Uriel Bar Shalom’s mouth turns dry the same way it did then, when he remembers that long trip south to the Arava desert on the day of the flash flood. He recalls the initial hours, when hope still lingered that his daughter, Ilan, had survived but the horror had already crept into his psyche and the body reacted accordingly.
It began in the afternoon of April 26, when Rotem, Ilan’s mother, called to tell Uriel that something had happened and that she was driving to the area of the Nahal Tzafit riverbed, south of the Dead Sea. “Rivka, Rotem’s mother, received a message that something had happened,” Bar Shalom recalls, “and she called Omer, Rotem’s brother, and Rotem called me. I told her I was going to Soroka [Medical Center in Be’er Sheva], because I’d heard that that’s where they were taking the injured.”
Rotem, her brother, Omer, and her partner, Yair, traveled south but decided midway to change course, because they’d heard the roads were closed. They, too, headed for Soroka, and got there before Uriel.
“When we got to the hospital,” he says now, “we were told that no more injured youths would be arriving and that the survivors were being taken to [the nearby community of] Ein Tamar, and those who were dead to Abu Kabir” – the institute of forensic medicine, in Tel Aviv.
“We decided,” he continues, “that Rotem and her boyfriend would go to Abu Kabir, and Omer and I headed for Ein Tamar. At this stage, Omer insisted that I shouldn’t drive anymore. He drove instead of me. The way to Ein Tamar was blocked, so we went to the command room at Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava, because we’d heard that one girl was missing and a search was underway.”
The rains had left the road to the kibbutz, a little to the north of the Dead Sea, covered with stones, sediment and sand. Bar Shalom said he had wanted to join the search parties but was told that weather conditions were worsening, darkness would soon fall and in any event the search was being done with a helicopter, not on foot. Uriel and Omer began to drive back home, to Rishon Letzion.
Bar Shalom: “While we were on the way, Rotem called from Abu Kabir to say that she had been contacted to identify the body. In my naivete, I thought that if she was being asked to come in and make an identification, that meant they hadn’t yet identified [the body]. In other words, that maybe Ilan wasn’t there. I said to myself: Okay, she [Rotem] got a call, she has to look at the bodies. In retrospect, that wasn’t the case, of course.”
After the conversation with Rotem, Uriel and Omer stopped at a gas station. “Omer wanted to pay but I objected. I told him, ‘Give me another few minutes to feel normal.’ Some people there were driving to Tiberias but didn’t have money for gas, so I filled up for them, too, and they said, ‘May all your salvations be realized.’ I told them, ‘You don’t know how right you are. Let’s find out whether charity can spare us from death.’ When I got back to the car there was an unanswered call from Rotem. I called her, and she asked at once, ‘Will you agree to donate her corneas?’ And that was that. But deep inside, I’d known even before. We went on driving north, straight to my parents’ house. When we entered I said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry, I am Job.’”
During the past year, the Bar Shalom family seemed to be emerging from a complex period into a more placid life. Ilan, 18, had been accepted into a pre-army academy and couldn’t wait for her year to start there; her brother, Or, had celebrated his bar mitzvah; Rotem, a social worker specializing in mental health, had a new senior post; and Uriel, an organizational consultant, relates that his financial situation had improved. He and Rotem had separated in 2013 but had continued living in the same home with a view to the children’s welfare. With Ilan’s departure looming, they had begun to think about living apart. “At first Ilan took the separation easier than Or, but after that the penny dropped, and it was hard for her. She really let us have it. But recently the feeling was that we were turning a new leaf,” Bar Shalom says.
Less than a week before the Nahal Tzafit disaster, they’d celebrated his 48th birthday. Ilan organized everything and reserved a table at a restaurant. In one of her last photos, which her father uploaded to his Facebook page, they’re seen in the restaurant, all smiles: Uriel, Ilan and Or, together with Uriel’s partner, Rona, and her two daughters.
Ilan wrote her father an emotional birthday message. “I know there’s nothing in this world you wouldn’t do for me or for Or, if needed, and I trust that more than I trust myself. But at the same time, it’s important for me now, when we’re a little older, for you to think about doing more for yourself, whether it’s playing [a musical instrument] more, traveling (we promise always to come with you if we can), just taking a day off work if you’re tired, studying something you always wanted to Whatever’s in your imagination and whatever will be good for you, because, Dad, we’re a little older now and I truly believe in the importance of giving ourselves some space in our lives.”
