Columns | First Person

After the fire: A Torah’s trip to a secular kibbutz

MONTCLAIR, N.J. (JTA) — We land at Ben Gurion Airport in the heat of winter, on the first day of Chanukah.  At 11 a.m. Dec. 2, already it is 82 degrees in Tel Aviv — unusual weather for the rainy season in Israel. And it will get hotter. Much hotter.

Moments before our wheels touch down, a brush fire breaks out in the Carmel Valley, near Haifa. By the time we make it to our taxi it is a news item on the radio. You don’t need to be a fluent Hebrew speaker to know that something is happening. The cab drivers are clustered, standing by their cars with the news blaring on the radio, smoking, not talking. They are listening intently.

The ride to meet our friends who had arrived on separate flights gives us the opportunity to catch up with our driver. A fire in the Carmel is burning out of control, he tells us. Local firefighters are overwhelmed. Rumors are flying as to the cause.

By the time we check into our hotel at 4 p.m., the fire has become a national disaster; by dinnertime it is a national tragedy:  Forty prison guards and their bus driver perish while being evacuated. And the fire is getting stronger, engulfing a larger area and completely overpowering the available resources. In the fire’s sights are a school for troubled youth in Yemin Orde, an artist’s colony in Ein Hod and Kibbutz Beit Oren. Everyone knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who is directly affected. All army reservists with any firefighting experience are called and told to get to Haifa immediately.

By the time the sun goes down on Shabbat, the fire is extinguished. A converted 747 from Arizona designed to fight wildfires in California drops a huge blanket of chemicals to put out the blaze, but the destruction it leaves is smoldering and raw.

On Monday morning we visit Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular group of New Age kibbutzniks who have championed a model of the collective community concept that is controversial and sustaining. Their primary income is derived from a hotel-resort operation combined with eco-tourism for nature lovers in the Carmel Valley. Kibbutz members not involved in the daily hotel business are employed by outside businesses or run home-based independent businesses from inside the kibbutz. One business, a pottery studio, belongs to an artist name Imi. Imi is married to Ran, who serves as the kibbutz manager. Ran leads us on a tour of what is left of Beit Oren.

Amazingly, much is spared. The main guest house and outbuildings used for the hotel guest business appear untouched by the fire. But the homes of many kibbutz members, including Ran and Imi’s, are destroyed. Imi’s studio, which contained many unfinished pots awaiting glazing in a high temperature kiln, is reduced to clay ashes.

Inside Ran and Imi’s house, food on the table is blackened. They explain that they got the call to evacuate in the middle of dinner and literally grabbed their laptops and cell phones before leaving for the waiting shuttles. The images of pictures affixed to their refrigerator door with magnets have literally melted from the intensity of the heat. Nearly everything is black and burnt; the smell reminds us of a campfire. Strangely, the only thing we notice that is not burnt are the wooden logs in the fireplace, somehow protected by the stone masonry that surround it.

It is an emotional scene for Ran and Imi, returning to their home this way, and we get caught up in the intensity of their feelings. You can see their pain of loss surrounded by their thankfulness for survival. It is on their faces, in their bloodshot eyes and in their choked-up voices.

We are compelled to do something for these people, some act of service or kindness to show them we are moved and that we care. So I ask, “What can we do for you?” expecting to write a check.

Ran pauses, takes a deep breath and replies.

“We will be OK, eventually. The insurance should cover our losses,” he says. “But there is something we would like to have.”

Excited at the prospect of any request, and raising my voice above the ever increasing sound of workers beginning their demolition work, I shout back at him, “What? Anything you want. If we can do it, we will. What do you need?”

We can barely hear each other above the bulldozers.

“A Torah,” he screams. “We need a Torah.”

At that moment I knew why we had come to Beit Oren that morning.

Ran explains that although they are a secular kibbutz, the residents do perform rituals and observances. They occasionally hold Shabbat services, officiate b’nai mitzvah and organize High Holidays services.

In Israel, Torahs are distributed by the nearest local chief rabbi. In Haifa, the chief rabbi, as in all Israeli cities and towns, is Orthodox; very Orthodox. In the chief rabbi’s view, Ran says, Beit Oren is not Jewish enough to merit a Torah because men and women sit together when praying. For an American Reform Jew, this is outrageous, and everyone in our group is appalled. My wife, Trudi, and I now have a mission. And we have a plan.

Just weeks before we left for Israel, the rabbi at our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., suggested that the congregation consider what to do with the additional Torah scrolls that we acquired as part of a merger with another Reform synagogue.

We leave Ran and Imi at Beit Oren. I call our rabbi, Steven Kushner, and tell him I have an idea for one of the scrolls. I can hear him smiling into his iPhone. We return to New Jersey a week later, arriving at the airport in Newark at 5 a.m., and go before the temple board that same evening. Jet lagged but no doubt energized by the opportunity for mitzvah, we tell our story with considerable emotion. We talk about the fire, Ran and Imi, and the need for a Torah. We ask if the board would consider donating one of the temple’s. There are a few questions and the president calls for a vote. Twenty-five hands rise — the consent is unanimous.

