Mourning Mevo Modiim

Last Thursday, ironically Lag B’Omer, over 40 families lost their homes and all their possessions when Moshav Mevo Modiim went up in flames. And thousands more, who did not live there, suffered no material losses, but lost their second home, their spiritual home. I am among them.

I opened Facebook late Thursday afternoon to a post by a friend from Mevo Modiim, stating “Our Moshav is burning down. Please pray for us.” I searched the news, to find reports of wildfire ravaging the moshav, and followed closely until the fire was brought under control, with the devastating news that all but five homes had been completely destroyed. Fortunately, everyone had been evacuated in time and there was no injury or loss of life. But the people who lived in those homes lost absolutely everything they had.

Mevo Modiim, or “the moshav” (emphasis on the first syllable), as it was known within the community, was founded in 1975 by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his “hippilach,” the young people who had followed him to Israel and settled here. They were in no way mainstream. Most were members of the counterculture of America in the 60s and 70s, who became religious through the singing rabbi’s inspiration and path of love. And they continued to be resolutely both, counterculture, and deeply religious, with a complete faith based on love of G-d. Many of the members, and their children, became musicians and artists known worldwide, and as the younger generation grew, the moshav expanded, adding a modest “caravan city,” home to the children and their families.

When I decided to come to Israel on a spiritual journey in the late 80s, a friend in Canada gave me a list of contacts, almost all of whom either lived on the moshav or had lived there in the past. After less than a week in the country, I first visited Mevo Modiim, with its rocky expanses of grasses and flowers, and its rows of old-style, modest kibbutz houses, women in flowing skirts and colorful head-coverings, men with long beards and payot. It was there that I met the first man I dated in Israel. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he expected his future wife to cover every hair on her head and wear socks, even in the summer, something incomprehensible for a young woman who’d grown up in a Canadian, conservative household. And he wouldn’t as much as hold my hand (equally incomprehensible to the then me). However, despite this seeming austerity, one evening he packed me, and other young people from the moshav, into a van, and took us to a reggae festival in the Negev, where we spent the entire night listening to the likes of Ziggy Marley and Alfa Blondie, much to the chagrin of the director of the Orthodox study program in which I was enrolled at the time. When I think back on this, I realize how much it embodies the attitude of many residents of the moshav. Uncompromisingly halachic, and yet open to experiencing life to the fullest, within halacha’s boundaries.

I spent countless Shabbatot and holidays on the moshav, having made friends with many of the women there. I attended Rosh Chodesh gatherings, which always included Torah study, movement, and an artistic activity. On Sukkot, I loved to go from home to home, visiting the beautiful sukkot decorated with fabrics and lace and crystals. I learned almost everything I know about halacha from people who lived there, who brought it to me with a spirit that I could embrace rather than resist. I sat on the ground with other community members, gathered around Reb Shlomo, on evenings when Shabbat transitioned straight into Tisha B’Av, quietly chanting mournful niggunim and learning the messages of love that can be gleaned from the destruction, messages that seem eerily prescient now. The way of Reb Shlomo and his followers was the way of love, with all the complexity that involves, for, as stated in the Song of Songs, “Love is strong as Death.” While the fire blazed, people escaped with only the clothes they were wearing, but ensured that the Sifrei Torah from the synagogue were saved. And in what can only be considered a complete miracle, many of the holy books in Reb Shlomo’s destroyed house survived!!

For the past three days, I have been riveted to the news and moshav-related posts on Facebook, with heartache and with awe. As I write, monetary donations from one campaign alone (and there are many) have reached over $225,000, and a video posted by a resident claims that gifts of clothes, toiletries, toys and baby items have been so numerous that a hangar has been opened at Ben Gurion Airport to house them.  One post stated that people in the community who hadn’t spoken in years were now embracing one another, and two young women who grew up on the moshav but now live in the US, within 25 hours mobilized El Al, the Israeli Consul in New York, and numerous community organizations, and got on a plane with 18 duffle bags full of urgent supplies. A major Israeli news broadcaster screened a heartbreaking video of a brother and sister who lived on the moshav returning to the ruins, the sister meant to be married in a few days, shocked at the NOTHING that is left. The brother talking of losing the only type of bottle from which his baby daughter would agree to drink, them both speaking, in tears, about the lost wall of family photos (you can watch the video here).

But more amazing, amid the pain, is the faith of people who have lost everything, faith that the curse will turn into a blessing, and the gratitude that no life was lost.

For me, the moshav will forever be connected in my heart to a dearly beloved friend who lived there, and who died a couple of years ago. She was an incredibly gifted ceramic artist, who had decorated her living room with beautiful, colorful ceramic tiles she had made. All gone (I fantasize that, because they were ceramic, perhaps some of them could be found among the ruins). And the flowered glade in the forest where she would sit to gather strength between brutal chemo and radiation treatments, probably gone as well. She, and other members of the moshav, are buried in a small cemetery nearby, as the moshav was going to be the families’ home forever… Each of those destroyed homes has its stories of loss – of photographs, of memories, of people, of a childhood homeland, of a place and a community that, in its humility, was larger than life.

It remains to be seen how Mevo Modiim will be rebuilt. Will it rise from its ashes in any form similar to what was? How will this be funded? What scars will remain on the land and on hearts? It is the beginning of a long and painful process, whose end is unclear. But what is clear, is the depth of the community’s faith, the fervency of their prayers, the belief that all that happens is for the good. May it be so.

Note: The community’s members will be in need of very substantial funding to help rebuild their homes and their lives. If you would like to help, you can contribute to this campaign (donations in dollars, American tax receipt). To contribute in Israel, “Residents for Residents,” Bank Leumi (10), Yehud Branch (837), Account 2227840 – receipts recognized by Mas Hachnasa available by contacting the number on the website. There are also campaigns to raise funds for individual families.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic.
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