This is a harrowing, and ultimately uplifting, account of how a Jewish family and community in Shomron dealt with the arson fire that devastated it:
By: Rochelle Cohen, Neve Tzuf (Halamish):
Nobody is going to believe me when I tell them that having to flee with our community in the middle of the night, close the door on our house, convinced I would never see the house again, and leaving behind our firefighting son, and friends, and then returning to what is only a very partial and unlivable house, has been a positive experience, but that is the case. Why? let me share with you a little.
I am Rochelle Cohen, though those of you who remember me will have known me as Rochelle Goldstein. I made Aliyah from Melbourne 27 years, ago, and while I never lived in Caulfield my parents, John and Judy Goldstein did move to Caulfield and loved being part of the community for about 20 years
My family and I have lived in Neve Tsuf, a medium sized yeshuv [village], for the last 20 years, since the birth of our eldest child, Yael, My husband Doron (Darren originally from Sydney), and I chose to live in a yeshuv as that is where we felt we would be best able to contribute to the ongoing building up of the country. We are a community of over 260 families, of all age groups, which is somewhat unusual and we found very attractive.
The founders of the yeshuv, who were the group hardest hit by the fire are in their 70’s and 80’s, and of course we have many young couples, many of whom are children and grandchildren of those already living there. Neve Tsuf is a beautiful place, surrounded by one of Israel’s few natural forests, on top of a hill that overlooks the coastal plains, and we are about 20 minutes from Modi’in, where my mother and brother’s family live.
But I have still not explained in any manner what happened the other night, or how on earth I could claim that it was a positive experience.
So, we ate Shabbat dinner at close friends. The husband of that family happens to be the head of the volunteer fire brigade, and my 18 year old son is a volunteer with them for a number of years, There was much lively discussion about the devastating fires all over the country, clearly arson, the handiwork of Arab terrorists that we deal with on a constant basis.
After dinner we went with our hosts to the Bar Mitzvah Oneg Shabbat [Friday night gathering], at our shul [synagogue] hall, of close mutual friends, which was lovely, and then we walked back to our home with one of the Bar Mitzvah guests, whom we were hosting. It was a really enjoyable evening, as when I came in the door we found all our children from the 20 year old to my youngest of 8 all busy in a very lively card game that may have involved shrieking and screaming, but a great deal of laughing too. Eventually we convinced them that we all needed to go to sleep and bade goodnight to our guest, climbing the stairs and preparing for bed. The girls, Shalhevet (15), Ateret-Adi (12) and little Efrat (8), all came in to say good night, and maybe squeeze in another half hour before they would be forced to go to bed, and then we declared our room off limits and sent them out.
I was just falling asleep when Ateret-Adi came back. “Imma” she said, “there is a lady down stairs who really wants to talk to you”. Confused to wandered downstairs and she said to me that there were flames to be seen coming from the bottom of the hill in the forest adjacent to our house.
That was it. I turned and shrieked, “Fire, fire, everyone grab a jumper, shoes, and a coat, and let’s go”, and that’s what we did.
I woke our poor sleeping guest, threw a coat on her, it was freezing that night. We had, at Eitan’s insistence, packed a bag of just a few things, clean underwear and Tefillin. etc, that was by the front door, just in case, I handed the kids bags, checked the house. We knew the drill, disconnect the gas, kill the electricity, leave doors unlocked for the firemen, leave windows closed, count the kids, leave no one behind, and go. My firefighter had left so fast I had not even said goodbye, but that was alright, he did what needed to be done. He was a good boy, and donned his firefighting boots, not wearing his favourite new hiking boots, so they would not be ruined.
And out into the night we went. By the time we left the house, maybe two minutes after the initial screeching of FIRE the flames were getting close and huge. The kids were a little ahead of us and asked again which way to go. I said go to the Rimels, where we had eaten the night before, they are in the centre of the yeshuv, it will be safer. We are coming.
