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One week after my city was set on fire, I’m having a hard time writing about what happened. It’s different when something traumatic happens to you.

I don’t even have a full picture of the day in my head. It’s like scenes in a play, disjointed blips and in between, blank.

Last week, before the fire:

“I have to water the garden. Everything is dry as bone. The plants will die.”

My house is surrounded by greenery that makes the area seem tranquil, although we are actually just a few steps away from one of the main centers of Haifa.

In the beginning of last week, looking at the garden I saw thirsty plants, pitifully shriveled from the too dry weather.

On Thursday I saw a death trap.

Suspicion (Wednesday):

Fires in Zichron Ya’acov, a small town, 30 minutes down the road.

Suspicions of terrorist acts of arson were in the forefront of my mind. Yes, the weather was dry. Yes, it was very windy. These conditions make it very easy for fire to spread but fire burning people’s homes?! That’s not common in Israel. Every winter there are a few electric fires in homes due to heater malfunctions. Every summer there are a few bush fires when dry conditions combined with human negligence, turns a spark from a cigarette or an improperly extinguished bonfire into a serious fire. None of these are like the raging, uncontrollable flames that were consuming people’s homes. The pattern was different.

In addition, the firefighters and authorities were beginning to hint about their suspicions, saying, but not saying, what they thought was causing the fires. Fire experts would investigate and tell us conclusively what caused the fires but first it was necessary to get control of the flames and see that everyone was safe.

Thursday morning:

I went outside and looked at the garden. One spark. That’s all it would take. Once the plants began to burn, the wind would do the rest and the house would quickly be on fire too.

I watered the garden, pouring loads of water. I soaked the trees, their dry leaves and even the side of the house.

I knew it wouldn’t be enough. The plants would be grateful but the wind would make the water evaporate quickly. No matter how much I poured it wouldn’t be enough to stop potential flames. I went inside. Alone at home, it seemed a good time to clean the house for the weekend and do some cooking.

Suddenly there was no water in the taps.

Smoke

I smelled smoke. Looking outside, I saw big billowing clouds of grey smoke overhead. On the radio there was a report of a fire in Haifa. It was one neighborhood away from mine. Close but not too close.

I caught the cat and made sure he stayed in the house with the dog.

Evacuation

Mor (Lenny’s 17-year-old son) called me and asked if I was listening to the radio. He said the pre-military academy (which shares the campus with his high school) was on fire and he would be coming home.

A fire to my left and a fire to my right. Two separate, non-connected places with my neighborhood in between. The pre-military academy. Coincidence?

Fire spreads with the winds. Sparks do fly. They don’t jump over entire neighborhoods.

I called Lenny. He was in a meeting on the other side of Haifa, said he would be home soon.

Mor called again saying he thought we should pack suitcases and evacuate the area.

Not sure what to do I turned off what I was cooking, stopped cleaning and went back outside. The smoke wasn’t worse. Knowing it wouldn’t help, I started watering the garden again. The sounds of sirens on the road, very close. Fire extinguishing planes were flying overhead.

What do you do when someone sets your city on fire?

Our neighbor leapt over the fence and flew into the yard shouting for his mom to pack up his son so they could get out of the area. His wife came running from a different direction and within minutes was carrying their three-year-old to the car.

Mor arrived, explaining that everyone had been evacuated from the school. Lenny arrived. He could barely get to the house. He had seen the smoke in the distance and, as he came closer, people streaming away from the area on foot. The roads were beginning to be blocked, fire-trucks and people driving in all directions.

Fires all around us, the authorities requested everyone in our neighborhood (as well as the neighborhoods that were already on fire) to evacuate the area.

Analyzing the danger

In a swiftly changing situation it isn’t easy to know what is the right thing to do. Where is it safe? How do you get there? What do you leave behind?

Lenny had a few heartbeats to analyze the situation. First our safety, then the house, the car and the chaos on the road. He put the car in the underground parking lot of the hospital that is a few minutes’ walk from our house. There it wouldn’t get ruined by fire-trucks trying to get by, fire, trees falling… Driving in to the chaos on the roads wasn’t a good idea. If we had to evacuate the house, the underground parking lot of the hospital (which can also serve as a bomb shelter) would be a safe place to go. If we had to go there, we would have to run.

While putting on his police uniform, Lenny explained to Mor that he was unwilling to evacuate the house, although we had been given the order to do so.

Lenny went back outside to help people and so did Mor. Like father, like son.

Scattered

Tal (Lenny’s older son) was somewhere en-route, on the way home from his army base. He heard the news and was unsure what to do when he arrived in Haifa. We couldn’t pick him up. He couldn’t come to us. Possibly he could go to his mother or to his grandparents who live in a different neighborhood of Haifa. I told him to check when he got closer. Who knew what the situation would be then?

Unnerved by the apocalyptic images he was receiving on social media, Tal was distressed to hear that his father and brother were outside in the neighborhood when we were supposed to be evacuating the area.

fire

“Where are they?! What are they doing outside?!”

“I don’t know! Why?! Because they are two of a kind. That’s why!” I was upset that I didn’t know where they were or what was going on. I knew Lenny was helping people. I was sure Mor was with him and OK but I would have felt better to have them home, with me.

