Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Miracles in Tzfat

An Ultra Orthodox Jewish woman sits in a bomb shelter in Safed July 18, 2006. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Miracles abound in Safed
Jul. 18, 2006

At 2:30 p.m. on Monday, a Katyusha rocket gauged a gaping black hole into the outer wall of a shabby apartment building in the Cana'an neighborhood of Safed.

It was the latest in a series of some 30 missiles that have struck the city since last Thursday and, according to residents of the run-down neighborhood, the seventh to strike Cana'an.

The missile hit a fourth story apartment and exploded in the bedroom. At the time of the blast, three elderly people, Eli and Zohara Yisrael and Zohara's sister, were two rooms away.

"I was sitting in the living room when I heard an enormous explosion," an amazingly calm Eli Yisrael told The Jerusalem Post. He, his wife and sister-in-law were waiting near the entrance of a neighboring building together with horrified neighbors for the sappers to come and examine whether there were unexploded bomb fragments remaining in the burned out apartment.

"At first I thought the bomb had exploded outside the building," Yisrael continued. "I went to get my cell phone to report the incident when suddenly I saw flames. I tried to douse them with a bottle of water, but they grew bigger. I went to get a pail of water from the bathroom, but the fire came closer." The three managed to escape from the apartment unharmed, while a neighbor called the fire department. Yisrael returned to the apartment afterwards to find it flooded and filled with smoke and char.

The family was lucky. No alarm was sounded before the missile struck and the old apartment did not have a safe room. The building has a bomb shelter six floors below the Yisraels' apartment, but, the husband said, his 70-year-old wife has trouble navigating the stairs.

Canadian-born Chabad rabbi Menahem Mendel Kumer does not believe the Yisraels were lucky. He believes the incident was one of a series of miracles the inhabitants of the neighborhood have experienced over the past few days.

Kumer immigrated to Safed from Toronto in 1979 and lives in Kiryat Chabad in the Cana'an neighborhood.

By his count, this is at least the fourth miracle in his neighborhood alone.

One of them was experienced by Yoram Ne'eman, Kumer said. On Thursday, Ne'eman's children were playing outside the house when his father called them to come inside. Before they managed to sit down at the computer, a Katyusha rocket exploded in the very spot where they had been playing.

On another occasion, four youths were sitting in a car outside an apartment building on Zalman Shazar Street. Two of them left the car to go into an apartment. The other two remained in the parked car, when one of them suddenly suggested that they buy something to eat. No sooner had he driven off when a rocket struck the entrance of a building next to where the car had been. The two youths who had headed upstairs were nicked by fragments of shrapnel and glass. The other two were not aware of what happened until they saw the site of the explosion during a newscast later on.

The greatest of all the miracles, said Kumer, happened to Erez Horowitz. A Katyusha was heading toward his house when its trajectory changed at the last moment and the rocket exploded outside a new addition that Horowitz had built underneath his home. If that wasn't enough, a boy was supposed to have been sleeping in the new addition, but was not home at the time of the explosion.

One person's luck is another person's miracle is a third person's idea of fate. Earlier Monday, before the Katyusha struck the Cana'an neighborhood, I noticed an open shop among the largely closed businesses in the old city of Safed, opposite City Hall. It was Eliezer's House of Books, a religious book store owned and operated by an American who had immigrated to Safed 12 years earlier. Asked why he dared open his store in such dangerous times, Eliezer replied that he lived in the Cana'an neighborhood and it was no less dangerous than downtown Safed. Wasn't he afraid, I asked. "No," he replied. "Hashem [God] decides where every bomb will fall." Then why, I insisted, had others been killed by bombs. "I don't know," he said. "I guess it was their time to go, and Hashem had them go in this way."


Joining the 'Katyusha club'
By Yair Ettinger, Ha'aretz

On Friday night, during the prayer welcoming the Shabbat, a siren interrupted the prayers in the synagogue of the Sanz Hasidim in Safed. About 20 worshipers - the few members of the congregation who remained for Shabbat - all moved close to the inner wall of the synagogue, as far as possible from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Such sirens have been heard in the city since Thursday, when a resident of the city was killed, and the confused worshipers held a discussion as to whether it was preferable to finish their prayers inside the synagogue or to obey the instructions of the security forces.

"Daddy, the sealed room," said a child pulling on his father's sleeve, prompting a debate that was held in Yiddish laced with Hebrew terms from the security vocabulary: "The security room? Never mind," another person answered, and the prayers were renewed inside the largely empty synagogue. Five minutes later a whistling was heard in the distance. Those of the worshipers with sharp ears and fast reflexes quickly made for the nearby kitchenette, a kind of impromptu security room; others, even before the building trembled from the nearby explosion of a Katyusha rocket, managed to lie down on the floor. In Safed people lie down like that, and not only on the local graves of righteous men.

The Divrei Haim synagogue of the Sanz Hasidim is located in Tarpat Alley (Tarpat is the acronym for 1929, a year infamous for Arab rioting all over Palestine). Overall, Jewish spirituality and the Israeli-Arab conflict are combined in the streets of the old city - "Defenders' Square" with "Messiah Alley," the mikveh (ritual bath) of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, a leading kabbalist) with the Arab house in which Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) grew up.

