When Benzion Solomon arrives at Moshav Mevo Modi’im to survey the burned-out remains of his home and music studio for over five decades, the American-born musician takes a deep breath as he surveys the devastation.
A founding member of the Jewish rock group Diaspora Yeshiva Band, Solomon played fiddle and banjo in the late 1970s and ‘80s, and from the family’s small home in moshav inspired the musical talents of his now-world-famous sons, the Solomon Brothers.
Although every trace of green on his small, forested street in Mevo Modi’im is completely gone, Solomon won’t be beaten down. The branches are reminiscent of a nuclear winter, with all leaves stripped off. A mango tree with hundreds of ripening fruit has perished.
Yet he points to the terra-cotta planters scattered across blackened front yards that survived the inferno.
“Look, there are still a few strong etrogim,” he points to the ripening yellow fruit, the only points of color in the monochrome wasteland.
The tree barks overnight turned charcoal black and eerily shiny, when a howling fire rampaged through the moshav on Lag Ba’omer. While weather conditions at the time included a massive heatwave and strong winds, arson and terrorism have not been ruled out.
In Solomon’s hand is a music stand with a singed score, the only personal possession he’s been able to salvage from the music studio that sustained his livelihood, and where his musical sons grew up among the many other instruments their father played and collected for his studio.
SOLOMON, LIKE more than 80% of Mevo Modi’im residents, is an American-born ba’al teshuva, who came back to Judaism under the influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s captivating music and embracing Torah teachings.
Carlebach, who founded the community, lived next door to Solomon, who describes how it was his job to tap on Carlebach’s window and wake him up at 5 a.m. to make sure he arrived in time to study with his students in synagogue, no matter how late he’d gone to bed the night before.
Carlebach’s home is in ruins, but miraculously most of the books in his library have survived the inferno, with only the spines singed. It’s the first day that owners have been allowed back into the community, and the ashes and soil underfoot in Carlebach’s home are still hot. Carlebach’s modest concrete bungalow home had been preserved just as he had left it, and while the library survived, Carlebach’s bedroom has been reduced to one lone set of blackened mattress springs.
From its inception in 1976, Jews and non-Jews flocked to Mevo Modi’im to study, sing and be inspired by Carlebach. Located northwest of Modi’in on Road 443, the moshav is known worldwide among Carlebach followers simply as the Carlebach moshav. To all outward appearances, Mevo Modi’im appears a world unto itself, cut off by the highway. But Carlebach’s influence was far-reaching.
Although he was often away touring, when he was at the moshav, visitors from the world over – singles, families with children, youth groups, and yeshiva students – would flock to Mevo Modi’im for Shabbat and holidays. Here they were fed. They sang. They danced. When huge groups came, people would camp out on a rug in sleeping bags.
A rabbi from a hassidic family who picked up on the need for disenfranchised Jewish hippies in the 1960s to have a strong alternative to their counterculture lifestyles, Carlebach (1925-1994) moved to San Francisco to sing, teach and lead a spiritual community that by the mid-1970s was ready to follow Carlebach to the ends of the earth.
The “end” offered by Israel’s Absorption Ministry was desolate acreage on the side of Road 443 just outside of Modi’in. The most influential composer of Jewish music in the 20th century would set up his community here.
MIRACULOUSLY, THE core of the moshav was unscathed by the fire that tore through private residences. The beautiful blue interior of the shul is preserved and intact. The café and flower beds at the entrance to the moshav are a polychrome and welcoming sight. The bright green soccer field beyond the moshav’s desolate, fire-scorched parking lot is healing on the eyes. The moshav is currently home to about 275 residents.
Leah Rivka Sand Soetendorp, originally from Holland and among the first to take up residence at the moshav, came home to find her house miraculously intact. When she fled the fire, she left behind the essential oil business that sustains her in her advancing years. Colorful handmade posters advertising her monthly Rosh Hodesh women’s gatherings also survived the fire, still taped to a mortar wall by her front door.
“The fire had reached the windows and stopped,” she explains. Sand walked in to find her cat sitting on the sofa, needing oxygen but okay. A huppah that Sand was making for a friend’s wedding lay intact, unfinished. “I have to finish it, don’t I?” she says, as she gets to work on it.
Not that the house is livable. Running water and electricity have stopped in the community. Smoke inhalation is a danger.
For more than 20 years, Sand has organized a Rosh Hodesh gathering in the moshav that brings women from far and near to celebrate the new month. Her colorfully painted handmade posters advertise a joyful day of Torah study, yoga, art and healthy eating – the values of the community itself.
Sand is the rare lucky one. Most in the small community of 50 homes, like Benzion Solomon and his wife, Dina, are dealing with the heartbreak of losing homes filled with personal belongings infused with the memories of raising children and welcoming grandchildren and guests from every part of the globe.
Benzion and many others at the moshav are contending with the loss of their livelihoods and expensive equipment that sustained their businesses. Solomon lost his recording studio, the irreplaceable scores to his original music, and instruments collected over a lifetime. Susie Shoshana Sheiner lost her pizza shop, the center of her life for the past 30 years and her main source of income. She is optimistic that her business will return.
Despite the massive scope of the devastation, the community as a whole somehow exudes a sense of optimism and determination and remains upbeat. They can take encouragement from the words of one of the world’s leading experts in crisis management following a disaster, with extensive disaster recovery experience in Japan and other parts of the world.
Northeastern University Prof. Daniel Aldrich, director of the school’s Security and Resilience Studies Program, who has been following the Mevo Modi’in fire and aftermath, recently said, “Social connections – the ties that we have to neighbors, friends and family – drive resilience and the ability to bounce back after a major shock. Our lab has shown that tighter-knit, more cohesive communities, like the Mevo Modi’in one, are best situated to restore and rebuild after a disaster like this fire. Religious ties, shared rituals, events, and friendships will help people overcome barriers to rebuilding and accelerate the process.”
Embodying this spirit, moshav residents have hit the ground running, including the creation of a GoFundMe page to raise money to rebuild their lives.
Many in the moshav who lost their homes have relocated, to keep their community intact. They’ve taken up the invitation of Yad Binyamin, a religious yeshiva located between Ashkelon and Ashdod, established when its settlement in Gaza was dismantled in 2005.
“We’ll come through this – we’re Jews,” Solomon adds.The writer, who is Jerusalem-based, met Leah Sand for the first time a day before the fire, when Sand handed her a poster, inviting her to Sand’s monthly Rosh Hodesh gathering at Mevo Modi’im. The Rosh Hodesh gatherings will resume in the near future.
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