Impossible to breathe

Lenny called me and asked that I bring him cloth to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t inhale too much smoke while he continued to help people. I didn’t know what to bring so I grabbed a few options and ran out of the house. Almost immediately my eyes started to burn and I began to find it difficult to breathe. The sky was grey with smoke and the air thick with ash. Smoke clogged my throat, soaking in to my pores. I went towards the main road looking for Lenny.

I saw Mor on the other side of the street. He had covered his mouth with a shirt and was busy helping people.

An elderly neighbor saw me and asked me what she was supposed to do. As if I knew… An elegant woman, she was perfectly put together, like she always is. She was carrying a small bag in her hand and had a wild look in her eyes. I told her to come with me to where Lenny was. He would know what to do. Then she explained that her son in law told her to leave the house, that he was on the way to pick her up. Phew. If he was coming to get her she’d be OK, the only issue was being able to breathe. I gave her one of the cloths I brought for Lenny to choose from and told her to cover her mouth so she could breathe better. After I saw that she did as I instructed I ran off to find Lenny.

On the other side of the street I saw three women, carrying small bags and a cat carrier frantically trying to flag down a car leaving the area.

I found Lenny on the main road where he was helping direct traffic so people could evacuate the area or get to the hospital, if necessary. The police didn’t know which way to send the traffic. More and more fires were appearing. Smoke was everywhere and roads were jammed with cars. Which direction would be safest? Almost impossible to tell.

I went back towards the house and a fireman saw me. “You can’t go that way! It’s too dangerous, there are fires down the street!”

I kept on walk-running telling him “I have to, I have animals in the house.”

Following me he said, “Get them and get out fast. You have to go NOW.”

“OK, OK, I’m going” I said, expecting him to leave me alone.

“I’m coming with you and will leave when you leave.”

He stood by the door while I grabbed my computer, purse (keys and money), shoved the cat in the cat carrier and tied up the dog. While I was grabbing the most crucial things I was calling Lenny, telling him what was going on.

I thought the fireman was going to pick me up and carry me away from the house. He was really upset, worried about me. When he saw Lenny (in his police uniform) running up to the house, he realized he could turn over responsibility to him and left.

The poor man must have thought I was insane. He was doing his job thoroughly, going door to door, checking to see who needed to be evacuated, who needed help. All he wanted was to protect people, to save lives. It is thanks to people like him that no one died in the fires that swept the country.

Suddenly there was no electricity in the house.

Inside

Mor came home, telling us of the fires he had seen in the neighborhood. Lenny asked me to close the shutters. We have metal shutters that would provide a little bit of protection from flames. That’s one of the benefits of having an older house. Most people have plastic shutters. Those just melt in the heat.

I let the cat out of the carrier and locked him in one of the rooms to make it easier to catch him in case we would have to run out of the house.

Mor wanted to pack a suitcase and evacuate. He had seen the fires and was nervous. Lenny had seen our neighbors battling fires in their yards and saving their homes. Mor had helped a neighbor extinguish a fire in his yard so he understood the benefit of staying. The fire-fighters couldn’t handle so many fires on their own. People battling the small fires could stop them from becoming the infernos that consumed homes and trees.

What do you take?

Leaving would mean grabbing what we could carry and running to safety. My hands had to be free for the dog and the cat. No room for anything replaceable. Photos? Lenny is a photographer. We have bookcases full of albums, many of them from before the digital age – in other words, there are no digital images that could be reprinted to replace lost albums. There is no way we could take all of them. Not even a few. I suggested to Mor he pack up what he’d like to take. I packed a few precious photos, a thin handmade quilt my mother made for me, bellbottoms she embroidered when she was 18, my computer, purse, the book I was reading, a hairbrush, toothbrushes and toothpaste for everyone. That’s it.

Lenny went to the far side of the house and looked out. He came back in a rush.

“Ok. Pack up things and be ready to leave. NOW.”

“What did you see?”

“There are flames as high as the house, very close by.”

Lenny put some important documents in a suitcase. I ran to get the cat, my heart pounding. I could smell smoke inside the house.

Hysteria

The cat had already been stuffed in the cat carrier once that day and knew something was very wrong. With the window closed, the shutter down and no electricity, the room was completely dark. I couldn’t see him and he didn’t want to be found. I dove under the bed, flailing my arms around until I caught him.

Phew. In to the box, again.

I put the cat carrier alongside everything packed to take, by the door. Lenny wasn’t ready to leave quite yet. The cat was in hysterics, trying to get out of the cat carrier. I sat next to him, trying to quiet him but in his panic, he didn’t seem to notice me. I tried covering the box with a blanket but he just began pulling the blanket in to the box, scratching the sides, frantically trying to find a way to get out.

I didn’t blame him. I felt trapped too.

I took the blanket away and the dog came to look in to the box, shaking.

Lenny went to check on the flames. They had been put out! We didn’t have to go. Yet.

It was only later on, when Lenny went back outside that we found out exactly what had happened.

