stories. Israel sits on an earthquake fault and has done little to plan for that eventuality, while in a drought-stricken region water and development policies are enmeshed in money interests and politics, not in sustainable growth.

For too long, under successive governments, Israeli society has polarized between the center and the periphery, the Jews and the Arabs, the religious and the secular, the haves and the have-nots. The current government, paying attention to the demands of its political coalition, is channeling even more money into stipends for non-working yeshiva students and radical settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. But every government has been held hostage to the demands of specific constituencies, the inequalities persist, and now poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 European Union nations. Income inequality in Israel is second only to the United States among developed nations, and Israeli schools, public lands and infrastructure are deteriorating quickly.

This situation can and must change. The Carmel fire may have been Israel’s Katrina, but we and many people like us will insist on a faster recovery than New Orleans experienced. We know the real strength of Israel is not only in its military but in its people—the thousands of ordinary people we work with every day.

The day the fire started, grass-roots organizations of the North began mobilizing. A day after it ended, our Haifa office was already gearing up with our grantees and partners for the huge tasks of long-term recovery. We will work to ensure that there is compensation for the victims and the homeless, and that it is distributed fairly. Environmental groups are too infrequently consulted in Israel; we will make sure they are at the table when the future of the Carmel Forest is considered.

The fire re-ignited anti-Arab invective in some segments of society; our longstanding leadership of Arab and Jewish groups in the North will substantiate efforts to eradicate racism and build a truly shared society.

Israel’s beautiful Carmel Forest is burnt and black. Its people’s faith in their government is shaken. But Israel does have a civil society, which means that there is a force that enables ordinary people to change their circumstances, even if they are not wealthy or politically connected. Civil society empowers and ennobles and, yes, sometimes enrages the powers-that-be.

Now is the time for ordinary Israelis to insist on leadership that is accountable and fair, and on a society that plans for peace and prosperity, not just for defense and war. It is time for all of us, Israeli and American, to see Israel in all its dimensions, in all its needs and in all its possibilities.

Op-Ed: Response to fire illuminates challenges for Israel

One of the reactions of Israelis to the fact that their government called on the international community for assistance to combat the Carmel Forest fire is a sense of shame. After all, Israel is a leader in the high-tech world and an innovator in dealing with crisis situations. Now Israel had to admit that it wasn’t capable of dealing with the blaze alone.

More than that, for some in Israel there is a reluctance to admit that Israel is not isolated, that not everyone is against Israel. The willingness of nations and peoples to rush to Israel’s side, including the Turks and the Palestinians, challenged this assumption.

I remember when Yitzhak Rabin took over as prime minister in 1993, his inaugural address to the Knesset took a different tack than the norm. He spoke to the idea that Israelis need to get beyond the way of thinking that assumed that everyone was against them. He argued that this was neither accurate nor productive, as it led to distorted policies.

Rabin in some quarters was hailed for his comments; in others he was condemned.

Which brings us to our own times: Where do things stand and how does the response to the fire illuminate matters?

I would argue that there are two parallel tracks, both of which need to be understood, taken seriously and factored in to policymaking.

On the one hand is the dangerous process of delegitimization campaigns against Israel. These campaigns are picking up momentum around the world. Boycotts of Israel by trade unions, universities and entertainers seem to pop up almost on a daily basis. Israeli officials refrain from visiting certain countries lest they be arrested on war criminal charges. The U.N.’s Goldstone Report questions Israel’s right to self-defense.

Israel is compared to the South African apartheid regime or to the Nazis. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can openly call for Israel’s disappearance without any repercussions. And the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva focuses most of its attention and resolutions on condemning alleged Israeli violations of human rights.

In other words, there are grounds for concluding that the world has turned against Israel in ways that even suggest a heavy dose of anti-Semitism within it. It is no longer the individual Jew who is the target of anti-Semitism, some argue, but the collective Jew through the assault on the Jewish state. And it is argued, with some reason, that it is not particular Israeli policies but Israel’s very existence that is the problem for many of its critics.

The picture, however, is more complicated, and the response of many nations to Israel’s plea for help this week is the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that not only does Israel have a special relationship with the United States, but it has excellent bilateral relations with states throughout the globe, including some that routinely vote against Israel at the United Nations.

Moreover, even in the Arab world things are not simple.

It is true that what we all want, an acceptance by Arab leaders of the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the Middle East, has not been achieved. Having said that, on practical grounds there has been progress over the years in the acceptance of the reality that Israel is here to stay. Indeed, that notion is so strong in the Arab world that Ahmadinejad feels it necessary to harp on the idea that Israel will disappear in an effort to get the Arabs to turn back the clock to a time when they not only rejected Israel’s legitimacy but envisioned ways to achieve Israel’s demise.

Arab acceptance of the reality of Israel is not insignificant because it then forces an answer to the question of how one deals with an entity that’s here to stay. Anwar Sadat’s answer after the Yom Kippur war was to make peace.

We see these changes as well in the WikiLeaks documents: Arab leaders such as the king of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince of Bahrain focusing on the Iranian threat and understanding the common interest that Israel and the moderate Arabs have in containing Iran.

And now comes the Carmel fire. The fact that both Turkey and the Palestinian Authority provided assistance to Israel is not insignificant. It obviously does not negate the problematic aspects of Turkish and Palestinian policies toward Israel. But it should alert Israeli leaders to openings, to shades of gray, to possibilities that things don’t always have to remain the same, to the idea that resentment can also be overcome.

The great challenge for supporters of Israel in the period ahead is not to lose sight of either of the two tracks. There are immense dangers to Israel up ahead, as reflected in the delegitimization efforts, and we must do our all to combat them. But there are opportunities as well, and the mark of leadership is to explore them and seed them while never ignoring the landmines that lie beside them.

(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. His latest book is “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype,” Palgrave Macmillan, November 2010).

Disaster in Northern Israel: 40 dead as fire rages across Carmel Mountains [VIDEO]

40 people died on Thursday as a huge brushfire was raging across the Carmel Mountains near Haifa, resulting in the death of some 40 people and hurting dozens of others, among them prison guards and firemen.

Firefighting crews were still battling with the flames into the evening hours and expressed no hope of controlling the fire soon.

“We lost all control of the fire,” said the Haifa firefighting services spokesman on Thursday. “There aren’t enough firefighting resources in Israel in order to put out the fire,” he said.

The 40 individuals who died were students in the Prison Service’s prison guard course who were being brought to the Damon Prison to aid in evacuating the prisoners there.

According to an initial investigation of the events, a tree fell down in the middle of the road the bus was taking, trapping the bus between the flames. As a result, 40 of the 50 prison guards who were on the bus died from the flames. Seven individuals were evacuated from the scene in serious condition and transferred to Haifa hospitals.