My friends and I are beyond excited. We are in Neve Tzuf for Shabbat. A beautiful place, in the midst of hundreds of trees, planted by the hardworking people living in the yishuv. We ask our hosts, Amy and Mickey, both doctors of science, why they decided to live in the middle of the Shomron — not particularly close to any big cities or labs. Amy responded “It was purely a political move. When Peres came out with the Oslo Accords, we knew giving back this land would lead to the destruction of the State of Israel. So 18 years ago, we packed up our family from Givat Shmuel and moved out to Neve Tzuf.”
We have a lovely Friday night davening in the large shul on the yishuv, and eat our meal with their daughter, who lives nearby. We run back to the house through strong winds, where we schmooze and drink tea.
I am drifting off to sleep when I hear my friend Sima say, “I think I smell smoke.” I tiptoe to the window. I peek open the curtain and see four Israeli teenagers carrying an industrial-sized hose in the backyard.
Down the hill, 50 feet away, there’s a fire in the tree. People are running towards it with hoses trying to get it away from the houses. We’re the third house away from the inferno, with a forest directly in front of the house, trees practically touching the windows.
“RUN UPSTAIRS AND WAKE UP MICKEY AND AMY. I’M GOING TO WAKE UP LEORA” I run downstairs as fast as I possibly can, throwing open the bedroom door and screaming “LEORA WAKE UP THERE’S A FIRE.” I run back upstairs to hear the assessment of the situation. Cell phone out, Amy tells us “We haven’t been told to evacuate yet. Go get your coats”
Sima and I run down to grab our coats. I shove my cell phone, wallet, and siddur into my jacket pockets. Leora grabs her knapsack and runs upstairs. Sima and I follow suit — throwing our stuff into our knapsacks and shopping bags. We race back upstairs and stare out the window.
“They’re telling us to stay put. They may be able to get it under control” says Amy.
Leora is sitting in the corner saying Tehillim. I try to hand her pocketbook to her, “It’s Shabbos!” she cries, throwing it on the floor. “Take it!” I yell back. “You don’t know if you’ll need it.”
Sima and I are watching the blaze. People are standing on the mirpeset (terrace) throwing water at the inferno, trying anything to get it under control. A huge gust of wind comes, the fire jumps up into the air and across the trees separating us from the fire. The trees touching the house go up in flames.
“Mickey” Amy screams, “we need to leave!”
Women start banging on the door “Water! Water!” they yell in Hebrew “The fire is in between the houses!”
We stand around not sure what to do. Then Amy directs us to get to the car. We run outside. I turn around, there is a wall of bright red and orange flames behind the house. There is a man on the mirpeset with a hose, trying to stop it. The plants next to the house are on fire. The house next to us is on fire. We run to the car. Amy is still calling out for Mickey, her husband. We get into the car, Amy opens the window and screams “Mickey! Mickey! Have you seen Michael??” We drive away as the fire licks the side of the house.
We go to the other side of the yishuv, where their daughter lives. We knock, waking her and her husband up. Mickey drives up in his car. We are ushered into their home and explain what transpired on the other side of the yishuv.
They start to wake their kids up and pause mid-process as they haven’t received the call to evacuate this part of the yishuv too. We sit down on the couch and try to relax. I put my contacts back in so I can see. I don’t know what the rest of the night will hold.
Soon after, they get the call to evacuate. We go upstairs to see what we can do to help. I hold their screaming 2-year-old so that the parents can pack. Leora and Sima are helping the rest of the kids get their shoes and coats on. Mickey misses a step while carrying their 4-year-old daughter and falls. Sima grabs the 4-year-old and takes her to the car. A neighbor is strapping her children into the car by herself; her husband went to go help the firefighters. People are running from door to door making sure that everyone is awake and ready to evacuate. I strap the 2-year-old in and help one of the other daughters into the car. We drive away from the house in a four car caravan.
When we get to the entrance of the yishuv, my mind is in shock. Instead of the pure chaos I expected, the only word that came to my mind to describe it was calm. No screaming, no honking, each car was driving slowly and cautiously. Normal citizens, not the army, at the gates are directing each car to drive to Ateret, one yishuv over, and were arranging car rides for those who didn’t have room.