Behind our garden there are steps leading from our street up to the main road. On each side of the steps there are fences covered in bushes, higher than my head. On one side is our yard. On the other side of the steps is an old age home. Someone threw something burning in to the bushes on the side of the old age home. The fire ate a specific section of the bushes and spread in to the garden of the old age home. Those were the flames Lenny saw, so close to our building.

The wind could have easily blown sparks across the path, spreading the fire into our garden as well. The garden is bone dry; had the trees caught fire our home would have quickly gone up in flames as well. The old age home has fire hoses suitable for battling this type of fire but the workers there didn’t know how to connect the hoses! To our great luck a policemen that lives on the other side of the old age home was there, saw what was happening, helped connect the hoses and made sure the fire was extinguished. This is footage he sent Lenny of the fire being put out.

Someone had seen the arsonist ignite the fire but he escaped.

Not knowing is scary

Friends started calling me to see if I was safe. What was I supposed to answer? My house wasn’t burning. Some of my neighbors’ homes were. Could my house begin burning? Yes, at any moment.

It gets dark very early these days and there was no electricity in the house so it was pitch black. No TV. We had to be careful to conserve the power in our mobile phones as well. Who knew when the electricity would come back? A battery powered radio helped us stay informed about what was happening in our city. The report was that the fire-fighters were beginning to gain control of the fires in the different locations. Hopefully there would be no new ones but the high winds could reignite sparks into full blown, very dangerous fires.

How do you go to sleep when your house could go up in flames? We could all die from smoke asphyxiation.

Everything smelled like smoke, even inside the house. We were all too tired to care.

The news report said the investigation of the fires in Zichron showed that they were caused by arson terrorists. The authorities suspected that the fires in Haifa were also caused by terrorists but they would only know for certain after the investigation was over.

When it was safe to drive on the roads. Tal came to our house and Mor went to his mother’s house. The boys wanted to see both their parents.

The electricity came back. It had been turned off to prevent fire from reaching live wires and igniting even bigger flames.

We went to sleep with our bags still packed, in case it became necessary to evacuate the house. It was only then I noticed that I had kept my shoes on all day, although I had been inside. I almost never wear shoes in the house.

Aftermath

The next morning our stairs were covered in ash and the air reeked of smoke.

Lenny and Tal went outside to survey the damage while I listened to the news. Over 1,800 homes were damaged and of those 527 were deemed uninhabitable.

The head of the parents’ committee at Mor’s school had her home burnt to the ground. She described how the fire-fighters at work on her home were called to an even worse fire, leaving her and her neighbors the fire hoses so they could battle the flames on their own. The interviewer, safe in some studio in Tel Aviv, couldn’t imagine the situation. Stunned, he asked, “How were you supposed to know what to do?! You aren’t fire-fighters!” Calmly she explained: “We stood should to shoulder with our neighbors and poured water on the flames. My home is gone but our neighbors’ homes are OK. Thank God my family is fine.”

Another woman who lives one neighborhood away from me described driving through a wall of flames to escape the fires on Thursday. On Friday, she came back to her house and found that the bottom floor is burnt. Her reaction? In a shaky voice, she said: “It’s OK. We’re OK. Others have it worse.”

Over and over I heard Israelis express gratitude – for life, for the people that helped them save their lives, for the people taking care of them now. Not rage at those who stole away their homes, their memories – gratitude. Life matters more than stuff.

This past week has been full of volunteers. Teenagers helping families clear out their ruined homes, covering holes so the coming rains won’t ruin what is left in people’s homes. Enormous amounts of clothes, food and toys have been donated. The government is looking for ways to cut bureaucratic procedures to ensure that compensation is given swiftly – to those who had home insurance and also to those who did not. Between the government assistance and volunteers opening their homes to shelter those whose homes have been damaged, no one is left without a roof over their head.

It will take a long time for the people who lost their homes to put their lives back together. It is heart wrenching to think of the memories lost, the historic artifacts that survived other traumas only to be destroyed now. I don’t know if people will ever be able to regain the same sense of safety in their homes…

We are all grateful that lives were saved. Some people were unable to save their pets. Many walked through fire to rescue animals. I shudder to think of the wildlife that has been incinerated.

The experts say it will take 30 years to bring the trees back to the same level of growth we had before the fires.

These are the things I want people who live elsewhere to know:

  1. The fires that swept Israel were arson-terror. It wasn’t negligence. It wasn’t forest fires. It was deliberate arson, intended to damage everything we hold dear: our homes, our wildlife, our land.
  2. You need to pay attention to this because what begins with us, ends with you.
  3. This event showed, yet again, the true face of Israel – in times of trouble we don’t loot our cities, we help each other. We don’t wait for the authorities to save us or fix things for us. We do it together, with gratitude to be alive. Most of all, although unthinkable hate is directed at us, we don’t respond with hate.
  4. And finally – we will rebuild. We will rebuild homes and plant new trees. We will make this land even more beautiful than it was before. This is our home and we aren’t going anywhere.

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This is what Haifa looks like after the fires, from a drone’s view. It gives you an idea of the damage although it doesn’t show the terrible destruction of homes and nothing conveys the impact of the smell.

