While Israel Burned


Mr. Finkel, we are having some trouble with our son. He doesn’t fit in at a regular Talmud Torah any more, and he’s been influenced by some of the lower elements in our neighborhood. He’s really such a sweet kid. And he’s smart. He doesn’t dress chareidi anymore. He’s wearing jeans, he’s listening to goyishe music, and he’s hanging out. We want to save him while there’s still time. He’s turning 14.


What do you want from me? What do I know about these things? By the way, every time you talk to me, you are complaining about your husband. It makes me very uncomfortable. I hope you don’t do that in front of your children…. You do? Don’t you think that hurts them?

Have you heard of Kav La’Noar in Jerusalem? You’ve been to them already? What about the vocational school in Kfar Zeitim in the Galil? I had suggested it to you and you cancelled at the last minute … Oh, you heard that they don’t do much Torah learning up there? That it’s really meant for kids who are hanging by a thread?... I was very impressed by the place. The kids who came up with me with their moms were actually excited when they got there. It was facing Mt. Arbel near the Kinneret – stunning views. They have all kinds of therapeutic activities, including a stable of horses for the kids to ride on.… You don’t like the fact that they encourage their graduates to enroll in the army, Nachal Chareidi?… You think your kid still has the potential to learn Torah?… You’re sending him to Blumenthal in Geulah? I wish you good luck!

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It’s been a few weeks at Blumenthal, and it’s not working out. It’s too close to home, so my son prefers to sleep in his own bed rather than stay there overnight. He broke the rules so many times that they had to let him go. But my husband heard about two other places – in Zichron Yaakov and in Haifa. He would really appreciate it if you would take him there and also share your impressions.

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The father and I agree to meet at 9 a.m. the following Wednesday morning. The day before, around 5 p.m., I’m driving from the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to Hebrew University. I’m waiting at the red light at Ruppin Street when I notice a large tree completely ablaze, flames shooting up in the air. I was terrified. I never saw anything like that so close to home. The tree was not isolated but next to a row of trees that led up to the Israel Museum, and was next to Emek HaMatzleva (the Valley of the Cross), just outside the Rechavia neighborhood where I reside. It wouldn’t take long for the whole valley to be ablaze, and then it would jump over Ruppin Street to the residences on the other side, up the hill. I saw no fire truck, no police vehicles. I called the police, who informed me that they were aware of the fire and were taking care of it. I turned left and drove right past it. On the other side of the road, cars were slowing down to view the spectacle. I was wondering whether someone started a little bonfire or just carelessly flicked a burning cigarette butt from his hand. There was tons of smoke. It felt like I was driving through a fog. By the time I returned from Hebrew U., the blaze and the haze were gone.

At 9:05 the next morning, I met the father of the boy in trouble for the first time. We drove up Kvish Shesh (Highway 6) following WAZE to the address he gave me.

Shortly after passing the exit for Netanya, we saw a really huge Palestinian flag waving in the air from a tall flagpole. It was so close to Kvish Shesh that it felt almost as if you were passing under it. I checked the map and saw that it was coming from the Arab town of Tulkarm, which is beyond the Green Line and very close to the highway we were on – outside the security wall. Tulkarm had the dubious distinction of sending suicide bombers into Netanya during the Second Intifada. 

The school was in the Chazon Ish complex of buildings in Zichron, next to their bais medrash and central synagogue, surrounded by a high fence. After we cleared the security booth we walked down the stairs towards the building entrance. There was a very small garden plot being worked by a few boys. The kids were almost all Sefardi. Most of them were olive skinned or darker. We passed the bais medrash of the school on the first floor, where the boys were hearing a shiur. When we got to the second floor office of the administrator in charge of admissions, he was nowhere to be found. The father, who will not use a cellphone – even borrow someone else’s – asked me to call the administrator. I did, and we arranged to meet in 45 minutes.

I suggested that we take advantage of the sunny (but windy) day to take a look at the gardens of Ramat Hanadiv, where Baron Edmond de Rothschild was buried, just outside Zichron. The beauty of the blue Mediterranean Sea seen from the lush green well-manicured gardens had a calming effect on the father. We returned to the school, and the father started asking the administrator questions. The school had a strict dress code and was strict about not allowing cell phones, MPp3s, or computers. Smoking was strictly forbidden (although it was allowed in Kfar Zeitim in designated areas). I was slightly amused as the administrator, Rabbi Sabag, emphasized this restriction as I noticed all the cigarette butts on his desk’s ashtray. Give him a break, I told myself, he’s obviously under a lot of pressure.

He told us that the boys went on outings once a week, participated in lots of games and activities during the week that were an outlet for their nervous energy. Many came from troubled homes or had learning disabilities. Many had been exposed to things on the “street.” The mesivta was doing its utmost to steer the boys onto the right path. The administrator said that he himself was a product of this school.

From what I could see, the dorm rooms were simple but clean and adequate. We went downstairs to the bais medrash to daven Mincha. There were maybe three Ashkenazi kids in the whole room. The kids seemed nice, through I could sense a little bit of pent up aggression in some of them. But I saw no untoward behavior.

We ate lunch then drove on to Haifa, riding up the Coastal Highway (Kvish Shtayim) and then followed the signs to the Carmel Tunnels – the longest in Israel. As we emerged from the tunnel, I heard on the radio that there were fires raging in the Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood in Haifa as well as in Zichron Yaakov and scores of other places in Israel. I didn’t see any smoke and wondered whether our destination in Haifa was near the raging fires. What’s happening to our little country? It didn’t take much to believe that arsonists with “nationalistic motives” were behind the fires. To top it off, they were trying to burn down their own country!