As we drove away, I turned around and saw a cloud of red covering what seemed to be half the yishuv. I thought there would be nothing left. As we got farther away, we saw that another fire had been started on the other side of the yishuv and that the original fire was spreading out in three different directions following the pathway of the winds. I started thinking horrible thoughts; to stop myself from crying, I started making lists in my head of whether I had all my things with me, and if I didn’t, what I needed to replace. Leora is crying about being in a car on Shabbos. Sima is singing songs in her head. We each tried to distract ourselves from the fear we had inside of us.
As we came up to the gate of Ateret, the same calm cool-headedness that was so clearly seen during the last evacuation was here too. People were out in the street in their pajamas, knocking on windows and inviting them in for Shabbos. A woman came up to our window and yelled in Hebrew, “Bo” (come). Mickey told us to go with her so we got up and followed her into her house. Her husband was waking up their younger kids and putting them in one bedroom while their older kids were helping make beds. The woman left and then came back with another family. From their window, we watched the fire spread in Neve Tzuf. They didn’t speak or understand so much English, so we sat in their living room for a while, trying to understand some news.
Mickey came to the house to check in on us. He looked out the window and saw the fire moving. We ask how he’s doing. “Well, I’m homeless now,” he answers with a sad smile. He then leaves to go to the house where his wife and daughter’s family are. There are no lights in Ateret as they turned off the electricity in both Neve Tzuf and Ateret. We try to ask our hosts about it, but forget the Hebrew word for electricity. They speak about the chashmal (electricity) but we are too tired and shaken up to understand. We ask if the fire will spread here. They don’t understand. We try to ask if they have trees here too and they proudly respond that they have two forests on the yishuv, but “no worry,” they tell us in broken English, “there is car watching.” We don’t know if there is actually one car watching the whole yishuv or if it was a translation error.
They keep telling us that we can go upstairs to go to sleep but we’re too scared. Our hands have stopped shaking but our hearts are still beating quickly. After sitting for an hour or two, we finally go upstairs. Mickey comes back to house and they ask for us to come down. “We’re leaving,” says Mickey. We grab our bags and follow him saying “Todah Robah,” to every person we see.
In the car, we ask what’s going on. “The population in this yishuv has doubled. The electricity had to be turned off so there is no running water. There is only one road into and out of the yishuv surrounded by forest on both sides. We think this may be an elaborate trap by the Arabs who started the fire in Neve Tzuf.” Jews being corralled into a small area to murder them by the masses is not a new tactic in Jewish history and they didn’t want to take the chance. “We’re going to my son’s yishuv called Alon. There are no trees there.”
We drive 40 minutes through the Shomron. There are chayalim (soldiers) all over the place, stopping Palestinian cars and checking IDs. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold they must be.
We arrive at Alon at about 2:30 in the morning. We wake up the residents of the house and they make beds for us. Their son is a doctor and instructs us to drink water in case of smoke inhalation. They make us a fort of sorts between the dining room table and wall were we can sleep on camping mattresses and sleeping bags. Leora and I fall asleep, while Sima lies awake.
The next morning, we’re in a daze. An announcement is made in shul and piles of food are delivered. We eat outside in the hot Judean Desert sun. The shul’s congregants share their single pint of Ben and Jerry’s with us because we all needed some ice cream. We try not to think about it and focus on getting through Shabbos.
The Gemara tells us that Eretz Yisroel is acquired through yissurin, tribulations, but I never assumed that I would ever be part of them. I love Israel. I want to live here. I want to raise my children here. The idea of terrorism is saddening and I definitely davened (prayed) and tried to bring awareness about it in my home community while I was in high school, it but I never dreamed that I would experience it.
Rav Kook teaches us that the Second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, and the only way to bring the Third Beit HaMikdash is through Ahavat Chinam, baseless love. The amount of love I witnessed between Jews was unparalleled to anything else I have experienced in my short 19 years of life. There were no questions asked when kids my age ran towards the blaze with water bottles in their hands. There were no questions asked when the people of Ateret opened up their homes to us. There were no questions asked when plates and plates of food were brought to us from the community of Alon.
18 houses were completely burnt down in Neve Tzuf. Over 40 houses, including the one I was in, were severely destroyed. The people of Neve Tzuf need your help. In Israel, they are collecting kitchen tools, clothing, toys, and linens.