Now it is raining, finally. That will help wash our city clean, make the air fresh and pure again.

 

 

Why is it that, although terrorism and war are not infrequent in Israel, the number of IDF soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is actually amongst the lowest in militaries around the world?

In 2013 the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps Mental Health Department released a study on PTSD with staggering statistics. For example, following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, 1.5 percent of Israeli soldiers in mandatory service and in the reserves were diagnosed with PTSD. Some 2.9% of the IDF servicemen who took part in the military campaign sought psychological help after the war, but were not diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. In contrast, a U.S. Army Medical Corps study done in approximately the same time period, found that about 8% of U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD.

According to the IDF study, PTSD diagnoses in other militaries worldwide ranged from 2% to 17% of troops who participated in combat.

How can this be? Is it special training received in the IDF? Or is it something else?

Israel has developed world class expertise in the treatment of trauma but it is not some special prevention regimen that makes the difference.  It isn’t something different in Israeli soldiers. Our soldiers are people from all backgrounds, from countries around the world. Yes, their training is not the same as in other armies but much of it is very similar and the differences are not enough to account for the statistics.

Israeli soldiers aren’t different. It is Israel itself that is different.

 

1. Experience

Unlike in the US, there is no person in Israel who is untouched by terrorism or war and soldiers are an integral part of Israeli society.

The IDF is a citizens’ army, consisting of our fathers, brothers, husbands, friends, sisters and daughters. Almost every household has a soldier, if not a number of soldiers, many of whom have fought in multiple wars. Those who don’t have a soldier in their own family live next to a household with a soldier. Virtually every person does reserve duty and /or has colleagues who take leave from work to go to reserve duty. Israelis pass soldiers on the bus, in the train and in the store. Even those portions of society that do not enlist (such as Orthodox Jews) have seen soldiers and had interactions with soldiers. This means that many Israelis who have not themselves been on a battlefield have secondary experience with those that have – they have dealt with injuries and death of friends and family, brothers and sisters.

The prevalence of terrorism means that there is little separation between the soldier on the battlefield and the mother in her home, the child walking to school or the father driving to work. Many Israeli civilians have found themselves under attack by terrorists with rocks, knives, guns and suicide bombs. Others have witnessed attacks or seen their aftermath. Others are related or connected with those who have been in these situations.

The average Israeli knows or can imagine what a soldier or a victim of terrorism has experienced. Personal experience creates understanding and compassion for the pain of others.

 

2. History

Israel’s current generation of 40 to 60 year-olds grew up with Holocaust survivors. They didn’t understand the survivors or their sometimes-strange behaviors. Some survivors picked up half-eaten sandwiches that other people had thrown away and put them in their pockets, just in case. Others were terrified of dogs. Some clung to their children. Others almost never touched their children. Some were perfectly normal in the day but screamed in their sleep.

It took many years for people to understand that these behaviors developed as a result of the extreme trauma the survivors had experienced. Later on, it was discovered that trauma could be passed on – that the second generation, the children of the survivors had developed their own form of trauma related behaviors.

The average Israeli knows that terrible experiences alter the psyche and effect behavior.

 

3. Attitude

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Israelis have developed an attitude of “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Although this expression is often said jokingly, regarding small uncomfortable situations like going to the dentist or telling a child to do something he or she doesn’t don’t like, it is indicative of a societal mindset.  Israeli’s experiences as individuals and as a nation have taught that terrible things will happen. Some people will die as a result but those who survive will be stronger because of it. This is the mindset of resilience.

 “Maybe it’s because of something he experienced.”

A lawyer I once met was obviously brilliant but also obsessive and prone to temperamental fits. I was told about him: “Oh yeah, he’s nuts. But maybe it’s because of something he went through [as a soldier]”. In a single breath, there was a swift judgement, forgiveness and understanding.

Generally Israeli society is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and forgive unpleasant behaviors if and when they are a result of previously experienced trauma.

 

4. It’s different when you are fighting for your home

One of the reasons traumatic events can be scarring is that they often seem completely random, creating a feeling of helplessness. The soldier may question why his friend was killed and not him, after all, seconds before, he was standing exactly where his friend stood when the bomb exploded. The person riding the earlier bus might question why she left the house earlier that day and wasn’t on the bus that was blown up in the terror attack – the bus she normally rides to work. The lack of control over traumatic events that occurred or could occur in the future is frightening. In Israel, this is tempered with a collective purpose. Everyone goes to the army for the same reason. Everyone suffers from terror attacks for the same reason. The individual cannot control what is happening but at least they know why it’s happening.
It’s one thing to be a soldier fighting in a far-off land because your government decided it’s necessary. It’s very different when you can stand on a hill and see the homes of the people you are defending, possibly even your own home. This doesn’t make the traumatic experience easier but it gives the psyche a way to process it. There is a goal and a purpose, it’s not random – it’s personal.

 

5. Love

While Americans might honor or respect their soldiers, Israelis love their soldiers passionately. Honor is something you do from far away. Love is up close and personal.

