Disaster Strikes in Moshav Modi’in

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29 May 2019

Mevo Modi’in, a moshav of approximately 250 residents, nestled into the Ben Shemen Forest east of Tel Aviv, was one of a number of communities completely evacuated last week on Lag B’Omer, due to approaching fires.

More than a thousand firefighters throughout the country battled 1,023 blazes over a period of 41 hours, which translates to a fire every two and a half minutes. In addition, three-hundred volunteers participated in the operation, dubbed “Hot Fire.” Sixteen people suffered smoke inhalation and thirteen others had light burns, including some of the firefighters. Israel received assistance from Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appeal for international help.

The blazes destroyed 1,962 acres of forests. One of the areas that suffered the worst damage was the Ben Shemen Forest. The fire burned down almost the entire adjacent community of Mevo Modi’in. Forty of the fifty homes in Mevo Modi’in and ten homes in Kibbutz Harel were destroyed by the fire. Authorities suspect arson behind the fire that almost completely destroyed Mevo Modi’in.

Due to the expected severe heat wave and windy conditions, there had been a warning against lighting bonfires in honor of Lag B’Omer. It is tragic and ironic that the conflagrations started on Lag B’Omer. Both Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Akiva had been literally engulfed in flames.

The moshav was founded in 1975 by the late Rav Shlomo Carlebach and a small group of his followers. It was a focal point for many of Rav Shlomo’s disciples, who referred to it simply as “the Moshav.” When they approached the Jewish Agency with their desire to start a moshav shitufi, the authorities were mostly bemused by this bunch of “American hippies.” They were given a small abandoned moshav on a road that led nowhere. They started a granola factory and began to make and sell tofu for a then very small health food market.

The real purpose of the moshav was to create a rural back-to-the land spiritual community. Rav Shlomo visited infrequently in the first years. He visited more often in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The people struggled. Most of them had little money and hardly knew Hebrew. The outside skeptics said they didn’t have much chance to succeed, but the skeptics didn’t know what the chevra was about. They were spiritual revolutionaries—musicians, artists, poets, writers, yoga instructors, midwives and craftspeople. Many of them had left comfortable lives in America. They were spirited and very determined to succeed.

It is interesting to note that the community had petitioned to change the moshav’s name to Me’or Modi’in, which conjures up the Maccabees and Chanukah. Perhaps it also contained their aspiration that the moshav would contain the fire of Torah.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Shlomo Carlebach would often be on the moshav for Shabbat. It was a frequent event that attracted many people. Many set up tents in backyards and in the nearby Ben Shemen Forest. It was sort of Woodstock-like, but the only “performance” was Rav Shlomo davening. Rav Shlomo lived in Mevo Modi’in and in Canada before his death in 1994.

“Every Sabbath eve, the men of the moshav would come to our house,” Rabbi Carlebach’s daughter, Dari said standing in her father’s old home. “On Sabbath morning, the guys would be in the kitchen eating and drinking coffee, sharing words of Torah. Even at three in the morning, people would stop by the home to consult and speak with my father.” It is not a surprise that the community followed in Rav Shlomo’s footsteps. Despite their low incomes, their homes were open for guests all the time.

In an interview, one of his followers, Michael Golomb, said, “Moshe brought to the world [the idea] that God is our King. Rabbi Akiva brought to the world [the idea] that God is our Father. Rav Shlomo brought back to the world that God is our Friend.”

Following the fire, many of the residents of the moshav spent Shabbat in the Ben Shemen Youth Village, while others went to family or friends. The first group held a Havdalah ceremony in high spirits, promising to rebuild their mostly religious community after many of their childhood homes were destroyed. “We were hit by a disaster, but Shabbat is Shabbat and its sweetness gives us our lives,” said Alon Tigar, chairman of the association that runs the community. “The way people of Israel opened their hearts to us brought me to tears, and I did not cry when my house was burned. We are a strong community and we will build Mevo Modi’in 2. We have hope. I spoke with government officials and they promised to help. I hope they make good on their word.”

With the backdrop of charred homes, musician Israel Portnoy spoke about how in the early afternoon of Lag B’Omer, all of the residents were asked to meet at the entrance to the moshav, and there, they were told about the fire in the forest. “No one knew the level of the seriousness. I walked out of the house holding a guitar.” Among his possessions that went up in smoke were more than fifteen instruments, including a vintage 1958 Gibson guitar. What bothers him the most is the loss of his writings, his songs and the songs that he had recorded.

Resident Cookie Solomon described, “It was hectic, everyone was just trying to get out.” She looked amongst the rubble that was once her home and endeavored to find some memories. She found a ceramic piece for holding a candle which her daughter had made, a partially melted Cup of Eliyahu and a shell from the collection that her daughter wished she had taken with her when they were forced to leave.

Rav Shlomo’s daughter Neshama posted,” The Moshav was always my most special place. The air was sweeter there. The wind was softer there. The Moshav was a space of deep peace and comfort. I am in utter shock, devastated and heartbroken that our precious place has burned.”

It was a miracle that, despite the short warning to leave their homes, every resident made it out in time. It was also a miracle that the fire occurred on Lag B’Omer when it is a vacation day for many. This way, the parents did not have to run madly around and pick up their children from the various educational frameworks.

The community has one shul; miraculously it is unscathed. Musician Shlomo Katz is very attached to Rav Shlomo and the moshav. He heard that the library that had been set up in Rav Shlomo’s home had defied the flames. He gathered some friends, traveled to the moshav and made their way into the charred home. They were amazed to see that the room with the Judaica library had survived. Katz and his friends started packing the seforim and brought them out of the house to safety.

Israeli radio personality and columnist, Yedidya Meir paid a visit to the moshav. He couldn’t believe the amount of items that people had donated, and he was told that there were more. Various agencies were told to tell people to stop donating items for the fire victims. It reminded me of Am Yisrael and the Mishkan when they had brought so much and were told to stop bringing donations. Later on, I heard that more items are still needed, but places to store them are sorely needed.

Musician Shlomo Katz made this plea, “Shlomo had a lot of mesirat nefesh to the Jews. His chevra really, really needs him. It’s going to be a very long journey. They need short and long-term help.”

Dari Carlebach remains steadfast in her belief that the community will overcome the destruction. “My father said that fire can destroy and kill, but one’s internal fire cannot be extinguished. I know that the internal fire has not been burned and that his moshav will once again thrive because the nation of Israel is very strong. It is impossible to burn the heart that dwells inside the collective soul of the moshav.”

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