The gray that now engulfs Moshav Mevo Modi’im is a striking contrast to the counterculture, hippie, rainbow gathering that only last week represented the small moshav located west of Jerusalem, near the city of Modi’in.
A colorful menorah that once stood proudly on one family’s mantel is now stark white, its candleholders bent over as if in mourning. Holy books that days before were bursting forth with the words of God are crumbled to ashes, their pages unturnable.
A fire, one of many around Israel last Thursday, May 23, was large enough to have damaged some 794 hectares of land belonging to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. That same fire simultaneously displaced an entire community of nearly 70 families, destroying more than two-thirds of its houses, melting power lines and water pipes, and scorching the gardens they had planted with their own hands for more than 40 years.
“There has never been a tragedy on this level,” said Brachie Sprung, a former resident of the moshav that was founded by the late “Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach.
Sprung returned to Israel from New York on Sunday to help her community – including her father, whose home “looks like an atomic bomb was dropped on it,” she said. “The whole community was wiped off the map. Three hundred residents without homes – it is a refugee situation and a humanitarian crisis.”
Already for a week, families – with members ranging from ages two months to 90 years old – are living in dorm rooms with bunk beds in two nearby boarding schools. The children are showing signs of post-trauma and the parents are emotionally strained, according to Sprung.
When she learned of the fire, she quickly boarded an El Al airplane with 18 duffel bags of donated supplies to help spearhead relief efforts. Partnering with the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (IFCJ), she so far has raised more than $300,000. Working with other supporters, she helped organize collections of clothes, toys and other necessities for the families.
However, she said the imbalance between supply and demand has plagued her efforts, and that Moshav Mevo Modi’im will not be able to be rebuilt through philanthropy, but only with the full support of the government of Israel.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has the ability to solve this,” Sprung told The Jerusalem Post. “I hope the prime minister understands that his residents had to flee their homes and are living like refugees. No one should be a refugee in the Land of Israel.”
Sprung said she fears that if not enough noise is made, the story of the moshav will be gone with the next news cycle, and in two weeks these residents will be a distant memory, while they remain homeless for months.
ACCORDING TO one of the moshav’s founders, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, most of the residents lack home insurance – and he, like Sprung, is worried the government will fail to act.
“The government has sounded very supportive in the media, but we know from Gush Katif and other examples that it does not always go as well as the promises that are made,” Trugman told the Post. “Without the complete and total support of the government, we won’t be able to rebuild the yishuv. We need a clear decision by the government, and not in months: now.
“People need hope,” he continued. “People need to know they are not going to be left hanging while the government takes its time. Kids have to go to school and parents have to go to work.”
In 2005, the government uprooted roughly 9,000 residents from Gush Katif. Seven years later, only 35% of families had permanent housing, according to a report released by the Gush Katif Committee back then. Also, according to the report, unemployment rates among evacuees stood at 16%, compared to 4% in 2005. Ten years later, hundreds of families remained poor and in caravans.
The residents of the moshav have established a committee to fight for their basic right to adequate housing.
Meanwhile, Trugman said that a large percentage of the literally hundreds of thousands of people that have been to the moshav have opened their hearts and hands.
“When I see the outpouring of hessed and support, it validates at least for me the major impact we have had on the Jewish world,” he said, explaining that a hallmark of Mevo Modi’im is the residents’ propensity to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orhim, opening one’s home to guests. “I have heard many, many stories of people whose lives were quite literally changed because of their experience on the moshav.”
Trugman, the director of Ohr Chadash – New Horizons
in Jewish Experience, has hosted more than 10,000 people in his home. It’s his part, he said, of carrying on the legacy of his rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
He was one of seven families and a handful of single people who helped found the moshav 43 years ago. The residents took over land that was once a Nahal army settlement, strategically placed on the pre-1967 Jordanian border and only a 10-minute drive from Ben-Gurion Airport.
From 1976 to 1986, Trugman said the residents lived like “true pioneers. We really struggled financially to make it. We did not have phone lines for more than a decade. There was one car for everyone.”
Trugman described the land as barren, with only a few groves of trees.
“We had a vision of creating a spiritual community that would bring light and Torah and tradition to the people of Israel,” he continued. “We were young and idealistic, and we worked the land... We put the best years of our lives into it.”
The original members – all immigrants, mostly from America – ran the country’s first health food factory and started an educational center. Eventually, the community evolved to what Trugman now describes as a microcosm of Israeli society: “We have Ashkenazim and Sephardim, immigrants and Israeli-born. We have Chabad and Breslov – every kind of kippah you can imagine.”
He said that since Carlebach died in 1994, his closest students have tried independently and spontaneously to carry out his legacy. Now, there are Carlebach minyanim all over the world.
“No one pretends to fill his shoes, but everyone in their own way has tried to carry on his spirit,” Trugman said. “But the moshav is where he put his roots down; it was his village, and his presence is really felt here.
“We have our ups and downs,” he continued. “But we certainly try to act as a spiritual community should act.”