To Israelis, soldiers aren’t heroic figures you throw parades for and give medals. Soldiers are our boys, our girls, our family. You feed them, make sure they are warm and comfortable. You let them sleep on your shoulder if they fall asleep next to you on the bus. It doesn’t matter if you never saw them before and don’t know their name. It doesn’t matter if they come from a different background than you or have a personality you don’t like. The minute they put on the uniform they belong to you and you belong to them. Each soldier could be anyone’s soldier so you do for someone else’s son or daughter exactly what you would hope someone would do for yours. Our heroes are soldiers that go home and their mother tells them to take out the trash. No one calls them “Sir.” Rarely will anyone thank them for their service but everyone will love them.

 

This is relevant to people everywhere…

My grandmother always said: “You can learn from anyone. From some you learn what to do, from others you learn what not to do.” I’m writing this because the Israeli example is relevant to people everywhere. From it, I hope that others will learn how to empower themselves.

Today, with the rise in terrorism worldwide, there is added impetus to understand trauma and PTSD. While one might be more likely to discover PTSD in soldiers, security forces or rescue workers, anyone who has been exposed to highly traumatic situations (such as a terror attack) could also be afflicted with PTSD. Just ask the people who worked next to the Twin Towers, the children of Beslan, the Bastille Day revelers in Nice, or pretty much any Israeli citizen.

We don’t have to go even as far as terrorism and war. Sexual abuse survivors for example, also belong in this category.

Not everyone who experiences trauma, even extreme trauma, will later be afflicted with PTSD. In fact, most people will not. Even so it behooves us all, no matter what our station in life, position or nationality, to have at least some understanding of trauma and PTSD. Sadly, this information could suddenly become very relevant.

The magic words

What can you do to help someone suffering from trauma or PTSD? You don’t have to have any special qualifications to help. Amazingly there are magic words that you can say that, if you mean them, can work wonders. Can you guess what they are?

Trauma manifests itself differently in different people. One of the most insidious ways that traumatic experiences can affect the psyche is in alienating the individual from those who care about him or her. The feeling that “no one can understand me” (which is often true because only those who have had similar experiences can really understand) leads to the feeling that “I am alone”.

A person who is suffering needs to find a way to release their pain. This needs to be done in a way that suites that individual and needs to happen in a way that they don’t feel judged. Often times successful therapeutic methods have to do with activities and/or with animals (who don’t demand explanations). There are many effective methods, as a bystander you can help someone suffering find the method that suites them but otherwise that healing is their private journey.

Here’s what you can do:

Address the lie of, “I am alone.” This thought is poison to the soul and can lead even the strongest individuals on a downward spiral. The key to the prison this thought creates is astonishingly simple. All you have to do is mean it.

Use the magic words: “You are not alone.”

Understanding, being there without judging, love… these don’t fix the problem but they go a long way to making it less severe.

People of books

Last week I went to a library dedication ceremony. Those words sound so normal when I write them but what I attended was something uniquely Israeli.

The ceremony took place in the Reali high-school in Haifa. During the evening my thoughts ranged from the history of the school, the ceremony itself, the library and the threads of education, books and family that tie them all together.

First some background: approximately 4,000 pupils attend the school’s six branches (kindergarten, elementary schools and a high-school). Each branch has a distinctive character, emphasizing different fields: Arts and Sciences, Science, Nature and the Environment or Leadership and Communication.

The school we all call by its abbreviated name “Reali” is actually named “The Hebrew Reali School in Haifa” and every word in the name is packed with meaning. The school was founded in 1913. The State of Israel had not yet been formally re-established but this did not stop the Jewish community in Palestine from building institutions of education for the next generations.

Yes, there was a thriving Jewish community in Palestine pre-1948 and they were busy building institutions for the future of the Jewish people.

Prior to WW1 it was thought that exact sciences should be taught in German, like in the ‘realschulen’ in Germany. This was disputed within the Jewish community so, they held an assembly which concluded with the decision to establish the HEBREW Reali School in Haifa. Here all the subjects would be taught in Hebrew.

It would be a school like the German schools but in Haifa, not Europe. Studies would be conducted in the language of the Jewish people, not that of the non-Jews.

This was a revolutionary decision. From then onward, the ancient language would become the language of the future; this school would provide the new leaders of the Nation the opportunity to gain practical knowledge and the skills that would enable them to shape their own destiny and that of their people.

Over the years the Reali led the way in implementing educational initiatives and institutions that were later adopted by Israel’s Ministry of Education, such as the establishment of the scout movement, the “Gadna” (para-military youth preparation program), the “National Service“, the “Personal Commitment Program“, the “term paper” (school thesis), the student council, and the teaching of civics, middle eastern studies and additional subjects.

The Reali has over 22 thousand alumnae who hold key positions in Israeli society, among them are 37 Israel Prize laureates, four IDF Chiefs of General Staff and three Supreme Court Justices. 70 military decorations and medals were given to Reali graduates over the years. Reali alumnae are to be found amongst Israel’s best in science, arts, industry, communications and academia.

Back to the ceremony I attended. The library being dedicated was built in memory of a student who had attended the IDF Junior Command Preparatory School. This unique pre-military boarding school was founded in 1953 with the idea of combining the academic excellence of the Reali school with academic and practical courses in Military and Defense Studies. Graduates would be well rounded individuals, thoroughly prepared to take on leadership roles as combat officers in the IDF.