Ilan was born in January 2000, her parents’ first child. At the funeral, Bar Shalom relates, they made a point of not eulogizing her. Now he describes a sharp girl with a very high intelligence and emotional IQ, mature for her age, funny, who knew how to enjoy herself but was also opinionated and critical, who always did things her way and never gave in to the herd mentality. Since her death, Morgan, her beloved cat, has refused to enter her room and sit on the laundry that’s piled on the bed, like she used to.
“She was identified as a gifted child at an early age,” Bar Shalom says. “For a year she took part in a special program for gifted children, and then didn’t want to continue. We were summoned to a meeting. She was only in the fourth grade but was able to explain to them very well that there was nothing in the program that she liked, because they didn’t study literature or history. She was always a good student, and sometimes I tried to persuade her to fail. I told her it’s important to know how to fail, not only to succeed. So one time she wrote nothing on a test and got zero. She wasn’t upset. She came home and said, ‘Well, are you satisfied now?’”
Uriel and Rotem both believe in democratic, open education, and their relationship with Ilan was close and very friendly. “She always complained that it was impossible to fight with us. But there were occasional arguments of the type that occur in adolescence. The school principal told us that Ilan would come into her office and preach to her that her class wasn’t being run properly. When boys in the class threw a ball at her, she threw a chair at them. I waited to be summoned to school for a talk, but it didn’t happen.”
Ilan loved movies and studied filmmaking at school. She was in the final stages of making a film for her graduation project. A bookworm, she also liked to write, and she played the guitar a little. “I gave her my Spanish guitar. It’s in her room now and I don’t dare remove it,” says her father. “Socially, school was hard for her. She had girlfriends, not many, but always good friends. It’s not that others bugged her, but because she was opinionated and special, everything was hard. There was a price for her decision not to follow the crowd.”
The special bond between Uriel and Ilan allowed him to suggest that she leave school, and instead of undergoing the torture of matriculation exams go to London with him for a year and study filmmaking. “But she wouldn’t give in,” he says. “She stayed in the school. I’m so sorry that she didn’t have the opportunity to experience romantic love. She would have been a wonderful person. I had a very good relationship with her. Sometimes I knew what she was thinking. It would bug her when I said, ‘I know what you’re thinking now.’”
The closeness and openness between Ilan and her parents also shines through in the letters she wrote them, in which she not only went into detail about her experiences, but found words to express her feelings honestly amid the tumultuous years of adolescence. In a note she left for her parents on the refrigerator a few years ago, she described insights that had come to her in the wake of a conversation with another girl at school.
“We live a life of paper,” Ilan wrote. “An artificial life. Everyone pretends that everything is good and colorful, and life is filled with insightful and regular daily moments. Then suddenly the paper gets a tear and I’m exposed to the real world, and it’s surreal, weird, hard, without logic and fascinating, a lot more than what appears on the surface This whole buildup is an introduction to my thanks. Thanks for looking after me and for thinking about every possible scenario, for being honest and not prettifying things for me (too much, only a little), thanks for teaching and educating and giving me strength and belief in myself.”
As her military service approached, Ilan was accepted into a track to become a manpower officer, which pleased her. But before being drafted, it was clear she would attend a mekhina – a pre-army academy. In light of the Bar Shalom family’s long history of volunteer activity, and in particular with the Bnei Zion mekhina, in Tel Aviv, that choice was expected, though Bar Shalom says he tried to talk her into going to a different program: “I didn’t feel comfortable. I can’t say I had premonitions, but I didn’t want her to go precisely there. She checked out another option and said that other academies didn’t do enough volunteer activity. For her, the mekhina was a significant milestone in her life and she was very excited as the year approached.”
The extended Bar Shalom family has been deeply involved in the Bnei Zion academy for a long time. Rivka Yachimovich, Rotem’s mother, is a longtime close friend of Yaffa Shai Hadad, the mother of Ben-Zion Shai Hadad, who was killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War in a car accident. After his death, his parents decided to establish a nonprofit association in his name, with a pre-army academy to operate under its auspices, beginning in 2007. Uriel’s father, Moshe Bar Shalom, was one of the association’s founders and was both a donor and a fund-raiser for it. Uriel himself was a member of the association but resigned after a short time, without being able to explain exactly why.
“Hindsight is 20/20. At the time I couldn’t explain it, today I can put all the pieces together. And that’s the big breaking point.”
“Something about the members of the association didn’t sit with me. I attended only one meeting. I had very high regard for Yuval Kahan [the head of the Bnei Zion academy], but what I didn’t like was the arrogance, the fact that the association was actually a rubber stamp for Yuval. Recently, for example, I saw in the minutes of the association’s meetings that they didn’t consider alternatives for anything. For example, the approval of a trip to China for Yuval in order to set up a fund-raising company. All kinds of slightly weird things, but you never read, ‘We examined alternatives.’ That’s not there.”
