The Fires of Israel, Up Close: Eyewitness Testimony

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Fire in Israel
01 Dec 2016

My friends and I are beyond excited. We are in Neve Soff for Shabbat. A beautiful place, surrounded by hundreds of leafy trees, planted by the hardworking people living in the Yishuv. We ask our hosts Amy and Mickey, both doctors of science, why they decided to live in the middle of the Shomron – not particularly close to any big cities or labs. Amy responded: “It was purely a political move for us. When Peres came out with the Oslo Accords, we knew giving back this land would lead to the destruction of the state of Israel. So eighteen years ago, we packed up our family from Givat Shmuel and moved out to Neve Soff.”

We have a lovely Friday night davening in the large shul on the Yishuv, and eat our Friday night meal at their daughter who lives nearby. We run back to the house, where we sit, schmooze, and drink tea.

I am drifting off to sleep when I hear the piercing sound of an IPhone ringing in the silence of the night. I sit up, confused, startled.

“Who is that? Are my parents calling me?” I call out to the dark bedroom.

“No,” Sima responds, “It’s my alarm to say Tehillim for Rav X’s baby… I must have forgotten to turn off my phone”

I lie my head back down against the pillow. Again, I close my eyes and try to fall asleep.

Suddenly, I hear a loud pounding against the front door. I sit up not knowing what to think. Is something wrong? Does a neighbor need to borrow something? Is it a joke from some kids on the Yishuv? The pounding stops almost as quickly as it began.

“I’m a little nervous,” says Sima.

“It was probably nothing…if they come back again we’ll go upstairs and check it out” I say.

Half a minute later:

“I think I see someone in the backyard… but I’m not wearing my contacts so I’m not sure,” says Sima.

“Okay… Hopefully it’s nothing,” I say, trying to convince myself everything is fine. I close my eyes again trying to calm down my racing heart.

“I think I smell smoke.” says Sima.

I sniff the air trying to smell it. Then I think I smell it.

“Wait maybe I’m imagining it,” she says.

The smell dissipates from my nose. We hear loud yelling in the backyard.

“Can you hear if they’re talking in Arabic or in Hebrew?” I whisper across the room.

“It’s Hebrew,” replies Sima.

“I’m going to see if I can see anything” I get out of bed and tip toe to the window. I peek open the curtain and see four Israeli teenagers carrying an industrial sized hose in the backyard. “Do you think I should open the window and ask what’s going on?” I ask.

“NO! Don’t talk to strangers!” yells Leora, waking up. “Go back to sleep… If anything go upstairs.”

Sima and I throw on skirts and sweatshirts and run upstairs. I run to the window and look out; down the hill, fifty feet away, there’s a fire in the tree. People are running towards it with hoses trying to get it away from the houses. We’re the third house away from the inferno, with a forest directly in front of the house, trees practically touching the windows.

“RUN UPSTAIRS AND WAKE UP MICKEY AND AMY. I’M GOING TO WAKE UP LEORA,” I run downstairs as fast as I possibly can, throwing open the bedroom door and screaming, “LEORA, WAKE UP THERE’S A FIRE.” I run back upstairs to hear the assessment of the situation. Cell phone out, Amy tells us “We haven’t been told to evacuate yet. Go get your coats.”

Sima and I run down to grab our coats. I shove my cell phone, wallet, and Siddur into my jacket pockets. Leora grabs her knapsack and runs upstairs. Sima and I follow suit, throwing our stuff into our knapsacks and shopping bags. We race back upstairs and stare out the window.

“They’re telling us to stay put. They may be able to get it under control,” says Amy.
Leora is sitting in the corner saying Tehillim. I try to hand her pocketbook to her.

“It’s Shabbos!” she cries, throwing it on the floor. “Take it!” I yell back, “You don’t know if you’ll need it.”

Sima and I are watching the blaze. People are standing on the Mirpeset (terrace) throwing water at the inferno, trying anything to get it under control. A huge gust of wind comes, the fire jumps up into the air and across the trees separating us from the fire. The trees touching the house go up in flames.

“Mickey,” Amy screams, “We need to leave!”

Women start banging on the door “Water! Water!” they yell in Hebrew “The fire is in between the houses!”

We stand around not sure what to do. Then Amy directs us to get to the car. We run outside. I turn around, there is a wall of bright red and orange flames behind the house. There is a man on the Mirpeset with a hose, trying to stop it. The plants next to the house are on fire. The house next to us is on fire. We run to the car. Amy is still calling out for Mickey, her husband. We get into the car, Amy opens the window and screams “Mickey! Mickey! Have you seen Michael??” We drive away as the fire licks the side of the house.

We go to the other side of the Yishuv, where their daughter lives. We knock, waking her and her husband up. Mickey drives up in his car. We are ushered into their home and explain what transpired on the other side of the Yishuv.

They start to wake their kids up and pause mid-process as they haven’t received the call to evacuate this part of the Yishuv too. We sit down on the couch and try to relax. I put my contacts back in so I could see. I don’t know what the rest of the night will hold.

