Hub rallies to aid Israel fire victims

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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Local Jewish groups are rallying to help victims of a fire raging in the hills near Haifa, a city in northern Israel that has developed close ties with Boston over the past two decades.

On Friday, Combined Jewish Philanthropies wired $200,000 to its office in Haifa and set up a special fund for donations on its website. Brad Bloom, chairman of the organization’s board, said leaders here will spend the next few days talking with their counterparts and local officials in Haifa about what help is most urgently needed. And representatives might travel to Haifa this week.

“We will let them define what the needs are, and we will certainly be responsive, based on that,’’ Bloom said.

Over time, the organization will probably also invest in larger rebuilding projects, such as reforestation, said Gil Preuss, CJP’s executive vice president.

“We are going to be involved with this for the long term,’’ Preuss said.

What started as a small blaze on Thursday in the dry forest near Haifa quickly grew into a raging inferno, stoked by powerful winds. Some 17,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes, and at least 41 have died, according to wire reports.

The tragedy feels like a personal loss to many in Boston’s Jewish community, which has nurtured close ties with Haifa since 1989, when groups in both cities began collaborating to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union rebuild their lives in the Israeli city. Today, the Boston-Haifa Connection spends about $2 million a year on refugee assistance, education, social service, and economic development programs.

Many hundreds of volunteers, students, and professionals from both cities have participated in exchanges over the years, forming lasting friendships.

“We all know so many people over there, and everybody knows somebody whose life has been touched through this terrible loss,’’ said Lisa Wallack, cochairwoman of the Boston-Haifa Connection.

Among those killed in the fire was a 16-year-old student at a high school in Haifa that has a sister school partnership with Prozdor, a complementary Hebrew high school run by Hebrew College in Newton Centre. Elad Riven, a volunteer firefighter and student at the Hebrew Reali School, died while helping other firefighters battling the blaze, reported yesterday.

“We are in agony for them,’’ said Marjorie Berkowitz, director of Prozdor.

The husband of a teacher from the Ironi Hey High School, which has a similar partnership with the Gann Academy, a Jewish high school in Waltham, also died while helping to rescue people trapped in the fire on Mount Carmel.

Vered Israely, who works in the Connection’s Haifa office, and has been updating Jewish leaders here frequently, reported the news to her Boston counterparts in an e-mail yesterday.

Israely’s 14-year-old daughter, in an e-mail sent Friday, described watching dozens of emergency vehicles racing to the scene and trucks filled with evacuated prison inmates rumbling through the city.

“The heavy smoke and red sun that hid within it filled the city with an atmosphere of tension and pressure,’’ she wrote. “A big black cloud loomed over my neighborhood.’’

“The consistent theme is that this is really serious and there is a lot of damage,’’ said Larry Goodman, who cochairs the Boston-Haifa Connection.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who remained in the hospital yesterday recuperating from a reaction to medication he was taking after an infection, issued a statement of support on Friday.

“It is out of this long history of cooperation and friendship between our two cities that I express my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of those affected by this tragedy,’’ he said.

Berkowitz has a previously scheduled meeting this morning with parents of 25 students who are traveling to Haifa on Dec. 22 for a new, two-week program focused on “Jewish identity, Jewish peoplehood, and the Israel connection.’’ She said that unless there is a safety issue, the trip will probably go forward.

“That’s the underpinning of the entire relationship — we are one people, we have to be there with them to be supportive, and to show our love,’’ she said.

Berkowitz said she received an e-mail last night from a friend who mourned the death of so many beautiful trees in the Carmel Forest outside the city, the primary area where the fire has been raging, which she said had been planted by hand over the generations.

“How much can Israel take?’’ she said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at