Students at the boarding school take classes with the students at the regular Reali high-school, the two campuses are adjacent and all are considered part of the “Reali family.”

It is one thing to know that the history of the Reali. It is another to be aware that much of Israel’s elite are alumnae. It is an entirely different world to walk in to a room full of these people. Ex-ministers, IDF commanders, leading business people, media personalities… everywhere I looked I saw faces that I would normally only see on TV. They all know each other and they all came together for this ceremony. Many were friends of the student whose memory was being honored. They had studied with him or served with him in the IDF. Some knew his family. Others didn’t know him but came anyway because he was one of their own, part of their circle.

Menachem “Melmel” Reich was the Lieutenant Commander of the Golani Reconnaissance Unit. He was killed in 1983, during the first Lebanon War. The Golani unit is a family in and of itself, not elitist like the Reali but very tight-knit and proud. In other words, Melmel had the extended members of two “families”, both very important in the construction and preservation of the State of Israel, who came to honor his memory.

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How many places, groups or organizations have you come across that tie disconnected individuals together in a bond so tight they can only be described as family? The feeling is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it before. Living in Israel has taught me what that looks like.

Melmel was 22 years old when he died. 33 years after his death he still looms large in the memory of his friends. The fact that so many busy people made time to come to the event is a testament to the impression he left on them. It was one of his friends who funded the library that was built in his honor saying: “Melmel always said to me that he wants to live on the Carmel and have his children go to the Reali. He didn’t have a chance to have children. That’s why I want to enrich the tradition of studying at the Reali for other children. That’s why a library seemed an appropriate way to honor him.”

And what a beautiful library! The existing school library was expanded and completely renewed. It’s bright and inviting, well organized, with dedicated areas for computers, private study and even rooms in which meetings or brainstorming sessions can be held without bothering anyone else.

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This might sound like a library dedication that could have happened anywhere else. Someone with enough money to invest can pay to build whatever they want in honor of their friends and any school would be happy to receive such a donation.

True. And yet, as I walked around the library, I was struck by the elements that are uniquely Israeli.

In the entrance of the library there is a wall with the names of the Reali students who were killed in Israel’s wars and by acts of terrorism. The memorial wall is covered in a shocking number of names, especially considering that these were all part of a small circle – friends of current students and teachers, their parents and grandparents. Each individual is a world to their family and friends and here, everyone knows everyone.

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Standing in front of the wall, suddenly it was not the number of names that struck me, not the names of the people I know who jumped out at me… it was the empty space. The space left for new names. The terrible realization that there will be the need for more space. Eventually more names will have to be added. More will be killed in future wars and terror attacks.

How many students do you know who walk around with the realization that maybe, one day, their name will be added to a memorial wall?

Inside the library there is a section filled with blue books about every single student whose name is on the memorial wall. Anyone can read their story, learn about each individual. Books seem an appropriate way to honor the deceased. A very Jewish way to preserve their memory.

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The elements created to honor the memory of the deceased are not something separate, they are part of the whole – given their own special space but not pushed aside.

The children walk past these areas when searching for books or doing their homework in the library. The books about the deceased can be used for research, for school projects. The people discussed are their brothers, their cousins, their uncles… One day it could be their name on the wall, their details in a book and if not theirs – those of their friends and family.

And then there was this: a modest rack displaying a selection of student theses. Behind it, shelves filled with more theses.

img_20161031_140220Where the other displays were memories of the past, here was a glimpse in to the future.

It would be difficult to differentiate between these high-school projects and the theses of university students. Much of the subject matter is way over my head. The title of the project with the blue cover is “Measurement of the universe expansion characteristics by redshifts calculation of emission lines in active galactical nuclei”. Do you know what that means? I don’t.

On the shelf below is a project delving in to the Hamas Charter as it is actually applied. To the left is a project on cultural defense in criminal law. Next to that a project on the intervention of God in war (as described in the bible). Physics, biology, law, history, culture, Middle Eastern studies…  these are the fruits of our frivolous 17 year olds…

I went to a library dedication ceremony. Something very normal that couldn’t have happened quite that way anywhere else in the world.

I worry about the future of our nation, of our country. All Israelis do. What I saw at the library dedication ceremony made me think that maybe things aren’t so bad. The Jewish people are called the People of the Book. It is that one book that taught us to love and cherish all books, to emphasize study and keeping the mind sharp. We are the People of THE Book and a people of books.

I think that as long as we still have books we will be ok. Books and family.

Sneak-peek at the topics he covers:

  • What drives the economy?
  • What makes Israel’s economy so strong?
  • What is the connection between government and entrepreneurship?
    (Hint: very little!)

Bonus question:
Can you guess who initiated MIT’s first entrepreneurship course?

 

 

Do you have a story that makes your heart soar? A book or a movie that evokes a visceral reaction, no matter how many times you revisit it? Those are the stories that resonate on a very deep level, if you will, stories that speak to the soul.