Soon after, they get the call to evacuate. We go upstairs to see what we can do to help. I hold their screaming two year old so that the parents could pack. Leora and Sima are helping the rest of the kids get their shoes and coats on. Mickey misses a step while carrying their four-year old daughter and falls. Sima grabs the four-year old and takes her to the car. A neighbor is strapping her children into the car by herself; her husband went to go help the firefighters. People are running from door to door making sure that everyone is awake and ready to evacuate. I strap the two year old in and help one of the other daughters into the car. We drive away from the house in a four car caravan.

When we get to the entrance of the Yishuv, my mind is in shock. Instead of the pure chaos I expected, the only word that came to my mind to describe it was calmness. No screaming, no honking, each car was driving slowly and cautiously. Normal citizens, not the army, at the gates are directing each car to drive to Ateret, the Yishuv over, and were arranging car rides for those who didn’t have room.

As we drove away from the Yishuv, I turned around and saw a cloud of red covering what seemed to be half the Yishuv. I thought there would be nothing left. As we got farther away from the Yishuv, we saw that another fire had been started on the other side of the Yishuv and that the original fire was spreading out in three different directions following the pathway of the winds. I started thinking horrible thoughts; to stop myself from crying, I started making lists in my head of whether I had all my things with me, and if I didn’t what I needed to replace. Leora is crying about being in a car on Shabbos. Sima is singing songs in her head. We each tried to distract ourselves from the fear we had inside of us.

As we came up to the gate of Ateret, the same calm cool-headiness that was so clearly seen at the last evacuation was here too. People were out in the street in their pajamas, knocking on windows and inviting them in for Shabbos. A woman came up to our window and yelled “Bo” (come). Mickey told us to go with her so we got up and followed her into her house. Her husband was waking up their younger kids and putting them in one bedroom while their older kids were helping make beds. The woman left and then came back with another family. From their window, we watched the fire spread in Neve Soffe. They didn’t speak or understand so much English so we sat in their living room for a while, trying to understand some news.

Mickey came to the house to check in on us. He looked out the window and sees the fire moving. We ask how he’s doing. “Well I’m homeless now” he answers with a sad smile. He then leaves to go to the house where his wife and daughter’s family are. There are no lights in Ateret as they turned off the electricity in both Neve Soff and Ateret. We try to ask our hosts about it but forget the Hebrew word for electricity. They speak about the Chashmol (electricity) but we are too tired and shaken up to understand. We ask if the fire will spread here. They don’t understand. We try to ask if they have trees here too and they proudly respond that they have two forests on the yishuv but “no worry” they tell us in broken English, “there is car watching.” We don’t know if there is actually one car watching the whole yishuv or if it was a translation error.

They keep on telling us that we can go upstairs to go to sleep but we’re too scared. Our hands have stopped shaking but our hearts are still beating hard in our chests. After sitting for an hour or two we finally go upstairs. Mickey comes back to house and they ask for us to come down “We’re leaving” says Mickey. We grab our bags and follow him saying “Todah Robah” to every person we see. We get back in the car and ask what’s going on. “The population in this Yishuv has doubled. The electricity had to be turned off so there is no running water. There is only one road into and out of the Yishuv surrounded by forest on both sides. We think this may be an elaborate trap by the Arabs who started the fire in Neve Soff.” Jews being corralled into a small area to murder them by the masses was not a new tactic in Jewish History and they didn’t want to take the chance. “We’re going to my son’s Yishuv called Alon. There are no trees there.”
We drive forty minutes through the Shomron. There are Chayalim all over the place, stopping Palestinian cars and checking IDs. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold they must be.

We arrive at Alon at about 2:30 in the morning. We wake up the house and they make beds. Their son is a doctor who tells us we need to drink water in case of smoke inhalation. They make us a fort of sorts between the dining room table and wall were we can sleep on camping mattresses and sleeping bags. Leora and I fall asleep while Sima lies awake.

When we wake up the next morning we’re in a daze. They make an announcement in shul and piles of food are delivered. We eat outside in the hot Judean Desert sun. They share there single pint of Ben and Jerry’s with us becuase we all needed some ice cream. We try not to think about it and focus on getting through Shabbos.

The Gemara tells us that Eretz Yisroel is acquired through yissurin, tribulations, but I never assumed that I would ever be part of them. I love Israel. I want to live here. I want to raise my children here. The whole concept of Terrorism was sad and I definitely davened (prayed) and tried to bring awareness of it but I never dreamed that I would experience it.

Rav Kook teaches us that the Second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, and the only way to bring the Third Beit HaMikdash is through Ahavat Chinam, baseless love. The amount of love I witnessed between Jews was unparalleled to anything else I have experienced in my short nineteen years of life. There were no questions asked when kids my age ran towards the blaze with water bottles in their hands. There were no questions asked when the people of Ateret opened up their homes to us. There were no questions asked when plates and plates of food were brought to us from the community of Alon.

18 houses were completely burnt down in Neve Soff. Over 20 houses were severely destroyed. The people of Neve Soff need your help. In Israel, they are collecting kitchen tools, clothing, toys, and linens.

To donate money to the families of Neve Sof in particular:

To donate money to families all over Israel:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.