It was just another Thursday. After my Hebrew class ended at noon, I met up with another researcher from the Sign Language Research Lab and we headed to lunch. Usually we automatically angle toward the cafeteria, but today we were in the mood for a baked potato, so we headed downstairs to the coffee shop. After paying, I turned toward the dining area and stopped short, staring out the window. With my arm outstretched, “smoke…fire” was all I could utter. The Carmel forest was alight.
An hour after the fire began, the flames were already high enough to see from campus, and the smoke towered over the university.
Having grown up in southern California, I have seen more than my fair share of forest fires and the color and amount of smoke I was seeing was quite alarming. We joined others on the balcony to get a better view, discussed where it appeared to be burning, and snapped a few shots on our cell phones. I still wanted a better view.
On our way to the observation floor at the top of Eshkol Tower, we stopped to pick up our belongings from the lab in case an evacuation was called. Sure enough, after a few minutes in the tower, we and the thirty people who had come dozens of stories up were asked to leave the tower to the officials. An hour later the whole campus was gathering their belongings and heading to the buses. I received a text message from the International School instructing us where to meet for more information.
All we could do as the smoke spread was watch and pray.
The staff’s calm, informative direction impressed me and their attention to detail for the group as well as to individuals’ concerns helped the students remain calm as well. Asking for cooperation, but not imposing unreasonably strict control, the department helped each student determine his or her best course of action. Many students had plans for the holiday weekend to spend Hanukkah with family in a different city. Others had planned weekend trips abroad. Those students simply chose to leave a day early. Students that were staying in Haifa were taken down the hill to a local high school where they would be safe until further arrangements were solidified. I stayed with the group for the comfort and companionship until we had some news and then headed to my apartment off campus. Students were welcomed into homes with local families offering their hospitality. On my way home, I called my friend who had been visiting Lake Kinneret that day to keep her updated on the events in Haifa. We had arranged with the International School that she would stay with me for the weekend.
We spent the weekend searching the “breaking news” sections of newspaper websites, calling family back home to reassure them of our safety and keeping in touch with local friends as each new piece of information emerged. We heard about the bus that was caught between two walls of flames. We heard the fire was 200 meters from the dorms. We heard various suspects had been arrested, questioned, and released. At one point, unable to sit and do nothing any longer, we took a walk to see the smoke rising from the valley a few mountaintops southward. My friend searched the for the peak saying, “I would feel better if I could only see Eshkol Tower. I just want to see that it still stands,” somewhat reminiscent of our home’s national anthem.
Friday night we shared Kabbalat Shabbat with our congregation and asked how we could help people being affected by the fire. We were told that the helpline had already received five times as many calls from people offering help than those requesting it, but that as opportunities arose, they would call us. It was touching to see the response, both local and international, to this disaster. Since then, the university has set up a location to accept donations of clothes, toiletries, and other necessities, and the dozen tables have been completely overwhelmed by students’ generosity. The response from students of the international school to volunteer their time and energies for rebuilding has been numerous and immediate, and we are still coordinating how those intentions can be put into action.
Donations for fire relief pour in from university students.
Monday morning we attended classes at a school downtown and that evening returned to our mountaintop, resuming “life as normal” on Tuesday. The road to rebuilding and recovery, both physical and psychological, will not be a short nor easy one, but the journey has begun, and I am touched by the support I have seen springing up on all sides for those tragically affected by the flames.