In This American Hippy Community in Israel, All That's Left Is Ashes

Mevo Modi’im, where all residents are followers of 'Singing Rabbi' Shlomo Carlebach, 40 houses were destroyed. It's now painted black with charcoal

A firefighter at Mevo Modi’im on May 24, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Mevo Modi'im, a small, pastoral community in central Israel, was, until recently, a gathering place for Jews of all stripes, followers of the "Singing Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach. It has now been painted black with charcoal and red with the large quantities of fire-retardant materials that were poured over it from the skies.

On the other side of the community's gates, some smoke still rises. Between the homes of the community, most of which were critically damaged from the fire, tin shacks that were once used as homes and storage units folded as if they were made of Plasticine. The scene is apocalyptic – downed power lines everywhere, the smell of burnt plastic, burnt children's bikes, building stones that crumble to the touch and concrete walls, of some of the houses left behind, that still emit heat.         

Since the 1960s, the small community's inhabitants included mix of ultra-Orthodox, secular and national religious, all followers of Rabbi Carlebach. American hippies in yarmulkes lived side-by-side with Haredi neighbors, so it was unsurprising to hear from a number of residents that, while evacuating, they packed their Judaica and a bag of something to smoke, to hold onto their sanity.

Resident Yossi Kozatzki waited patiently until firefighters announced that the fires had been brought under control. The announcement didn’t come until Friday morning. Only then did he drive to the hill overlooking the moshav to see if he could tell how his house had ended up, and especially to locate the two family dogs.

“We heard about houses that had burned,” he told Haaretz on the drive from one blocked road to another. “Unfortunately I still can’t see our house.”

The Kozatzkis’ home was one of 50 in Mevo Modi’im in central Israel that burned in Thursday’s fires, including 40 that were destroyed. “The fire yesterday was too big and came too fast. They asked us to leave and every family went somewhere else. They haven’t really told us anything and we’re getting our information only from the media. Everyone’s still in shock and are trying to assess the damage,” he said.

Burnt-out cars in Mevo Modi’im on May 24, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The morning after, Mevo Modi’im looked like a battleground. The firefighters had brought the blaze under control but were still on the site, and the smell of fire retardants hung in the air. An official in the Hevel Modi’im Local Council, which includes Mevo Modi’im, said the community would have to be rebuilt.

“The entire community just burned up,” said a resident of the area. “It’s very hard to look at. The residents have nowhere to go.”

Kozatzki received a call from the police command post that one of his dogs had been found, then he heard from a neighbor that his house had been damaged but that it wasn’t clear whether it was destroyed. Shortly afterward, two firefighters brought him both of his dogs, frightened and covered with soot. “They found them,” Yossi said, wiping away a tear.

Carlebach's home in the community was completely destroyed in the fire. Torn and burnt holy books stood in the center of the house. A man who had left Mevo Modi'im years ago but returned to see the house said, his voice shaking, that "the fire ate everything. Nothing remains." 

After a few minutes, they miraculously found crates with piles of books one of the meager home's rooms. The synagogue and the rabbi's archive on the northern end of the community were also untouched by the blaze. "You can't explain how they're standing and weren't harmed," said the local council's spokesman.       

Like previous huge blazes, this one was also worsened by the weather – hot and dry with strong winds in forested areas. Ironically, the rainy winter also worsened the situation, as the rain encouraged new growth that turned into more fuel for the fire.

Tzion, a local council employee who helped evacuate residents, said: “We got the people out of the houses on the edges of the community and at that same moment a great big blaze covered the whole row of houses. We had to make people leave, but in the end the fire decided for them and they got out. ... There was an older woman who didn’t want to come out. It’s hard to describe what went on here, we went through hell.”

Yarden Mevorach Levi recently moved with his fiancée to Mevo Modi’im, where they live with his family. The couple was to have gotten married this week. Like Kozatzki, Levi and his family were left Friday morning not knowing the fate of their home. “This whole moshav is made up of older people who don’t have cars. People whose whole lives are in the moshav. They have nowhere to go,” he said.

During the first hours of the fire, Levi said his fiancée evacuated many of the residents in her car to the gas station on the outskirts of the community. “People asked where the helicopters were and nobody had an answer. Only an hour and a half later did the firefighting planes come, and that was too late,” he said.

"There isn't any place like this in the country," said Daniel, who lost his home. He described how people would come to the community for kumzits, religious gatherings, "to sing and play instruments and dance all night."

Chana, a resident who was searching for her possessions among the piles of ash, said "life here was very dynamic, lots of neighborliness, giving, community action that these days, doesn't have a physical place."

Devora Kozatzki, sister of Yossi, now lives in Jerusalem, but described her childhood in Mevo Modi'im. "They're all hippies here," she said, "we came here knowing only Yiddish, and after a year we learned English." She continued, "Our house was always open, a home to all – I would wake up and find people sleeping in the living room." She compared it to the patriarch Abraham's hospitality. All the while, she packed documents, passports and sneakers for her brother's family. His home looks bad from the outside – its usual paint job of pink and blue is now joined by black – and by some miracle, it is untouched inside.

Over 15,000 dunams (3,700 acres) of forest and swaths of land burned down in wildfires that started Thursday across Israel, setting ablaze dozens of homes amid an intense heat wave.

Some 1,700 fires were extinguished over the past three days. About 1,500 firefighters, together with volunteers and employees from the Jewish National Fund and Nature and Parks Authority joined the effort to stop the fires.

In Mevo Modi’im, residents spent the weekend at Ben Shemen Youth Village, where people brought sacks of clothes for them. Forty percent of Ben Shemen Forest burned down.

It is still unclear what caused the fire.

In the Negohot settlement in the West Bank, several structures were damaged and 15 residents lightly hurt by smoke inhalation. Small fires broke out near the settlement of Paduel and in Beit Ezra in central Israel. Egyptian firefighting jets participated in extinguishing that blaze.

In Kibbutz Harel near Jerusalem, 10 structures burned down and 5,000 dunams, including 3,000 of forest land, burned as well. The firefighting services believe that fire was caused by a short circuit due to the heat wave. Firefighting jets from Cyprus helped fight the fire there.

Firefighting jets from Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Croatia and Italy were sent to Israel for backup after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the National Security Council, Foreign Ministry and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to act to ensure international aerial assistance in putting out the flames.

In Tel Aviv, temperatures reached up to 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, while 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) was measured in Haifa and 43 degrees Celsius (109.4 Fahrenheit) in Ashkelon.