They trusted Yuval Kahan blindly?
On the day before the hike, which was intended for the incoming class of the mekhina, Bar Shalom spoke with Ilan and didn’t form the impression that she had any qualms. “She said it had been decided that the group wouldn’t sleep in the field but on the grounds of Ein Tamar, and also that they wouldn’t go to Nahal Tze’elim, but that the route would be changed and would include a few observation sites. I was calm. They weren’t going to the riverbed, fine. I thought I was dealing with normal people, but I was wrong. I never imagined that they would switch one riverbed for another I’m angry at myself, but I don’t know what I could have done differently.”
Anger and disappointment mingle in a rush of words when Bar Shalom talks about his feelings in the wake of the disaster and about the academy’s behavior before and after the event. “It’s a very, very great disappointment in people. The situation pains me, I can’t even explain how much. I thought that a person who did the dumbest thing of his life – Aviv Bardichev, the instructor, who is also the academy’s educational director – would stand up and say, ‘I apologize, I am guilty.’ And that the head of the academy would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with myself, I am guilty, now let’s talk about the punishment.’ And that the academy’s chairwoman [Yaffa Shai Hadad] would stand up and without consulting too much or thinking too much, would say, ‘We take responsibility, I resign.’ But that didn’t happen. Yuval Kahan resigned only after the chairperson of the council of pre-army academies said he should resign. And before that they hired a battery of lawyers. That’s not the kind of leadership they talked about in the mekhina. There’s a certain dissonance here.”
How should they have responded, do you think?
“I thought they were moral people. It’s a place that for 11 years was creating a model of how to behave, how to do things. And then, at the moment of truth, none of that happens. And I was there. Even though I had reservations about Yuval Kahan, I went along with him. After the fact, I’m hearing catastrophic things. It’s only after the disaster that I understood that a year ago there was mass dehydration on a hike. We didn’t know about that. I heard vaguely that one kid had become dehydrated. But it turns out that it wasn’t one kid, but a lot of them and that they went into the field with high-school seniors on a day when that was prohibited, and they had to be rescued. This was a year ago. What’s going on here, I said to myself.”
Have you heard anything from Kahan since the disaster? When he was released from detention he claimed he would approach the families himself.
“He hasn’t been here. We got a message asking if we wanted him to contact us. I said that as long as he doesn’t accept responsibility, he has nothing to talk to me about. As time passes, my willingness to have that conversation is fading. And now it’s already over a month later.”
Can you accept that maybe there’s a scenario in which he really wasn’t responsible for the disaster?
“I have no doubt that he’s responsible, and I have no doubt that he’s just as responsible as Aviv Bardichev, the guide on the hike. The two of them are equally responsible. They lived the academy. As far as I’m concerned, Yaffa is also responsible, at least at the ‘ministerial’ level.”
‘First say: “I confess”’
The parents of the 10 teens who were killed in the flash flood at Nahat Tzafit are waiting for the state to decide on an indictment. If it’s for manslaughter, they will be classified under the law as victims of a killing offense and will be entitled to legal representation, even though they are not a side in a criminal trial.
“There is not much we can do, other than to exert public pressure for the full force of the law to be brought to bear on them,” Bar Shalom notes. “We think that if the instructor is charged with manslaughter, then Yuval should also be charged with manslaughter. I say that the full force of the law should be brought to bear on them for each and every one of those who were killed. And if it’s two years, then two years for each one who died, and so forth. It’s a mistake I can’t understand. It’s like a person who drove around drunk for a few months and at the end had an accident. It’s not an accident that can happen to any of us.”
A few days after the conclusion of the shivah period of mourning for Ilan, her parents drafted a letter that unequivocally accused the heads of the mekhina of remaining silent and of shirking responsibility.
“We don’t have the privilege of resigning without taking responsibility,” they wrote in the letter, which was addressed to Ilan. “That privilege is reserved for the heads of the academy and its instructors. We take responsibility for your tragedy, for the aborted life, for the lost dreams We take responsibility for your not being able to choose differently, because, after all, we and those who are so close to us were involved in the establishment of the academy so intimately and so painfully.”
What really infuriated Rotem and Uriel was Kahan’s letter of resignation, in which he stated that he has been “torn and shattered” since the disaster. “The role of the head of the academy is first and foremost educational, and this requires the full trust of the participants, their families and everyone connected with the academy. I know that in the shadow of this terrible disaster, that this trust, which is the basis for the ability to lead and educate, cannot exist,” Kahan wrote.