In Tarpat Alley a Magen David Adom ambulance was parked on Friday night, outside the synagogue. The motor was running, the red lights were flashing. In front sat two Sanz Hasidim. They wore Shabbat clothes, including the traditionally festive coat made of silk, but they were on call. Both are volunteers for Hatzala (Rescue), an organization whose ultra-Orthodox volunteers, MDA paramedics, have evacuated over 100 victims in the Galilee since Thursday.

While their friends were praying in the synagogue, they sat frozen in the ambulance listening to the intercom, forbidden to open the door or perform any activity not related to saving lives. When the falling of the Katyushas was heard, the ambulance disappeared. Fortunately, one of the rockets fell on Friday night on a synagogue that had not opened because there were too few worshipers.

Barely a soul

Safed and all its neighborhoods is a city that is beaten and in shock, which is worriedly monitoring any sliver of information and every Katyusha landing in Haifa and Tiberias. Its unexpected joining of the "Katyusha club" led to the closure on Friday night of local shops, hotels, banks, postal services and most of the drugstores. There is barely a living soul on the streets. The Safed municipality estimated that 50 percent to 60 percent of the 13,000 inhabitants of the city have abandoned their homes.

"Anyone who remains here is someone with nowhere to go, or someone who can't afford to leave," said Moshe Madar, the municipality treasurer and the head of Safed's emergency headquarters.

Apparently many of the residents of the Canaan neighborhood belong to this category. On Friday afternoon, a Katyusha hit a wretched and peeling housing project on Hashiva Street. Eleven residents were injured, two moderately. On the sidewalk lay a dead Pekinese dog. His owner was injured as well. After the evacuation of the wounded, many residents went out into the street, and the desperate policeman called on them to enter shelters and other protected spaces. Protected spaces? Security rooms? Who has heard of them in the housing projects? "Where should we go?" asked one resident in panic.

On the third floor of the building that was hit the door was opened a crack, and from it Yaffa Ben-Porat peered inside the stairwell. Her husband, Ephraim, was in the other room, and she was beside herself with fear and helplessness. He is a chronically ill and bedridden, and needed care - even under the barrage of Katyushas that in the end hit the building in which they have lived since immigrating to Israel from Morocco in the 1950s

"I have nobody," said the 62-year-old Ben-Porat. My children are in Ashdod, so we're here alone. There is nobody to come and visit us. Please sir, speak to the municipality, speak to someone about taking care of us." A few minutes later an ambulance crew came to evacuate Ben-Porat and his wife to Ziv Hospital until things blow over.

Perhaps few people remained in Safed, but for the most part those who stayed there over the weekend tried to demonstrate high morale. Both religious and secular people spoke of determination and patience, and expressed faith and confidence in the Israel Defense Forces, or in God.

Shlomo Zeid is the owner of the only hotel in the old city that opened its doors on the weekend. Only one room was occupied - by a journalist. Zeid himself is an atheist, frustrated by the fact that Safed is becoming ultra-Orthodox, but on Shabbat morning, when his ultra-Orthodox neighbor came to visit and spoke of faith in the shadow of the Katyushas, they both managed to agree that "every missile has an address." They're not sure why, but this saying gave them confidence.

Memories of 1948

In 1948, legend has it, Safed held out through natural and miraculous means - through natural means, because the Safed old-timers didn't stop reciting Psalms, as is their wont; and miraculously, because the Palmach (the pre-state commando strike force) arrived in time.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Shlomo Makleb, one of the city's old-timers today, says that he and his neighbors are praying. "Imagine if we didn't pray, a Katyusha would land here every second," he said.

Rina Kobi, who lives in the old city, was a newborn during the 1948 War of Independence, but this weekend she pulled out the arsenal of family stories from her memory: how her older brother used to run between the outposts of the Haganah (the pre-state military force) and the Etzel (right-wing militia), and distribute cans of sardines to the Jewish fighters.

"I grew up on those stories about 1948," she smiled. "Who would have believed that missiles would be flying over our heads?"

In the afternoon, with Katyushas rumbling in the background, she sat on a bench in the street chatting with an ultra-Orthodox neighbor. She was calm. "Me?" she said. "I have no fear at all. The children and grandchildren asked me to come stay with them in the center of the country, but why should I leave my house? In 1948 we didn't leave, and I'm not leaving now."

Kiryat Bratslav was full compared to the other ultra-Orthodox neighbors of Safed; almost half the members of the community remained. In the large Bratslav synagogue they decided to try to maintain routine as much as possible. They even celebrated a circumcision there on Shabbat morning; the baby was named Israel. After prayers, they read the haftara from Jeremiah, which includes the verse: "Out of the north the evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land." The rabbi said in his sermon, based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, that "out of sadness comes happiness."

Some of the worshipers found relief in jokes about Nasrallah, but Nahman Klein, the head of Hatzala in the Galilee, instructed them, in a very severe tone, to make sure their children did not play outside.

Before the beginning of Shabbat we m et Klein in the mikveh. "On a day like this, immersion is a very exalted thing," he said. "We remove from ourselves everything we have undergone during the week. Today and yesterday we evacuated over 100 casualties. I personally immersed myself in the hope that the sanctity of Shabbat will preserve us from all evil. I prayed that God would help us, that we will see better days."

Two hours later the ambulances raced to Moshav Meron, where Yehudit Itzkovich and her grandson, Omer Pesachov, were killed. There were no casualties in Safed.


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