I have loved Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings since I was a child. I’m not sure how old I was the first time I read the books. To me it seems like the stories have always been with me and, in a way, that is true.

It is a bit strange that a little girl loved such dark books, full of battles and scary scenes – not the stereotypical girly stories. I was swept away by the saga, charmed by the hobbits and enchanted by the elves. Interestingly the scenes that made my heart soar (and still do) are not nice or magical ones. In fact, they are rather terrible but, at the same time, beautiful.

As an American girl who lacked for nothing, why did I value the fortitude of the dwarves? In the books they are not depicted as particularly nice or charming but their strength and fierce loyalty appealed to me. The rich emotional tapestry of the dwarves made them seem somehow very familiar: these hard-working people, fine craftsmen who loved beautiful things and knew how to create them, people who could endure great hardships, were willing to endure in order to regain the home they had lost and never stopped dreaming about.

I didn’t know that Tolkien created the dwarves as a reflection of the Jewish people, longing to return to Zion.

I cried when Thorin was killed. It was right that the Arkenstone be returned to him and gut wrenching that he did not live to enjoy the achievement of regaining the homeland of his people and the Arkenstone at their core. Was Tolkien imagining the Ark that was once in the center of the very real mountain in the heart of Jerusalem?

The battle cry of the dwarves of the Iron Hills, rushing in to save their fellow dwarves, their brothers, one moment before they were overwhelmed by their enemies, has always made my heart soar. For the American girl my reaction makes little sense. As a grown up Israeli I understand it much better. The dwarves roared “Moria!” as they dove in to the Battle of the Five Armies. They were reminding each other of the terrible battle where so many of their relatives had been slaughtered, that had driven them further from their homeland, from safety but from which, as a people, they had survived.

How very Jewish. Hardships endured and survived made them stronger, gave them the courage to face the new, seemingly hopeless battle ahead.

Could it be that the stories that make your heart soar that are the ones that you understand with your soul before it is possible to understand them with the mind? That is my experience.

In Tolkien’s words, his stories are not an allegory of the times in which he lived but rather are “applicable.”  Allegories, he felt, are an imposition of the author on the reader. He preferred stories that the reader was free to apply, as the reader desired. As a child my ability to apply his stories to anything outside the pages was very limited. Now I know better. I can recognize more elements because I am living them.

The Hobbit ends with a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf: “Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo. “Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

When this was written Tolkien couldn’t have imagined living to see the prophecies come true but somehow he knew that many would tend to disbelieve because they “had a hand in bringing them about.” I see this very often in the attitude of many (including far too many Israelis) towards Israel. It is up to us to recognize that all our “adventures and escapes were not managed by mere luck.”

In The Lord of the Rings the dwarves play a lesser role than they do in The Hobbit and yet they are still important.

Of all the scenes in the trilogy, it was always the death of Boromir that moved me the most. Again, this is rather strange when considering myself reading this as a little girl. Today the scene still moves me to tears.

Boromir sacrifices himself to protect those smaller and weaker than himself. By loving others more than he loves his own life he redeems the mistakes he had made due to hubris and desire for power. Love leads him to the most powerful and honorable act of his life.

This scene has deeper meaning when you can name the names of real people who made the same choice Boromir made. With little effort I can tell you a number of such stories, the events that occurred and the heroes who loved others more than they loved themselves.

The tears I cried for Boromir are the same tears I often find rolling down my face watching the evening news. Israel is full of stories of honor, sacrifice, love. Ours are not the legends of a classic fairy-tale, a figment of an author’s imagination or something that happened “Once upon a time.”  Our stories are real and they are happening now.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories that have inspired so many people around the world. Many of those who look deeper in to the stories discover the thread of Christian principles and ideals. Few seem to notice that the author was actually inspired by Zion. He wrote of the people exiled regaining their homeland. The re-establishment of their home brought prosperity to the men and elves living next to them, made the land green again. Everyone benefited. Even when Tolkien’s focus was no longer on the story of the dwarves their presence remained key. The ability to bridge the mistrust between elves and dwarves is what helped the Once and Future King to return to his throne.

Tolkien’s stories are not an allegory, they are highly applicable. His fantasy can be found in Israeli reality. His writings contain inspiration for all who are willing to recognize it and, more importantly, apply it.

Now doesn’t that make your heart soar?

Yesterday was Hoshana Rabbah the seventh day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

It is believed that God judges each person, beginning on Rosh Hashana, deciding what their fate will be for the year to come. The judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, but it is not “delivered” until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot). This means that up to Hoshana Rabbah, the verdict and decree for the new year can still be changed.

Hoshana Rabbah is “the great hoshana,” named after the hoshanot prayers.

Thinking about the meaning of the day, suddenly a song I once heard years ago popped in to my head. Within moments I found a clip of it on YouTube. It’s a great song. I’m sure my Christian friends think it’s fabulous (especially everyone my mom’s age).

I wonder how many Christians are familiar with the source of this? I’m sure most seeing/hearing this think Hossana means some kind of praise to Jesus. Probably most people who see this clip think the people waving fronds in the air is just some silly stage direction.

But it’s not.

