Jerry Krivitzky is a friend and a social action activist from Montclair. We have cooperated on various occasions through the “Jewish Helping Hands” foundation and the MetroWest partnership cities of Rishon Letzion and Ofakim. As we approach the High Holiday season and are looking inside our souls and exploring our Jewish identity, I would like to share with you Jerry’s amazing experience. The story, which speaks for itself, reflects on many of the issues that accompany us on both sides of the ocean, and is beautifully written.
May you all have a Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova.
Acharei H’Aish — Part I
(After the Fire)
Part I — The Fire
We land at Ben Gurion on the first day of Hanukkah, a Thursday. The night before, we light candles in the El Al lounge, sing a song, and eat jelly donuts before boarding our flight. It is already 82º F in Tel Aviv at 11 a.m. on December 2, 2010, when we arrive. 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 already 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 gives us the opportunity to catch up with our driver. Fire in the Carmel. Burning out of control. Local firefighters overwhelmed. Rumors flying as to cause. Every political and religious faction has already developed its own theory. So Israeli.
By the time we check into our hotel at 4 p.m., the fire has become a national disaster grabbing everyone’s attention. By dinner time 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 all available resources.
Several noted communities are in the fire’s sights, including Kibbutz Beit Oren. Everyone knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who is directly affected. So Israel. 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 wild fires in California is dispatched to save the day and the northern part of Israel. It drops a huge blanket of chemicals and poof, the fire is gone. But the destruction it leaves in its path is still smoldering and raw.
On Monday morning we visit Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular group of New Age kibbutznicks. Their primary income is derived from a hotel/resort operation combined with ecotourism for nature lovers in the Carmel Valley. Some kibbutz members run home-based independent businesses from inside the kibbutz. One business, a pottery studio, belongs to an artist named Imi, who is married to Ran, the kibbutz manager. Ran leads us on the tour of what is left of Beit Oren.
Amazingly, much is spared. The main guest house and out buildings used for the hotel guest business appear untouched by the fire. The homes of many kibbutz members, including Ran and Imi’s, are completely destroyed. Ironically, Imi’s studio is reduced to clay ashes. When we stand on the ridge where the kibbutz looks over the Carmel, you can see the trail the fire followed. It is a huge black swath painted in big sweeping curves. But two feet to the right and two feet to the left there is no damage. So random yet so final.
We go inside Ran and Imi’s house. There is still food on the table, now totally blackened. They explain they got the call to evacuate in the middle of dinner on Thursday and literally ran out the door to waiting shuttles. The pictures on their refrigerator are still there, but the images have literally melted from the intensity of the heat, still affixed to the door with magnets. Almost everything is black and burnt and the smell reminds all of us of campfire.
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 as well. You can see their pain of loss surrounded by their thankfulness for survival.
We are compelled to do something for these people. So I ask, “What can we do for you?” expecting to write a check. Ran says, “We will be OK — eventually. The insurance should cover our losses. But there is something we would like to have.” Excited at the prospect of any request, I ask him, “What? Anything you want.” “A Torah,” he says. “We need a Torah.” At that moment I knew why we had come to Beit Oren that morning.
Ran explained that although they are a secular kibbutz, they do perform various rituals and observances. In Israel, Torahs are distributed by the nearest local chief rabbi, a position always held by the Orthodox. In his view, Ran said, Beit Oren is not Jewish enough to merit a Torah because men and women sit together when praying. To an American Reform Jew this is outrageous and everyone in our group was appalled. We now had a mission.
My wife, Trudi, and I joined Temple Ner Tamid [in Bloomfield] four years ago when we moved to Montclair. We were drawn by the terrific community and its propensity for learning, loving, and laughing. During the past year, we acquired five additional Torah scrolls as a result of our merger with the former Temple Beth Shalom in Clifton. A few weeks before we left for Israel, our Rabbi, Steven Kushner, suggested that we consider what to do with these additional Torah scrolls.
We leave Ran and Imi at Beit Oren. I call Rabbi 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 and go before the temple Board. We tell our story with considerable emotion. We ask if the Board would consider donating one of ours. The president calls for a vote. It only takes about a second for all 25 hands to rise in the air signifying unanimous consent. I have never been more proud of my TNT community.
We choose a Torah we think will serve Beit Oren well. Before we can make our gift we need to make sure it was up to standards. We called in a pro, Sofer Neil Yerman. After several months of detailed work to revive this 110-year-old Yemenite scroll, Sofer Neil pronounces ours fit for presentation.
Next week: The Jewish Spark in the Aftermath of the Fire, Part II — The Airport