Toronto residents Yaacov Ben-Israel and Judy Rosenberg Ben-Israel returned April 30 from nearly two weeks in Nepal feeling extremely fortunate.
The couple, both in their 60s and both chiropractors, found themselves caught in the April 25 earthquake that devastated the country as they made their way back from a six-day trek in the Himalayas to the city of Kathmandu.
Though left physically unscathed by the earthquake, which registered 7.8 on the Richter scale and has killed more than 7,000 people to date, the Ben-Israels witnessed some of the destruction, chaos and human suffering that ensued.
“We were left intact, healthy and not injured in any way, but so many Nepalese lost their lives, relatives, houses, properties, so I feel very fortunate,” Yaacov, who is originally from Israel, told The CJN a day after he and his wife had returned to Toronto.
Accompanied by a local guide and a porter, the Ben-Israels had stopped in an area just southwest of Kathmandu to eat lunch at a roadside restaurant that Yaacov described as “a four- or five-storey building on the slope of a very steep mountain,” when the building began shaking violently.
Thinking that the building itself was the problem, they retreated to the road. “It wasn’t the building that was the problem, it was the whole ground,” Yaacov said. “We saw dust rising on the mountains and houses collapse… It was unbelievable. There was nothing you could do.”
The shaking stopped and they got into their guide’s Jeep to drive toward the city. Along the way, they were stopped by people asking them to take others who had been injured to the hospital.
They did so, and Yaacov described the scene at the hospital as “unbelievable… people were outside in a field on stretchers… doctors were doing triage right there in the field.”
They reached Kathmandu and began walking to their hotel in the neighbourhood of Thamel, a tourist centre, on foot.
They found their hotel badly damaged, with “plaster falling all over the place,” and decided they didn’t feel safe sleeping there, particularly since the Nepalese government was encouraging people to sleep in the streets while the country was being hit by aftershocks.
The Ben-Israels opted to stay instead at the Chabad House several hundred metres from their hotel. The Chabad compound was made up of a few low buildings located in an open yard that Yaacov said looked fairly strong and could easily be exited.
There they found themselves among hundreds of other people, mainly Israeli travellers and “other Jewish people.”
That evening, Yaacov said, someone from the Israeli Consulate came and invited people to stay at the consulate. About half of the people moved, but the Ben-Israels stayed.
They and their fellow guests were given dinner and water by the Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin, who also made Havdalah.
“I’m not sure where they pulled all the food from. They fed everyone. No one went hungry. They pulled matzoh from their storage, fresh vegetables for salad, made cholent,” Yaacov marvelled.
The next day, with their flight out of the country scheduled to depart at 9 p.m. but no Internet or phone connection to determine if the airport was open, the Ben-Israels retrieved their luggage from the hotel, which had been further damaged by a second earthquake the night before.
Walking through the city, where most stores and restaurants were closed, it was apparent that food was scarce, Yaacov said.
“Vendors were doubling, tripling and quadrupling their prices – it didn’t make a difference to us, but for a Nepalese local who had to go from paying [the equivalent of] 25 cents to over a dollar, they often couldn’t afford it.”
They eventually made their way to the airport – which was “a zoo” – and discovered their flight was delayed until the following day, so they spent night in the lobby of an airport hotel, which Yaacov said, “was full of all kinds of people – nobody wanted to stay in the rooms.”
They were finally able to fly to Kuala Lumpur the next day, and, after spending two days in Bangkok, they returned to Canada.
Reflecting on their experiences, Yaacov said they never felt afraid, and although they took precautions, they “didn’t panic.”
He said their thoughts are with the Nepalese.
“I saw people being pulled out of the rubble, some dead, some alive… You could really see the suffering and anxiety of the people.”
He added that the Nepalese deeply depend on tourism, “and I don’t know how many tourists will be going to Nepal for the next little while… I think we need to assist these poor people.”
After seeing first hand the work being done by the rabbi and his wife, he has decided to donate money directly to Chabad.
“I saw them operate beautifully, so calm, cool collected and supportive, taking care of so many people,” he said.