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YESHIVA UNIVERSITY students Nora Shokrian, Shanee Carmel and Orley Bral build picnic tables in Halamish where the wooden tables and benches in the public parks were consumed by wildfires in November..(Photo by: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)
US Jewish students rebuild West Bank settlement after fires
The students, who attend New York's Yeshiva University, came to Israel to help rebuild the West Bank settlement of Halamish after it was burned down in November.
Thirty five undergraduate students from New York’s Yeshiva University visited the West Bank settlement of Halamish on Tuesday to help the community rebuild after wildfires in November destroyed 18 houses and caused severe damage to the settlement and its surroundings.

As part of a week-long mission during winter break called “Responding to Flames of Destruction,” students enthusiastically rolled up their sleeves to help clear debris, and build and paint benches and tables to replace those which were burned to a crisp across the entire settlement.

“I was excited about today, to get our hands dirty,” student Riki Engel, 21, told The Jerusalem Post. After having met with United Hatzalah first responders, and planted trees to replace some of those which were burned down, Engel says she learned how Israeli society is transforming what was an aggressive fire into a spiritual avenue of rebirth. “We are here to be part of that spiritual channel of rebirth and passion,” she said.

“This is a positive response – rebuilding their community, rather than protesting or starting a fire back” reflected Talia Bardash, 20, part of a different group of students who are on vacation in Israel and decided to join the mission in Halamish for the day. It is unclear what portion of the wave of fires which ravaged Israel was intentional, however, Fire and Rescue Authority Chief Fire Investigator Ran Shelef told the Post last month that there were clear signs of arson in Halamish, and the Tax Authority declared the fire there as arson.

Manny Dahari, 23, is taking part in the YU annual trip for the fourth year in a row. Last year, the focus was on victims of the so-called “knife intifada,” which inspired Dahari to set up a club called “Ksahrim” to create connections between students and terrorism victims in Israel, “to make it more personal,” he explains, saying that it is easy to become numb to the frequent headlines regarding terrorism attacks in Israel.

Now, the cogs are already whirring for Dahari’s next initiative, inspired by this year’s trip. “It’s important to take something back to the US,” he says, stating his intention to arrange a CPR course for students at the university.

He hopes to bring a United Hatzalah medic to New York to provide the training, and mulls that it could function as a fundraising initiative for the life-saving organization, as well as raising awareness at the same time.

For Dahari, a Yemen-born Jew who moved alone to the US when he was 13-years-old to escape a tough life as a member of a small Jewish community in a hostile environment, unity is the most meaningful aspect of the Jewish people. “I think there is something incredible about Jews, which is unity,” he tells the Post. “I see it everywhere – people will always help you simply because you are a Jew.”

“I’m here because I want to give back,” he adds. “Even though it might not be so much [help] physically, it’s an emotional support.”

While Dahari and his fellow students built and painted tables and benches, another group was busy clearing debris from the Meir Spring, located just outside the settlement.

“I like to think there’s a distinction between inspiration and motivation,” says Aryeh Blanshay, 22. “I might have been inspired from afar by the stories of how community members moved forward despite utter destruction, but such inspiration is short lived. Seeing and hearing firsthand the incredibly powerful stories of those who lost virtually everything is motivating – being here makes it impossible to do anything but help rebuild and provide support for the future to come.”

The Meir Spring has in the past been a contentious site, with regular demonstrations being carried out by the neighboring Nabi Salih villagers, over land they accuse the Israeli establishment of having seized from the Palestinians.

Residents of Halamish use the site as a place of rest and recreation, and particularly following the recent fires, the spring serves an area of respite.

Halamish Resident Gady Buiumsonn tells the students that a large part of the surrounding forest was burned and that they will “build even larger and increase the number of homes.”

“We are determined to continue – we will make the Meir Spring more beautiful. This is where the people of Neve Tzuf (Halamish) come to relax,” he says.

The organizers of the trip say that neither this visit nor the trip as a whole is a political one; they chose Halamish because it was a community in need of help, and because they believed the students would be able to connect with the many English-speaking families who reside there.

“Yeshiva University is not taking any side,” stresses Gabi Sackett, program director at Yeshiva University in Israel. “The students are becoming adults and part of understanding the country is meeting with various Israelis with various opinions, and formulating their own opinions.”

“In addition to lending a hand to the communities hit hardest by the wildfires, we will also use this opportunity to teach our students about the political and societal fires that continue to rage in Israel – hot-button issues like religious denominationalism and discrimination against minorities,” Sackett said.

Over the week, participants will hear from individuals dealing with issues of religion and state, women’s socioeconomic status, racism and terrorism.

“By the end of the mission, the students will feel a sense of pride for making a difference in the lives of families who lost their homes and worldly possessions, but they will also be knowledgeable enough about the issues to become advocates for real change in Israel, even from a distance,” he added.

“I want Neve Tzuf to know that they’re not alone. That we’re here to help and there are other Jewish communities willing to help,” Sackett told the Post. “When there is a fire in Haifa, Neve Tzuf or Beit Meir, there is a fire in YU. We say, ‘we’re sorry – what can we do to help?
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