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On fighting wildfires and a blaze of hate

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Fire rages in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on Nov. 24. JINIPIX PHOTO

As I write, my thoughts turn to two recent events that overlapped here in Israel: the fires that engulfed great swaths of the country and hateful graffiti and death threats at Kehillat Ra’anan, Ra’anana’s Reform synagogue.

The former left scorched forests, scarred communities and hundreds homeless in Haifa, Zichron Ya’akov, Nataf, Halamish and elsewhere.

The latter was more visceral, but no less potent.

Nothing bonds Israelis more than crises. Dire days bring out the best in us – generosity, compassion, caring, unity, determination, and a fellowship rarely found in the day-to-day. Thousands opened their homes to fire evacuees. Supply outweighed demand for donated food, clothing, toys and much more.

READ: THOUSANDS EVACUATED AS FIRES RAGE IN NORTHERN ISRAEL

Unique meteorological occurrences – fierce easterly winds, exceptionally arid conditions and almost no rain since April – were the context for these blazes.

But nature and negligence were not alone. Acts of arson, nationalistically motivated and incited, added a terrorist element to the infernos.

Nataf, a picturesque village in the Jerusalem corridor, was initially evacuated when the fires began. Several homes were damaged before the flames were brought under control and residents were allowed to return home. Two days later, a huge fire erupted again in the forest surrounding the village. Yet again, its inhabitants were ordered to leave. A wedding celebration at Rama’s Kitchen, a renowned eatery in Nataf, was abruptly dispersed, not long before a wall of flames consumed the restaurant and Rama’s adjacent home. Authorities said the fire erupted after a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the forest from Katana, a neighbouring West Bank village.

Despite extensive and often heartbreaking property loss, the fires caused no fatalities and relatively few injuries. Lessons were learned since the last comparable fires, the Carmel disaster of 2010, when 44 people were killed. Israel has since procured a squadron of firefighting planes that were deployed widely during these blazes. Firefighters seemed much better co-ordinated in their heroic efforts, simultaneously battling fires in numerous locations.   

Israelis often feel they stand alone. These fires proved that notion wrong. We got help from countries near and far, including Azerbaijan, Britain, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States. Of particular note was on-the-ground assistance from Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It literally took the winds out of the terrorist arson attacks and left many feeling hopeful.

READ: WITH WILDFIRES TAMED, ISRAEL SEEKS ANSWERS

Driving from Jerusalem to Ra’anana for Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehillat Ra’anan, I listened to reports about Nataf’s renewed fires. On air, a radio presenter reunited a firefighter who’d been on the job for three days with his wife and children. It was very moving and added to the sense that in this small familial land, we were all in it together.

Sadly, the spray-painted messages on Kehillat Ra’anan’s walls did not demonstrate the same togetherness. They alluded to the Kotel’s sanctity, suggesting sinners should be punished. On a path next to those walls lay a large knife inscribed with references to halachic approval for murder, with three names written around it: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union of Reform Judaism; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of Israel’s Reform movement; and Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall.

Roughly 400 people attended services at Kehillat Ra’anan that evening to support the congregation and its members, and to pray and sing together, led at times by a contingent of Reform’s wonderful youth movement.

Speakers said the menacing writing on the wall must not be taken lightly, but that the struggle for Jewish pluralism will continue unabated, without fear or hesitation.

Ronit Weintraub, Ra’anana’s deputy mayor, spoke eloquently of the city’s zero tolerance for violence, adding that its council had decided to allocate land where Ra’anana’s Conservative congregation will build a permanent home.

I came away strengthened. Certainly there was no unanimity on this matter, but here, too, lessons were learned.

The wildfires of November are behind us, but forceful vigilance will be ongoing.