And so into the night my children herded each other along, comforting and holding. We began the same walk, but hammering on neighbour’s doors as we went. My husband went back twice to our immediate neighbour, in their wooden house, trying to convince them to leave, they thought they still had time. They refused him twice, but must have gotten out because I know they are safe and the only remains of their home today are the front steps.
I caught up with my girls while Doron continued banging on doors. Collecting our friend and her family, where I had sent the children we realised that their well-located house away from the forest was no safe haven as the flames were coming up the street, so our we all went into the night, a seriously religious Yeshuv, all running in pyjamas, but so what. At that point the alarms were sounded, people told to evacuate towards the exit of the yeshuv, in cars, so the cars started moving.
Our cars were not an option as they were in the fire zone. My girls by this time found themselves carrying children and babies, not necessarily sure of whose children and babies they were. And then we piled them in ones and twos into passing cars, seat belts be damned, arranging to meet at the designated spot.
When we met up the order came, via our phones, to move to the next yeshuv, Ateret, about 10 minutes away. There was debate. Those with family not far decided to go there and some found friends of ours said they were going to his parents in Modi’in. Great, I said, here are Shalhevet and Ateret-Adi. Take them to my mother. I told them that while I had never sent them sitting on knees and unseatbelted in cars, I said this is the time when one danger our weighs the other. I kissed them and off into the night went my babies.
I grabbed my (not so) little baby, the 8 year old Efrat, Yael, the 20 year old, who was still carrying someone’s baby, and we began looking for another car with space only wanting to go as far as Ateret, how could I go further knowing that Eitan was here, fighting fires? We found parents for the baby, returned her, a car with space and the girls and I hopped in. Doron declaring he could hardly leave with Eitan here.
As we approached Areret we turned back to look at our yeshuv. We live at the highest point of the yeshuv, immediately next to the water tower. And from our vantage point on the road we could clearly see the water tower as it was totally lit up by the flames licking it. At that point I turned to the girls and said you realise the house is gone, that’s it and it does not matter. The only thing that matters is that Eitan and all the others come out safely.
And that was the point, I realised that was the only thing that mattered.
The people of Ateret wrote a new definition for hospitality, they were waiting for us, directing us to their homes, where beds were made up, or to the boy’s yeshiva, for as the boys were not there for shabbat we had all there rooms. We decided to stay there together in case Eitan came looking for us.
Together sort of. Yael had things to do. She began by looking at me and the clothes I had pulled on. She said Imma, you usually have a pen and paper in the pocket of what you are wearing,I thought she wanted me to remove them, it was still shabbat after all. Give them to me, please, she said, I am going to go room to room and make lists of who is where so we can account for everyone.
And off into the night she went. Finding the lost members of families, making phone calls
to see no one was left behind. Searching with a local nurse for insulin for someone who needed it.
At some point Doron turned up, and we took to comforting Efrat, friends, the families around. Patrolling the streets that gave us a vantage point of our own yeshuv, still lighting up the sky, and thinking about Eitan.
By morning I realised that Eitan was not coming so I told Efrat that we would move to her very close friend’s house. And we did. Knocking gingerly on the door at 7:30 on shabbat morning, I found three other families from Neve Tsuf, camped out, but as soon as the mother of the house heard my voice she came running out of her bedroom saying where were you, we were waiting for you. And that is where we spent the day, Efrat’s friend gave her shabbat clothes, in fact many of the second graders were wearing her clothes, and somehow our host family who were no expecting guests this shabbat fed all 26 of us with hugs smiles, and a wonderful lunch.
You may wonder about the Bar Mitzvah [the boy who turned 13] . He was called up in front of 2 yeshuvim [communities], and despite the tension, lack of sleep and disappointment, that poor boy was magnificent and read beautifully. The familes in Ateret arrived at shul with bags of lollies to pelt at him, the Rav presented him with the chumash [Bible/Torah] they give the local boys, and they put on a kiddush [literaly the blessing for the wine said Friday night and during the Sabbath day but also refers to a small party held after the services end] for everyone, before making sure that every last refugee had somewhere to eat and be. We had such a warm wonderful shabbat that if you forgot for a moment why we were there, I might have said it was one of the nicest shabbatot [Sabbaths]in a long time.