This is from Hoshana Rabbah, at the Western Wall, yesterday. It’s actually not “Hossana” it’s “Hoshea Na” and it means “Please save us.” Here, Jews are praying to God, asking for salvation for themselves and the Nation of Israel. The fronds they are waving are related specifically to the traditions and symbols of Sukkot.

The “Hoshana Connection” is important in that it is yet another reminder that Christianity stemmed from Judaism. Jesus was a Jew as were all his first followers. Without Judaism, there is no Christianity.

My dear Christian friends, this means that all attacks against us Jews, against Israel, are against you too.

Each time our heritage is denied, yours is too.

In preserving and upholding our legacy you are actually protecting yours.

Think about it.

And remember that not to speak is to speak.

The choice is yours.

 

 

 

 

 

Paint your own way

I wish I could have attended the event organized by Artists 4 Israel who tattooed wounded soldiers and survivors of terrorism. In some cases, they covered scars with beautiful new graphics, in other cases people chose to place their body art elsewhere. The special event took place last week at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Tattooing in a museum?!

It may sound weird but it is actually the most profound kind of performance art possible. Maybe art imitates life, or life imitates art but in this case, art was used to celebrate life.

People who have survived terrorism and war have scars. Sometimes they are the physical scars of wounds. Other times they are the emotional scars caused by being exposed to things people should not see. Often they carry both type of scars.

The problem with scars is that they do not go away. Wounds heal and scars can even fade but they don’t disappear. This is true for both kinds of scars. Survivors go on with their lives, they can live and be happy but the scars remain.

Imagine that every time you get dressed you see a vivid reminder of the most terrible experience of your life. Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing evidence of horror someone else chose to inflict on you. Now imagine it is not something you see on yourself that throws you back to the moment of horror, it is something external that triggers the memory. A sound, a smell that reminds you… something no one else understands but never fails to bring back the trauma.

Sometimes it is easier to deal with physical scars than emotional scars. At least the physical others can see and understand a little. In both cases, it is not the scar itself that is the real issue rather what it symbolizes.

Choice.

Choice makes all the difference in the world. Defining your own experience is a matter of empowerment. When someone else chooses to inflict horror on you it is devastating. You didn’t choose to carry the scars of their brutality. Trauma can steal away emotional control. Imagine that you are having a positive experience and suddenly something triggers the memory of a terrible experience, suddenly you are not in the here and now, you are back in the horror of what was done to you. Just carrying the knowledge in the back of your head that there is the possibility that suddenly, something else will control your experience can be terrifying.

Tattooing survivors is a way to turn ugly physical scars in to beautiful images. More importantly, it is a way to choose. The tattoo is a reminder of a different experience or thought, something that inspires the individual. It is the symbol of an idea to latch on to. A new memory. It is an indelible reminder that the survivor may not have been free to choose his or her experience but they are free to choose their reaction to it.

It’s a symbol that anyone can ‘paint their own way” – this is not to say that this is easy but it is a matter of choice.

The courageous Kay Wilson was one of the people tattooed at the event (if you are not yet familiar with her story, you can read about her here). Her choice is deeply moving: the words of a Jewish prayer said every morning upon awakening, giving thanks to God for restoring the soul to the body after sleep. It gives thanks for life, with acknowledgement that each day is a gift, not to be taken for granted. In a way, it is also a statement of choice, that God could have chosen not to restore life.

These are Kay’s words. I dare you to read this and remain unmoved.

I wasn’t going to write about this, but seeing as this event is already in the national news, I might as well share it here. This is me at the Israel Museum at an event organized by Artists 4 Israel who tattooed wounded soldiers and survivors of terrorism.

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One man had a tattoo of the signature of his murdered son which I thought was extremely powerful. I decided to get a small wristband with the Jewish prayer “I give thanks to you O living and eternal King, that in your compassion you have restored my very breath. Great is your faithfulness.”

In Hebrew, this prayer is called “Moda Ani.” It is the first words that Jewish people say upon waking up. Well, I say this prayer 1000’s times a day because I am thankful that I am still alive.

“Moda” not only means gratitude it carries the same root letters of the word “Jew.” So, as a grateful Jewish person, I am going to carry on bearing witness to the life and death of my friend, continue to do all that I can to expose and defund the incitement in the Palestinian Autkay-tathority and continue to be thankful for the goodness of my people Israel.

To the minority who may object because of “religious” reasons, I am aware that the Torah prohibits tattoos. It also prohibits anti-Torah and anti-Jewish traits such as unkindness, judgment, self-righteousness, prejudice and many other things that I personally find so easy to do.

Now to the best part.

It was none other than an Arab artist who tattooed the Jewish Hebrew prayer on my wrist. I love the BW photo (courtesy Mandy Detwiler) not only because his face is just so very kind, but because of the magnificence of an Arab marking me with tenderness and hope.

Think about this. Remember it.

Next time you experience something difficult, the next time you start to feel sorry for yourself, remember Kay’s choice. She could have chosen bitterness and hate. Instead she chose love and life.

Instead of “Why me?” she chose to say “Moda ani” – “I thank you.”

Do you see how powerful choice is?

And if Kay can paint her own way, you can too.

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