The big black stain on the exterior window of the sanctuary shows just how close last week’s fires came to leaving Haifa’s one and only Conservative synagogue in a pile of ashes.
“The flames got right up to here,” says Rabbi Dov Hayun (known affectionately among his congregants as “Harav Dubi”), pointing to the spot as he guides a visitor around the premises. “Had the firefighters arrived two minutes later, all this glass would have shattered, and everything inside would have caught on fire. Nothing would have been left of this place.”
Located high on the hills of Haifa, Congregation Moriah was one of hundreds of buildings damaged during the fires that raged across Israel last week. This northern coastal city, Israel’s third largest, took a particularly bad hit.
But the true extent of the wreckage here at Moriah, the oldest active Conservative congregation in Israel, only becomes evident when a visitor sets foot inside. Although the first-floor sanctuary was largely spared, the stench of burnt plastic permeates the entire building. Its source, as Hayun explains, is the huge stack of chairs, 400 in total, that melted when the storage room on the floor above was burnt to a crisp. These were the chairs that would serve the congregation during the busy High Holy Days when the crowds would spill out into the yard outside. Tables, hot plates, serving dishes, computers, radiators and audiovisual equipment, also stored in this room for congregational use, were also destroyed in the flames, their charred remains scattered on the second floor and on the stairs leading up to it.
But no doubt the biggest loss for this congregation is the massive book collection that had been stored in this room. Four thousand books, to be exact – a collection that included prayer books, Bibles, Talmuds, books of Jewish philosophy, and books of Hebrew poetry, many of them bequeathed to the congregation for a Beit Midrash that was supposed to have been built on the second floor. All that remains of this great congregational treasure is a huge pile of burnt books, the Hebrew writing still visible on some of the pages.
Hayun has placed a sheet of tarmac on top of the pile to prevent the loose pages from flying in the wind. But some still manage to escape. So whenever he finds a burnt page underfoot, he picks it up and gently places it in one of the huge plastic trash bags stationed at the entrance.
The clubhouse on the roof that once served the Haifa branch of Noam, the Conservative youth movement, is also gone. Its walls and ceiling, which flew off the upper floor when they caught fire, now lie in a pile of rubble at the entrance to the building.
Although the congregational daycare center on the second floor is still intact, it is no longer inhabitable because of the terrible stench that pervades the entire building. Besides that, the children no longer have a place to run wild: The outdoor playground, located on the roof outside the second floor, is in shambles, its recreational facilities reduced to globs of melted plastic.
Hayun was at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last Thursday morning, officiating at a bar mitzvah, when he first heard reports of fires in Haifa. Just before noon, he ordered the daycare staff to evacuate the 22 children on the premises. A few hours later, as the flames approached the neighborhood, several congregation members ran to the synagogue, grabbed the five Torah scrolls in the ark, and moved them to safety.
They got out just in the nick of time. At 3 P.M., a pine tree behind the synagogue caught fire, and within minutes, it had spread to the roof and upper floor of the building. Minutes later, firefighters were on the scene and managed to rescue the ground floor.
Driving back from Jerusalem while the floor above his synagogue was burning, Hayun had to skirt around police and firefighters to get to the premises because the main road had been blocked. “Once I arrived, I hung around until 10 o’clock at night trying to take in all the damage,” he recounts. “I didn’t even realize until I came home that I was covered in soot and smelled awful.”
No sooner had he arrived home than a knock was heard on the door. A member of the army Home Command ordered Hayun and his wife to vacate their home immediately because new fires had just erupted in the neighborhood. “We grabbed some pillows and blankets and found another place to sleep,” he recounts.
At the crack of dawn and after a sleepless night, the rabbi returned to his synagogue, where he was met by several devoted congregation members. Together, they threw themselves into the job of cleaning up. “One thing was clear to all of us,” he says. “We intended to hold Friday night and Shabbat services at the synagogue, just like we do every week, and nothing was going to stop us.” Local handymen were brought in to fix some of the more urgent problems, like burnt electrical wiring and flooding. After the basic cleanup was completed, barely an hour before Shabbat set in, the Torah scrolls were returned to their ark.
Six years ago, when terrible fires erupted in the nearby Carmel Forest, Moriah congregation members had mobilized to help those who had lost loved ones and homes in the disaster. “I had been pretty sure that we would be doing the same this time around,” says Hayun. “Never did it cross my mind that we would be the victims.”
Moriah was established in 1954, and eight years later moved into its current premises – the site of a tuberculosis sanatorium built during the British Mandate period. With a membership of 200 families, it’s a fairly large congregation for Israel. Among Moriah’s notable past members was the family of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the religious right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. But after moving to Israel from California, where they had belonged to a Reform congregation, the Bennetts became increasingly observant and eventually left Moriah for an Orthodox synagogue.
Hayun, whose parents are Tunisian-born Jews, took over the helm nine years ago. Like many Mizrahi Jews, he was raised in a traditional home and had no exposure to Conservative Judaism growing up. “Like many kids who come from this type of background, I went through a phase where I stopped being observant,” recalls the 54-year-old father of two. “But at some point I realized that a secular lifestyle wasn’t for me, and neither was Orthodoxy.”
At a relatively late stage in life, after he had earned his livelihood both as a teacher and computer technician, Hayun, who also happens to be an avid scuba diver, began his rabbinical studies. He was hired by Moriah as soon as he was ordained.
Although he always knew disasters could bring out the best in people, Hayun says he is still overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness he has witnessed in recent days. One particular gesture, he says, has moved him to the core.
Last Friday, the day after the fire, a member of the Moriah congregation gave birth to a boy. She and her husband had long planned on holding the circumcision ceremony at the synagogue. “We suddenly found ourselves with a big problem on our hands,” says Hayun. “How could we have the ceremony here, this coming Friday, if all our tables were burnt in the fire?”
Not wanting to disappoint the new mother, Hayun called a friend, a carpenter, and asked him if he could build a table within a few days. The friend agreed, and when Hayun asked how much it would cost, the friend said the work would be on him, and the congregation would only have to cover the cost of materials. Hayun thanked him and asked if he could find out how much the materials would cost. A few minutes later, the friend rang him back with an answer that brought him to tears.
“One of his suppliers is an Arab from Baka al-Garbiyeh and the other is an Arab from Umm al-Fahm,” relays Hayun. “When they were told what had happened to our synagogue and why we needed the table, they told my friend that they would not dream of taking money.”