And as Shabbat went out Eitan called, and everything was alright. His voice meant that he was alive, he was unharmed everyone was safe. Yes, our house was burnt, not to the ground, we are one of the lucky ones, but the three children’s room a charcoal shells. No roof, no anything. Slight black remnants of the beds my kids had been lying in only hours before, that’s it.
But I have my husband, my children, my friends and neighbours, and nothing else matters.
The Arabs want to set us on fire, the children in their beds. For them, our houses were a bonus, their objective was to burn the entire community in their beds. They failed and we are stronger. There is fire burning in the hearts of Jews everywhere. From the first hour things started arriving. Clothes, house hold goods, help. People.
We are all on fire and nobody is going to put this fire out. The outpouring of love from everyone is unbelievable. Naturally my mother and brother and sister-in-law have done everything imaginable for us, but so have their friends, and friends of friends, and total strangers, and people I have never heard of. We had to ask to tell people no more, the shul hall is literally overflowing with sheets, towels, clothes, shoes, and more.
But the hall is also full of people, sorting, helping fixing, piling. People everywhere. Somebody arrived with a truck from the northern Galil and asked me who was in charge, I said just ask anybody under 18.
The yeshuv found me a rental, are fixing it up for us, brought in yeshiva boys and ulpana girls to pack up our home to keep what remains safe from further damage, carry out the furniture unharmed, clean the rental, find beds, and fridge and washing machine, etc to put there. We noticed a bus parked in front of our house, and when we walked inside, found a group of men from Baltimore working inside with their Rav. And they won’t let me work, claiming I have all the paper work to go through, they will go the slave work.
I ran round the yeshuv yesterday organising various matters and there were chain gangs everywhere of people. Young boys with ropes around them pulling up half burnt trees in places that tractors can’t reach. The kids, by which I saw young ones from 13 or 14, and naturally through to the men in their 20’s and 30’s, clearing, lifting, cleaning, carrying, You would think that nobody has a job to go to, everyone is wearing a new hat and has a new area of responsibility, and their full time job is to rebuild and help.
The girls, small, adult, and everything in between are fixing, cleaning, packing, feeding, hand holding, did I leave anything out?
They are burning, Burning with the desire to help. Burning with the need to build, rebuild and be built, burning with sympathy and empathy. We are burning.
We know how the fire began. The same Arab who was caught throwing molotov cocktails at cars a few months ago drove around the outside of the yeshuv, forest lined, and lobbed molotov cocktails into the drought dry forest on a night a gale force winds. And once there was a spark the rest spread, as they say, like wild fire. But the government is always slow to declare this an act of terror from a legal perspective, so it is unclear who will be footing the bill for rebuilding and when.
One of my daughter’s friends, whose house narrowly escaped being burnt, told her about her fears for her grandfather. Her grandfather, who used to live in the yeshuv, and is buried in the cemetery at the bottom foot of the forested hillside, survived the Nazis. Her fear was that he may have survived the crematoria but would be burnt by the Jew haters after his death.
Avigail Ben Nun, one of the founders of the yeshuv, now in her 80’s, and homeless, escaped the Nazis walking from Belgium to Switzerland has declared that we we rebuild it all, bigger, better, more beautiful, and we will.
I still don’t know how we will rebuild, but it will be done because the evil people have lit a fire in us that will not be extinguished, and when they thought to ignite and destroy, we will let the fire of unity and love and caring burn on. The personification of ahavat yisrael [love of Israel] and achva [love/unity that everybody that I have encountered since has convinced me that good must come from all of this. And it will, because together we will win.
Those same Arabs who want to push us into the sea, but have not yet worked out how, seem to think that by setting fire to the country we will run for the sea, and be gone. But they are wrong, we will let the fires burn, our fires, the fires of rebuilding and the fires of caring. I am already planning the party when we make a chanukat bayit [dedication party/ceremony] in our built home, and all the wonderful caring people who have given us the strength to get there are not only invited but expected to turn up.
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