American Jews plan relief efforts in wake of Israeli blaze
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American Jews plan relief efforts in wake of Israeli blaze

An Israeli Looking On ... As the Carmel Burns

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Smoke from the raging forest on the Carmel Mountain taken by Professor Dan Zilberstein (of the Technion University) from the balcony of his home in Ramat Begin, Haifa on Friday morning December 3rd.

December 5th 2010 ““ 28th Kislev 5771

One of the most popular children’s songs for Hanukah was written by Levine Kipnis in the 1950’s: BANU CHOSHECH LEGARESH. The song begins with the following words:

“We came to banish darkness.

We hold in our hands light and fire.

Each one of us is a small light

But altogether we form a powerful light.’

Ironically, the “small fires” of the last few days created a huge, destructive fire on the beautiful Carmel Mountain. Like most Israelis, this Hanukkah 5771, I am dazed and saddened.

This is the second time during my Shlichut (as an Israeli emissary) in northern New Jersey community that my whole being has been concentrated on Israel. I looked back at what I wrote the first time, nearly two years ago when the War in Gaza, during Operation Cast Lead, was at its height. Now the same feelings flow through me as the devastating fire rages on the Carmel. Then I was feeling both proud but conflicted, now I’m dazed and saddened. I’ve spent most of the last three days watching the news from Israel, on the phone and Skyping with family and friends in Haifa and the Western Galilee, and like many, praying for a Hanukkah miracle.

My wife and I spent much of last Thursday evening and night debating with her parents and family in the Ramat Begin neighborhood of Haifa whether to leave or stay in their home. Ramat Begin is separated by one neighborhood, Ramat Golda, from the Denia neighborhood that was evacuated on Thursday evening (Israel time) as the fire raged uncontrollably. There are three ways into and out of the Carmel. One was blocked by the fire, the other two almost at a gridlock because of the uncertainty about what was happening. At about 4am Friday morning (Israel time) our family decided to stay at home for the duration of Shabbat. We “accompanied” them from afar during these intensive and uncertain three days and shared their, and Israel’s, relief that the fire was under control (after 77 hours) and extinguished (after a further five hours).

Like all Israelis, we are shell-shocked. We share common themes of national mourning and outrage as the full extent of this horrific fire becomes clear.

The fire probably began as a result of negligence. It has taken 41 lives including that of Rabbi Oriel Malka (z”l), who was in the destroyed bus. Rabbi Malka was a teacher Shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency for Israel a few years ago, and returned to serve as a Rabbi for the Israeli Prison Service. The fire has devastated some of the most beautiful forested land in Israel; more than 5 million trees have been destroyed in these last few days on the Carmel Mountain ““ these will be replaced and grow again. The kibbutzim and settlements destroyed by the fire will be rebuilt. But the horror of the death of the prison officers on that bus cannot be measured. Their lives cannot be renewed. The feelings of unnatural loss and death, which we Israelis know too well, and successfully repress for long periods, are again paramount in our minds at this time.  

One small light in all the prevailing sorrow occurred during a two and a half hour Channel 10 news special which aired last Friday. There was a six or seven minute piece about the Western Galilee Fire Chief, Amir Levy. The Federation’s Partnership 2000 program, together with the Bergen County firemen, hosted Amir and 10 other first responders from Nahariya last September 2009. They trained at the Fire and Public Safety Academy in Mahwah. It is hoped that some of that training was beneficial these last few days on the Carmel Mountain.

So what can we all do now?

We can stand together and support Israel, its people and the land. More than 15,000 people were evacuated, homes were destroyed, and families will remain displaced. Several emergency funds have been established ““ the UJA Federation’s fund, organized within hours of the conflagration, supports the JDC and JAFI rescue and renewal efforts www.ujannj.org. Similarly, the Jewish National Fund will be at the forefront replacing our lost forests and other important environmental renewal projects.

A last thought from an Israeli looking on … let us all hope that the rain promised in Israel for the last days of Hanukkah will continue for many months of 5771.

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