Sunday, December 5, 2010

Small Fires and Big Fires

This may surprise some of you but typically I am not wearing a vest and combat pack in the cold at 3:30 in the morning somewhere in an urban combat facility in the Beka Valley when I light the first candles of Hanukkah.  Some of you may even be shocked to find out that my first Sufganya (donut of sorts) of Hanukkah is usually not somewhat frozen with a hard red candy that may have once been jam in the middle of it. 

Fire sign saying "Happy Holiday" with my unit's symbol.  
Lit at the end of the exercise at the Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

 'I' and me at the end of the exercise, we are happy its over

Still, while many of my friends and soldiers were disgruntled that Hanukkah started in the final hours of a grueling battalion level drill that started Monday afternoon and Thursday morning, I saw something very symbolic in it. 
Me in an armored personnel carrier (APC).  No not makeup, leftover facepaint.

About 2000 years ago, in the days before when Hanukkah would first happen, the Maccabim (they existed before the Tzanhanim and Golani) were also running around in the cold in their vests and defending the Jewish people.  True, we were shooting at cardboard targets all week and the Maccabim slashing at Greek warriors, but I have a literary license…


Monday night my unit is waiting to board planes to fly up north for the beginning of the drill and excitement (and apprehension from my soldiers who had never before experienced such a large and intensive field exercise) was in the air (get it?).  I had to admit that while last years exercise included helicopters, being on a plane (the same kind used for parachuting) with my unit, with painted faces and full gear, I was “pumped up” as the kids say these days. 

The 'chevra' (guys) in the plane

They are very excited.

Still, as I looked at the young soldiers around me, all of which except for my company commander and the unit doctor were younger than me, I experienced two conflicting feelings..  On the one hand these were warriors ready to defend Israel just as I imagined soldiers always to be.  Each one looked like a character from any war movie you’ve seen – the tough guy that always keep going, the goofy one that always says the wrong thing, the quiet one, etc.  On the other hand, I was struck at how young they all looked and indeed were.  Only a year ago they had put on their uniforms for the first time with their beret on the wrong shoulder and no clue how to fold up their pants over their boots.  Yet, here they were, ready or not, officially designated as Israel’s first line of defense against any enemy that might arise.  My contemplation was cut short as the wheels landed suddenly on the pitch-black runway somewhere up north..

Me and my soldier B at the beginning of the exercise (pre knee pains)

The first march of about 20 km was not easy as it included a 1000 meter rise over a mountain and each of us were carrying 40-55% of our body weight on our backs.  We survived and while I’ll spare you all the details of the week, suffice it to say that we are all much better prepared after this difficult week and excited for the training to end in the coming weeks and return to active duty “on kav” (on a border). 

The picture doesn't capture it well but this is the steepest hill...on earth.

Taking a quick break in the morning for praying, eating, changing from 40 degree clothing for night to 90 degree clothing during the day.  Welcome to Israel

Fast Forward. 

So as I said, this was a particularly meaningful way to start Hanukkah and one that put a smile on my face.  Little did I know that at the same time that were lighting the first candle together, only an hour away, families were being evacuated from their homes as the fire in Northern Israel began to rage. 

At first glance, a forest fire, for those of us who grew up in America, does not seem so terrible.  After all, America is used to it and has the means to fight it properly.  Indeed, 41 dead and 15,000 acres of burnt forest doesn’t seem “so” huge by US standards.  However when you consider that almost all of those 41 died on one fell swoop as they raced up north on a bus to evacuate a prison in danger; when you consider that one of those was a 16 year old volunteer firefighter, an only son; and when you consider that 15,000 acres is about half the size of one of the largest forests in Israel, the proportions somewhat change. The catastrophe has truly shaken the country.

Carmel Forest (overlooking the CF Spa) before the fire.  
One of the most beautiful places in Israel.

The fire ravages the forest.  

On a personal note, I discovered Thursday afternoon, after we had slept a few hours, that my company’s First sergeant was not around and that his house had burned down in the Kibbutz of Beit Oren.  Someone asked if his house was covered by insurance and I started thinking of just what it was to lose your home.  I don’t think losing the physical structure, your clothes or other basic necessities that makes it so terrible, although I can only imagine that being homeless even if only temporarily, is awful.  Rather, it is the tangible irreplaceables such as pictures, gifts, letters and cards coupled with the memories and feelings towards your home (rather than house), that makes it such a traumatizing event for people. 

Citizen of the north after being evacuated (just my guess).  

I’ll end on a bright note, which is not only literarily more pleasing but a good attitude for life (I’m a psychologist in my spare time for all of you Charlie Browns in need of a talk).  My friend J posted (again, get it?) this on his status and I think it sums it up well. 

“we may complain about the bureaucracy of Israel or the lack of customer service [what is service?].. but what other country has banks that offer interest free, no penalty loans up to 60,000 shekel to rebuild homes; free hotel lodging while waiting for the fire to be put out; free park admission to take peoples' minds off it; 1,000 free cars by eldan set aside to help ppl... etc. etc.!!! I love the Jewish people and our eternal Homeland!!”

Chag Sameach and may rains come speedily and heavily!

 IMPORTANT! How you can help!

As I’m sure many of you are exploring ways to help, donations to my company’s first sergeant’s family are currently being accepted through an organization I work with called  Am Segula.  PLEASE support him and his family in any way/amount that you can (it is tax deductible and 100% of it goes right to the family – check or paypal/credit card are accepted)