High winds and a very dry season made these fires possible. (And believe me, there are plenty of careless Jews who don’t think twice about tossing a lit cigarette into the brush.) During the prayers for rain on Shmini Atzeres, I wondered how relevant they were in modern day Israel, with its eight desalination plants. I knew that the water produced there was expensive to use, but those plants seemed to take away the urgency of the prayers for rain. It is as if we took the keys back from G-d.

But that is an illusion. Even if Israel produced all its water needs (which it doesn’t), without rain, the parched forests and undergrowth were ripe for brushfires. Now, the raging infernos were devouring neighborhoods and driving hundreds of people from their homes.

We parked the car on Bilu Street, looking for #7. Haifa with its hills reminded me of San Francisco. It was a quiet, quaint little neighborhood with small shops and old buildings that made me a feel that I was back in the Israel of the 1950s. There were a few chareidi people walking around in what appeared to be a mostly secular neighborhood.

The yeshiva for boys was inside a large old shul building that had serviced the old neighborhood in bygone days. We walked upstairs to find a shiur in halacha being given by the mashgiach, Rabbi Greenberg, in the main sanctuary of the former shul. The kids were almost all Ashkenazim. When some of the boys saw us standing outside looking in, they took out chairs for us to sit down. I was a bit taken aback by their politeness and consideration. Eventually, we ventured inside, and listened to the shiur on tevilat yadayim (dipping the hands into water for the purpose of eating bread, as opposed to washing them). Most of the boys were taking notes. One boy in particular struck me as very refined and attentive. When the shiur was over, Rabbi Greenberg ushered us in to his office.

The father told his story. I then asked the mashgiach what was the difference between this place, Yeshivat Simchat Hatorah, and the school in Zichron Yaakov.

“The school in Zichron is what you would call a yeshiva tipulit (remedial yeshiva). They have special programs, activities, etc., that are expressly designed for boys with emotional and educational difficulties. We are a regular yeshiva but through our dedicated and talented staff, we end up having the same effect on the boys without the formal stuff. And at least a third of our students come from troubled backgrounds. Would you like to meet one of them?”

The father wasn’t interested, but I was curious, so one of the boys was called in. Yaakov was asked a few questions – how he’s faring, how he gets along with the other boys. That was the very kid who struck me earlier as being very refined. We thanked him and he left.

“Yaakov is taking 60 mg of Ritalin a day – has severe ADHD. He comes from a broken home; his parents were divorced. His mother is not even functioning – and he was living with his mother!”

I was shocked. The description of the boy’s background didn’t seem at all to match the boy (at least his exterior) at all! In fact, I have never seen in my entire life such a nice group of boys. The little I saw was that of camaraderie, caring, and good manners. The students, like the neighborhood they were located in, seemed to come from another era.

I asked to be shown the restroom. We went up some stairs to the dormitory. Everything looked very dilapidated. The lavatory looked even worse. The kids were high class and dressed and acted with refinement, while their living conditions were subpar and decrepit. It really hurt me to see this. They deserved better. And they didn’t complain (at least to me they didn’t!). But the yeshiva was running on an 80,000 shekel a month deficit.

We left Yeshivat Simchat HaTorah and headed home. More fires reported on the radio: Beit Meir and Nataf outside Jerusalem, Park Canada off Route 3 near Latrun and Modiin. Trees, like children, take years of nurturing to grow to adulthood, and they can be cut down so quickly – either by stupid negligence or vile eco-terrorism – mostly the former.

A few days later the father called to inform me that he visited one more remedial yeshiva – in Bnei Brak. It was so bad that it made the two places we saw together look like Harvard and Yale. He told me that after spending time in the luxurious facilities of Blumenthal, his son wouldn’t be able to hack the Spartan conditions of the yeshiva in Haifa. He was opting for Zichron. 

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Wednesday night, November 30, I attended the wedding of Sara and Yaakov Kastelanitz. Their wedding date was originally set for March 9. Two weeks before that, Sara (nee Sperling) was on her way to Bnei Brak with her sister when the crane of a parked truck ripped through the bus they were on and killed six people. Sara’s right arm was literally hanging by a thread while her right leg was completely broken.

Two Shabbatot before the wedding I was a guest at the Sperling home. Sara was walking without a cane, serving food and cleaning up with her left hand. Her right arm was reattached but she still couldn’t lift it. From the way she comported herself, you would never have guessed that this young lady had gone through so many operations and so much rehabilitation. She told me that she was genuinely grateful that she was a lefty and that that was the arm that was spared. She also told me that there were 11 doctors involved with her case. Ten of them wanted to amputate her arm and leg, while only one doctor pleaded with his colleagues that Sara was still young and had her whole life ahead of her and it was worth taking the gamble of possible medical complications and rejection of the limbs to try to save them. The lone doctor won out.

Now, at the wedding, we were dancing in a hall in Binyanei Ha’uma, and among all the black suits, I noticed a man in a light beige suit dancing with the father of the bride. During a break in the dancing I walked over to him, and he introduced himself to me as one of Sara’s doctors. It didn’t look as though he personally was observant. This is what he told me:

Sara never once complained or exhibited any self-pity. We have never experienced a patient like her before. She was very determined to get better and never wavered. After meeting someone like her, there was no way I was going to miss her wedding!

Sara was a winner. Her attitudes prevailed over her externals. She chose hope over despair, gratitude over self-pity, and determination over laziness. I found myself reflecting on my trip north. I prayed that whatever school the father chose for his troubled son it would succeed in molding his attitudes towards those winning values. I hoped that he would go from being an emotionally unstable teen to a proud young man laden with hope, gratitude, and determination.


Sam Finkel was born and raised in Baltimore.


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