Jerusalem—Last week, Israel found itself facing a surprising threat: a spate of wildfires, mostly concentrated in Haifa and nearby towns but also encompassing some of the center of the country. The flames, fanned by winds and dry weather, struck and destroyed countless homes and acres of forest and, throughout the affected areas, Israelis are struggling to recuperate and rebuild. According to reports, the Israeli Tax Authority confirmed that many of the fires, including in Haifa and some West Bank settlements, were deliberately set and could possibly be seen as terror attacks (Ha’aretz said that the Israeli Police stated that they cannot confirm if any of the fires were deliberately set, even as arson suspects were taken into custody).
In the aftermath of the destruction, countless stories are spreading—stories of loss and despair; stories of heroism and giving; stories of wonder and healing.
The hardest hit area was Haifa and the surrounding region. Mariessa Guiterrez lives in the Romema neighborhood of Haifa; she has worked as a caretaker for a 93-year-old man for five years. “On Thursday [November 24] at around 10 in the morning,” she said, she thought she smelled a fire, and “saw smoke far from our building.” She messaged the man’s children, who said the fire was burning in Lev Hamifratz, a different Haifa neighborhood far from Romema. But soon Guiterrez discovered that the fire was “very close to us. I started to call again to his children; they said I need to wait again…” But she told them she couldn’t wait, as the fire was rapidly approaching the building; it had already “burned the trees behind our building, [even as] me and my employer were still inside the house!”
She and her employer fled from the house, even though the man asked her if they could wait for his children. “We started to go down the stairs,” Guiterrez said, but he fell down twice because he has difficulty walking. She called an emergency number and called to another man in the stairwell, but got no answer from either. “I’m crying and shouting because we don’t see the stairs because of smoke,” Guiterrez recalled. When they got to the main entrance, “I saw the fire starting in the entrance. I said to my employer [that] we need to go out from here; if not, we die.”
The man struggled to walk, and fell down again; Guiterrez tried in vain to help him back up. “I said to God, give [me] more strength to save this old man; I thought we would die together,” she said. But then she saw a woman with her car, who stopped for them and allowed them all to escape to safety—driving with the door open so all three of them could fit.
The two are now living in Dor Tivon (an assisted living community in a town near Haifa) while the home is rebuilt. But Guiterrez still feels trauma from their close escape. “Even until now I don’t sleep at night,” she said.
Even institutions in Haifa not directly hit by the fires found themselves affected. According to Technion student Jordan Rapaport, the Haifa-based school’s Chinese students were evacuated by bus by the [Chinese] embassy and taken to a hotel in Tel Aviv, “despite there not being an official order to evacuate.”
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, is currently living in Modiin, Israel, on sabbatical. One of the fires was set right outside of the city, sending a “pall of smoke” over Modiin on Wednesday morning, which he “smelled as soon as I went to shul.” But the fires in Modiin, according to Rabbi Pruzansky, were extinguished relatively quickly.
A few days later, Rabbi Pruzansky visited the West Bank settlement of Neve Tzuf (also known as Halamish), near Modiin. But unlike Modiin, Neve Tzuf was hit hard by the fires; dozens of houses, Rabbi Pruzansky said, were demolished, and it was “very sobering” to see how everything had been ignited. There were families that lost everything, he said, “every item they owned.” At one home, half of the trees planted by the deceased matriarch of the household—one for each grandchild—were burned down, but her husband said he wants to replant them.
Pruzansky also found it “very inspirational to stand with them,” seeing the villagers’ peer ethic in how they and the neighboring communities were all pitching in, planning to rebuild the settlement and to compensate people for their losses. A bar mitzvah planned for Shabbat Chayei Sara in Neve Tzuf even ended up being hosted in a neighboring community, which Rabbi Pruzansky hailed as allowing the boy to not miss a beat.
The fires in Neve Tzuf were among those confirmed to have been arson attacks; Molotov cocktails were reportedly thrown. “People go to such great lengths to destroy the Jewish state,” Rabbi Pruzansky said. But “none of it really works;” it causes “short-term harm,” which is “replaced by long-term strength and faith.” To help the beleaguered settlement, he sent out a message to the members of his congregation in Teaneck, asking them for donations; some money has already been raised.
Baila Brecher, who has been living in Modiin for almost a decade, also spoke about the destruction and the outpouring of help that came to Neve Tzuf in its wake. The yishuv “wanted to make sure that all of the families got equal” amounts of items, organizing donations in containers and making sure they were “equally distributed.” The yishuv even took measures to make sure that the donations “didn’t get rained upon” when the weather forecast projected rain this past week (at long last).
American yeshiva students studying in Israel for the year had differing perspectives. Aaron Koffsky of New York, who is studying at Yeshivat Mevaseret Tzion near Jerusalem, said that the fires are very tragic but to him it seems that “Israel is simply going through another wave of terrorism, and it will pass. Throughout my yeshiva experience in high school, I’ve heard about many, many tragedies occurring in Israel. Whether it be every few months or every few years, something bad is bound to occur.” Due to this, Koffsky said, “My emotions have been greatly diminished toward these events. Of course, this is not to say that each individual event isn’t tragic or to say that practical steps should not be taken to prevent these horrible events. However, to me, the arson occurring in Israel is simply another unfortunate event occurring in the overarching theme of seemingly inevitable terror in Israel.”
Eddie Mattout, an American lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, who serves in the International Military Cooperation Unit, said that many representatives came from outside of Israel from other countries to help extinguish the fires. “When we needed them, the world really did help,” he said. “Even the Palestinians helped, which was amazing, and gave me much hope for a future of peace and cooperation.” According to Mattout, a ceremony was held honoring the countries that helped extinguish the fires, and the Palestinian flag was raised—at an IDF event, no less!
Mattout had wondered in the past, “What does international military cooperation [between the IDF and other countries] accomplish?” But the fires showed him that “there’s actually something here, because if we didn’t have that, I’m not sure if the fires would have been extinguished as quickly as they were.”
The fires were a “real tragedy,” Mattout said, wishing a quick recovery to all of the families hurt by the flames. If there was one positive in this, he said, it was “nice to see that in the face of such tragedy, the world could come together” and “save so many lives.”
Others saw the flames differently. It was “great to see people coming together across physical, political and ideological borders to protect the Land of Israel and those who live in it,” said Noam Kaplan, of Manhattan, a student at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem. Ariel Dressler of Florida, currently studying at Derech Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, said of the idea that many of the fires may be terror attacks, “[It’s] crazy how [the terrorists] never stop, and come up with these crazy new ways to try to kick us out of our homes. They’ll never realize that they can’t win and never will. From bus bombings to stabbings, rockets being fired into Israel… to trying to run over us with cars to, finally, fires. It’ll never end and it’s so sad watching them destroy a beautiful country just to kick us out.”
By Oren Oppenheim/JLNJ Israel
Oren Oppenheim, age 19, is currently an Israel correspondent for The Jewish Link and formerly penned the weekly column “A Teen’s Perspective.” An alumnus of Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, he is currently attending Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem for his gap year; he will start college at the University of Chicago in 2017. When he isn’t writing for The Link or his Times of Israel blog, he can be found training for the Jerusalem 10K for Yachad (visit jerusalem.teamyachad.com/runner/orenopp/ to learn more and donate) or learning Tanach and Talmud in the Beis Midrash. Contact him at [email protected]