The missing line, from Bar Shalom’s point of view, is the taking of explicit responsibility for the blunder and the disaster.
“I found Yuval’s letter ludicrous,” he says. “He talks about a crisis of trust. What is a crisis of trust? It’s when someone takes money and doesn’t return it. In this case, nine girls and a boy died. So let’s say that he and Aviv lost their moral compass and their families pressured them to hire lawyers. So first say, ‘I confess,’ and hire a lawyer to make your case in the arguments over the severity of the punishment. Instead, they try to topple each other.”
Since the shivah, the parents of the dead teens have been trying to organize in order to present a uniform front in the face of the academy and the legal authorities. Their hope is to wield influence both on the fate of the mekhina and on the substance of the indictment that will be submitted against those who run it. Uriel and Rotem launched their efforts to persuade the executive committee of Bnei Zion to make a change on the evening after the shivah ended. They demanded of Yaffa Shai Hadad and her brother Gilbert that they close the institution, at least during the coming year.
This week, two weeks after these interviews were conducted, and in the wake of pressure from the parents, the academy announced that it is closing its doors for one year.
Bar Shalom: “We want them to stop and think. The academy has to be closed down until they understand what is going on and what needs to be done. It’s impossible to change things while it’s operating, because the schedule is crazy. They have classes that end at 3 A.M. But they simply don’t understand that they’re in the wrong. They’re positive that they are charming and marvelous, and that this thing just happened to them. All I want is for them to meet the standards they themselves set. I’m not asking them to shut down for good, but I am asking that they take themselves down a notch.”
At the end of last month, Bnei Zion finally issued an initial response to the bereaved families: Yaffa Shai Hadad sent a letter to them via representatives.
“Your daughters and your sons pinned their hopes on the academy,” she wrote, “because they had known it from its 11 years, in which it carried out projects, educated for love of the country and of humanity and for the integration of the weak into the society, and turned out graduates who are doing things in many fields. But now a disaster has occurred in our academy whose dimensions cannot be accommodated The unbearable disaster obliges us to look courageously into the mirror and to examine ourselves and our path. We believe it is not enough to refresh procedures, or to draw technical lessons, however fundamental. It is our moral duty to conduct a deep and thorough inner reckoning We shall draw in full the necessary conclusions so that a terrible tragedy like this or of another kind will not recur.”
Bar Shalom, however, says he does not discern an acceptance of responsibility in that letter, either: “When they talk about changes, I simply can’t believe it. Every academy head needs to know that his academy will be closed down if something like this happens. And he needs to understand that it will not end with lawyers and a brief detention or maybe a bit of work for the benefit of the community.”
A different bereavement
Uriel Bar Shalom still doesn’t know exactly what happened on the hike, and for the moment prefers it that way. “In any case, once lawyers are involved, we’ll never know what really happened,” he sighs. He wonders whether the route was appropriate, in terms of its level of difficulty, for teenagers who effectively had no experience with hikes of this sort. “Yesterday I received photographs of the route and I saw the level of difficulty ... But it’s a first hike, you don’t know the people, so without any connection to a flood, a slightly easier route could have been chosen. It would be terrific if you organize for it and do it with logic, building up your fitness gradually. I didn’t know the academy like that. In the years when I was connected to it, I don’t remember the motto being, ‘We need to conquer the summit.’ But maybe that [idea] developed in the past few years. We need to hike, but only after thinking about it in a healthy way.”
Uriel and Rotem are back at work now, and Or is back in school. On the day-to-day level, they are trying to figure out how to live with the new and devastating situation of Ilan’s absence. “I cling to routine. I work eight hours every day, and when I get home in the evening I’m spent,” Bar Shalom says.
“The hardest times are weekends and holidays. I was invited to a lot of places on Shavuot, but I ducked out of all of them. I just slept the whole day. My mother died when I was 12. I told friends that the feelings of bereavement I knew from childhood weren’t of the same intensity as what I feel now,” he explains. “There’s something about losing a child that kills a certain type of hope. When my mother died, it was horrible, but there was hope that I would grow up and be a good person. At present I’m clinging to routine but I have no hope. Only anxieties for Or. I think of a whole life without, about this emptiness. It’s awful.”
Asked for comment, Yuval Kahan said: “I very much respect Uriel and Rotem, who are very dear to me, and I share their terrible grief. I feel a full commitment to meet with them and have approached them to that end. I would prefer to respond to their comments in person and not via the newspaper.”