In Montclair, students at Congregation Shomrei Emunah heard about the fire in the Carmel Forest in northern Israel and worried about artist Avi Zukerman, who has worked with the congregation in the past. Zukerman lives in Ein Hod, an artists’ colony where about 20 homes were destroyed or damaged by the fire.
“I am safe and sound and my house was saved from that horrible fire,” he e-mailed congregants. “This beautiful village of mine, Ein Hod, is now black and depressing instead of green and blooming. Many homes were burnt down to the ground but people are in a good spirit, helping each other and looking forward to rebuild their homes and the village.”
Students at the Conservative congregation, who regularly do mitzva projects as they begin their day at religious school, took time to make cards for Zukerman. Additional cards will go to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, to send on to soldiers who helped extinguish the fire.
Similar efforts took shape all over the MetroWest area following the fire, as religious school directors put together projects to raise awareness among their students and provide support and morale boosters for those directly affected in Israel.
The worst forest fire in Israel’s history, which raged Dec. 2-5, devastated the Carmel Forest just outside Haifa, destroying an estimated 1.5 million trees on some 10,000 acres. Forty-three people were killed, and several neighborhoods were evacuated as smoke billowed over the city and the fire. Twenty countries participated in the effort to extinguish the fire and aid victims and evacuees.
Students at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange are putting together a YouTube video to thank all the countries that sent firefighters and equipment to help put out the blaze. A school-wide assembly focused not only on the tragic events, but, as director Pia Kutten said, “on how this terrible experience has managed to build bridges between Israel and other countries.”
The students made giant thank you cards to be sent to several of the embassies of the countries who helped. Students will also run a fund-raiser, with proceeds going to Friends of Israel Firefighters to purchase gear.
All over the area, congregations are getting a jump on Tu B’Shevat — which falls on Jan. 20 this year — stepping up efforts to contribute to the Jewish National Fund’s traditional Jewish New Year of the Trees planting project.
Among the schools that donated money to plant trees through JNF are B’nai Shalom of West Orange, Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, and Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, which led the effort.
At B’nai Abraham, students viewed videos of the fire and heard about the devastation at a school-wide assembly. The synagogue started “Bring Green to the Carmel,” a tree-planting drive to replenish the trees of the Carmel Forest by raising funds for JNF. Religious school director Janet Resnick said she “encouraged every student to plant a tree.”
At Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, Rabbi Geoffrey Spector focused on the fire in his sermon on Dec. 4, also urging congregants to donate to JNF. The effort will continue through January and will culminate in a congregational Tu B’Shevat seder on Jan. 19, when the congregation will pay tribute to the victims of the fire.
Other congregations noted the harsh irony of the fires occurring during Hanukka, the Festival of Lights. At MJCBY, the theme of an environmental booth for a holiday celebration was augmented, according to Melissa Weiner, director of lifelong learning at MJCBY. As planned, it focused on the contrast between the good uses of oil — as in the Hanukka story — versus the bad — as in the case of the BP oil spill. Because of the fire, the booth also included the contrast between good fire — as in the Hanukka menora — and bad — as in the forest fires.
At Temple Sinai’s Chanukah Family Festival, held Dec. 5, the Summit synagogue dedicated the kindling of the menora to those affected by the fires in Israel.
Yemin Orde, a youth village and orphanage that was severely affected by the conflagration, is also receiving support from the local Jewish community.
Participants at a Young Judaea convention held Dec. 10-12 in New Milford brought clothing to donate to the children of Yemin Orde, and discussed the damage to the institution.
Two area day schools, Golda Och Academy in West Orange and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, are also providing support to Yemin Orde: Students at Kushner are raising money for the orphanage, while Och students now in Israel on the school’s Neshama program are working with administrators of Yemin Orde to put together a hesed project there.
Kushner has also organized a fund-raising drive to benefit JNF’s Operation Carmel Renewal.