ZELDA BURKEY has a similar story. In 1967, her mother-in-law helped found the House of Love and Prayer with Carlebach in San Francisco, and then moved with him to Israel in 1976 to found the moshav. In 1980, Zelda married her husband, Emory, and they moved to the moshav together in 1990.
“Shlomo Carlebach was their rabbi,” she said of the residents of the moshav. “He brought these young people back from wherever they were. He gathered them up – people searching for Judaism and connection. Shlomo touched everyone. He did not care who you were.”
She said that Shlomo’s Torah teachings centered around two messages: love thy neighbor as yourself and worship God with joy.
Once on the moshav, Burkey’s home became a house of love and prayer in its own right, a revolving door. She said she has had more than 8,000 kids in her house over the years.
Sheyna Weinstein is one of them. Weinstein met Burkey one day in Jerusalem and asked if she could come for Shabbat. Though they already had loads of guests, Burkey responded, “‘Of course, there is always room,’” Weinstein recalled. “That was one of her famous lines.”
Weinstein said that the Burkeys tried to live Carlebach’s Torah teachings. When hardship struck – and they had their fair share – they would respond with: “everything is from God” or “everything’s meant to be.”
“They raised me,” said Weinstein, who is now married with her own children and living in Pardess Hanna. “They taught me how to be a grown-up, how to keep kosher, all the basics of being Jewish.”
She said she is not alone in this sentiment. Rather, “there are thousands of people who feel like they are part of the moshav and feel like they are missing out in life, now that the moshav burned down, because there is a deep attachment to this kindness and the craziness.”
“It is not the sanest place in the world,” she continued. “They are crazy, and they accept their ‘crazy’ and accept everyone else’s ‘crazy,’ and they say we love you because you are you, and that is a very rare thing.”
THE RESIDENTS returned to the moshav this week to examine the damage. Trugman’s house, like the community’s synagogue and a handful of other homes, is miraculously standing. But without water, electricity and other basics, he and his wife are equally displaced.
“Our house survived, and we are grateful for that, but I am just as shaken up as everyone else,” Trugman told the Post. “At the same time, we are just so grateful to Hashem that everyone was evacuated just in time.”
Sprung and her father visited their home, as well.
“It was a striking image to walk into the community that was vibrant and lively to a community that is now ashes,” Sprung described. “As I passed by every home, I realized I didn’t lose my home, I lost 40 homes – homes that have all my memories, homes that hosted me, homes that were mine just as much as everyone else’s.
“I mourned every house as I passed by, and I knew exactly what they lost: which artwork, which books, which records,” she continued.
The air on the moshav is putrid, a combination of smoke and toxins from the refrigerators, stoves and literally full houses that were consumed. Sprung described it as suffocating.
Dari Carlebach, the daughter of Rabbi Carlebach, also went back to her father’s home. In a video shared widely on social networks, you see Dari wandering stunned among the sooty walls, unable to stop her tears.
“I do not have words; it’s like losing my father again, because this is my place with him,” she said in an interview with IFCJ head Yael Eckstein. “I look around and it looks like after a war. It is not normal. My eyes see, but my brain refuses to understand it. It is so sad and my heart breaks from seeing what happened to my community.”
The wooden sign on the Carlebach front door was somehow not damaged, an image that has spread like wildfire on the Internet, a last reminder of the rabbi’s home that once was.
Carlebach told how she has so many memories in the house, and that she and her children would come to the moshav often to have Shabbat there and spend time with the residents. In an interview with the Hebrew site Ynet, she said that she lived in Toronto with her mother as a child, while her father traveled all over the world. But in the summer, he would make sure the family was together at the moshav in Israel.
“I remember at night when I could not sleep because the mosquitoes would eat me, and I would ask him to tell me a hassidic story,” she recalled.
Today, all those memories remain only as colorful dreams inside the residents’ heads. The moshav is bleak.
Burkey said she photographed her burnt home and shared it on Facebook. People asked her why she chose to take black-and-white pictures.
“I didn’t,” she told the Post. “Those pictures are in color.”
And she said there is so much to do, from going to the Interior Ministry and the banks to ensuring that this resident can still have her wedding this week and that resident can hold his bar mitzvah.
She noted that until something like this happens, it is hard to think about all the details in your life. She now must drive 35 minutes to work from the dormitory instead of seven from her home. The moshav children are being transported to school on rented buses.
“People ask me what I need, and I answer that I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have anything, so whatever you give me will be something.”
Although the fire was originally assumed to be caused by faulty electrical wiring, it is now being investigated as a possible incident of arson. If investigators make a final decree of arson, then the residents will be classified as victims of terrorism and receive a basket of assistance.
“My father said that fire can destroy and kill, but one’s internal fire cannot be extinguished,” said Carlebach. “I know that the internal fire has not been burned, and that this moshav will once again thrive... It is impossible to burn the heart that dwells inside the collective soul of the moshav.”
Added Burkey: “We want to go home.”