Thursday, August 06, 2020

Smoke seen from the Old City. (Credit: Yoni Schwartzman)

A screencap from video footage Mariessa Guiterrez took of the smoke seen in Romema, Haifa.(Credit: Mariessa Guiterrez, via Facebook))

A destroyed home in Neve Tzuf(Credit: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky)

Jerusalem—Last week, Israel found itself facing a surprising threat: a spate of wildfires, mostly concentrated in Haifa and nearby towns but also encompassing some of the center of the country. The flames, fanned by winds and dry weather, struck and destroyed countless homes and acres of forest and, throughout the affected areas, Israelis are struggling to recuperate and rebuild. According to reports, the Israeli Tax Authority confirmed that many of the fires, including in Haifa and some West Bank settlements, were deliberately set and could possibly be seen as terror attacks (Ha’aretz said that the Israeli Police stated that they cannot confirm if any of the fires were deliberately set, even as arson suspects were taken into custody).

In the aftermath of the destruction, countless stories are spreading—stories of loss and despair; stories of heroism and giving; stories of wonder and healing.

The area with the most extensive fire damage was Haifa and the surrounding region. Mariessa Guiterrez lives in the Romema neighborhood of Haifa; she has worked as a caretaker for a 93-year-old man for five years. “On Thursday [November 24] at around 10 in the morning,” she said, she thought she smelled a fire, and “saw smoke far from our building.” She messaged the man’s children, who said the fire was burning in Lev Hamifratz, a different Haifa neighborhood far from Romema. But soon Guiterrez discovered that the fire was “very close to us. I started to call again to his children; they said I need to wait again…” But she told them she couldn’t wait, as the fire was rapidly approaching the building; it had already “burned the trees behind our building, [even as] me and my employer were still inside the house!”

She and her employer fled from the house, even though the man asked her if they could wait for his children. “I’m crying and shouting because we don’t see the stairs because of smoke,” Guiterrez recalled. When they got to the main entrance, “I saw the fire starting in the entrance. I said to my employer [that] we need to go out from here; if not, we die.”

The man struggled to walk, and fell down again; Guiterrez tried in vain to help him back up. “I said to God, give [me] more strength to save this old man; I thought we would die together,” she said. But then she saw a woman with her car, who stopped for them and allowed them all to escape to safety—driving
with the door open so all three of them could fit.

The two are now living in Dor Tivon (an assisted living community in a town near Haifa) while the home is rebuilt. But Guiterrez still feels trauma from their close escape. “Even until now I don’t sleep at night,” she said.

American yeshiva students studying in Israel for the year had differing perspectives. Aaron Koffsky of New York, who is studying at Yeshivat Mevaseret Tzion near Jerusalem, said that the fires are very tragic but to him it seems that “Israel is simply going through another wave of terrorism, and it will pass. Throughout my yeshiva experience in high school, I’ve heard about many, many tragedies occurring in Israel. Whether it be every few months or every few years, something bad is bound to occur.” Due to this, Koffsky said, “My emotions have been greatly diminished toward these events. Of course, this is not to say that each individual event isn’t tragic or to say that practical steps should not be taken to prevent these horrible events. However, to me, the arson occurring in Israel is simply another unfortunate event occurring in the overarching theme of seemingly inevitable terror in Israel.”

Eddie Mattout, an American lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, who serves in the International Military Cooperation Unit, said that many representatives came from outside of Israel from other countries to help extinguish the fires. “When we needed them, the world really did help,” he said. “Even the Palestinians helped, which was amazing, and gave me much hope for a future of peace and cooperation.” According to Mattout, a ceremony was held honoring the countries that helped extinguish the fires, and the Palestinian flag was raised—at an IDF event, no less!

Others saw the flames differently. It was “great to see people coming together across physical, political and ideological borders to protect the Land of Israel and those who live in it,” said Noam Kaplan, of Manhattan, a student at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem. Ariel Dressler of Florida, currently studying at Derech Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, said of the idea that many of the fires may be terror attacks, “[It’s] crazy how [the terrorists] never stop, and come up with these crazy new ways to try to kick us out of our homes. They’ll never realize that they can’t win and never will. From bus bombings to stabbings, rockets being fired into Israel… to trying to run over us with cars to, finally, fires. It’ll never end and it’s so sad watching them destroy a beautiful country just to kick us out.”

By Oren Oppenheim/JLBWC Israel

Oren Oppenheim, age 19, is currently an Israel correspondent for The Jewish Link and formerly penned the weekly column “A Teen’s Perspective.” Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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