It is a hot Friday in July when we return to Israel with the Torah scroll. After Kabbalat Shabbat services in Haifa, we head to the kibbutz. Walking up the steps into Ran and Imi’s house has a surreal quality. While I have only been there once, it seems so familiar. Perhaps the memory is so strong because of its tragic nature? Ran is happy and proud of his newly renovated home and eager to point out both the replaced and upgraded amenities.

Before eating we welcome Shabbat. There are guitars, ukuleles and drums, niggunim to get in the mood, and Shabbat songs. We sing, make blessings, eat great food, drink wine and sing some more, all underneath the star-filled sky of the Carmel on a beautifully restored deck. There is much to be thankful for this night in their house — a house rebuilt after the fire.

Despite its secular bent, the kibbutz has a shul. Construction began a few years ago after the passing of a longtime kibbutz member who made the provision in her will. By the looks of the fresh paint, clean floors and newly refurbished ark, our impending arrival may have given added purpose and priority to its timely completion.

Walking us back to our hotel bungalow, Ran tells me to leave the Torah in my room when the community first gathers the next morning at the shul. He says the residents will march to my room to “receive” the Torah from us and parade it back to the shul.

The next morning Ohad, a Jewish Renewal rabbi with a new age focus, officiates at the ceremony. He lives on the kibbutz and conducts seminars, meditations and gatherings in his spirituality center. He also operates from an encampment deep in the kibbutz’s forest, where he conducted a Jewish Shaman ceremony the night before. He looks like he has been up all night. About half of the community’s 170 members are gathered just outside the little shul for some opening remarks.

I lead the assembled multitude back to my hotel room to receive the Torah. There is genuine excitement, not merely polite participation. Soon I’m inside my room, lifting the Torah from its resting place. I turn and walk out the door.

There is singing, crying, laughing, kissing, hugging — first the Torah, then me, then each other. It is Simchat Torah times a million. A tallit is stretched out and raised as a makeshift chuppah. It is placed over me and the Torah, and the kibbutzniks begin to lead me back to their shul. A man comes up next to me, motioning to cut in, like you would with a dance partner. I hand him the Torah and he dances with it, tears streaming down his cheeks. Imi tells me he is a cancer survivor who is missing his vocal chords.

He is also a Yemenite, which happens to be the nationality of the chief scribe for this 110-year-old scroll — a fact I had passed to the group during my earlier remarks. The man is dancing with the Torah as though it were a long-lost relative.

From person to person the scroll is passed and shared. There is rejoicing under the chuppah as the procession slowly makes its way back to where we began.

Then I hear the blasts — long and loud, then short, rapid staccato with piercing highs. It is the sound not of one but three shofars. The horns are several feet long and curled about three-quarters of the way out, held high and played like trumpets announcing royalty. The energy is as palpable as it is powerful.

We return to the shul for a Torah service, then more singing and dancing with the Torah, a few closing remarks by the rabbi and lots of hugging and kissing. I am a popular target for demonstrative affection; it’s like being attacked by a dozen grandmothers at once. My favorite is a woman with a heavy Polish accent to her English, her mascara now in small clumps on her face.

“When I saw you come out with the Torah, I pished from my eyes,” she cries at me.

That pretty much sums it up. Of course, she also wants to know if I am hungry, married and if I have a place to stay that night. So Jewish.

After the crowd disperses, I have some alone time with Ran. He is much quieter than he had been last night and earlier that morning. I can see he is reflecting.

I start the conversation with a question: “Why did you ask me for a Torah?”

“I don’t know,” he replies too quickly, suggesting his train of thought was right where I had jumped in. “That is not like me. I am a business guy. I would always ask for money. But that day, when you asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I opened my mouth and the word ‘Torah’ came out. They were not my words. They did not come from me but through my mouth.”

Ran pauses and turns directly to me.

I am not quite sure what to say, and think I shouldn’t interrupt. He continues, “Then today when I see the people hugging and kissing, people who have not spoken to each other in months, some for years, I knew why we needed this Torah. We had problems here before the fire. The fire just made those problems worse. But now we have a Torah and after seeing this today, I think we can really start to heal.”

We exchange a few more words and I smile at him. Then two men — both Jewish, about the same age, born, raised and living 6,000 miles apart — embrace warmly.

One of the Torah verses chanted that day translates to “you shall pass through the fire and will be purified” (Numbers 31:23).  I think at that moment, locked in each others arms, we both realize we have “passed through” something much bigger than either of us, now forever connected by this fiery Torah. Such a blessing.

(Jerry Krivitzky is a businessman living in Montclair, N.J.)