Life After The Blaze At Carlebach’s Moshav
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Life After The Blaze At Carlebach’s Moshav

A ‘shtetl’ deals with ruin, exile, wistful memories.

Associate Editor

The blaze at Mevo Modi’in destroyed at least 40 out of the community’s 50 homes. “The air was sweeter there,” says Neshama Carlebach. “The wind was softer there.” Sam Sokol/JTA
The blaze at Mevo Modi’in destroyed at least 40 out of the community’s 50 homes. “The air was sweeter there,” says Neshama Carlebach. “The wind was softer there.” Sam Sokol/JTA

It was Lag b’Omer, in the mystical hours of bonfires and secrets, when a late-May heat wave lay heavy over Israel. Fire trucks raced to dozens of fires attributed to the heat, the holiday, even arson. Four suspicious fires, said the police, were set around the periphery of Moshav Me’or Modi’in, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “shtetl,” igniting an inferno between the Ben-Shemen forest and Route 443.

By nightfall, the Moshav’s 233 people were safe but homeless; 50 of the 60 homes were smoking, blackened or leveled, all unlivable. Many of the newer homes, said Chani Pearlstein, who grew up on the Moshav, were made of wood, “the natural hippie aesthetic,” and so were all the more vulnerable. Cars were stained by smoke. Everything in Reb Shlomo’s home (maintained by the Moshav even after his death 25 years ago) was charred — except his books.

The international Carlebach chevra (fellowship) responded with charity drives and New York’s Carlebach Shul, on the Upper West Side, sponsored a fundraising concert last week. Over $447,000 has been raised. “Unfortunately,” said one resident, “many people did not have insurance. That’s been the biggest problem.”

“How the city sits solitary that was once full of people,” says the Book of Lamentations. Hundreds of thousands visted over the decades. When it was a “Shlomo Shabbos,” as it was called, the place became a “Moshav Woodstock,” said Pearlstein, people coming “from around the country for the davening, singing, [Shlomo] stories” through the night.

Rabbi Sam Intrator, Shlomo’s right-hand man and former rabbi of the Carlebach Shul, said Shlomo and the chevra were looking to create an idealized chasidic shtetl.

The Moshav’s ethos seemed to be: When you come, someone loves you; when you leave, someone misses you.

Effects of a fire in the central town of Mevo Modiim on May 23, 2019. Israel Fire Service via TOI

“No exaggeration,” said Rabbi Intrator. “They opened their homes to everybody.”

Now, three months after the fire, no one can move back home. On the eve of the school year and the autumn holidays, many Moshavniks were still living in one or two spare rooms at Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim, a half-hour drive from the Moshav, or with family or friends.

Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, 70, recalled the dreams of 1976, when he and his wife, Rachel, were among the first seven families — all Carlebach chasidim — that moved as a group to the Moshav. Trugman, on the phone from Jerusalem, said the founders had been getting together every Rosh Chodesh, commemorating the mystical qualities and implications of the New Moon, and at some point someone mused, “‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could start a Yishuv,’” a new community, “‘out in the country.’ Within a few months, the Jewish Agency offered us this place,” a heavily wooded former army post, designated for agriculture, “in the middle of nowhere, no telephone lines, no other Yishuvim near us, we were out there by ourselves.

“At first, we were a Moshav shitufi,” a communal-private hybrid, said Trugman, similar to a kibbutz economically, but families lived independently. Children loved it. Neshama Carlebach, Shlomo’s daughter and a musician in her own right, remembered the Moshav as the “most special place.” Pearlstein, who now lives in Brooklyn, recalled, “We all grew up like cousins. All adults were my aunts, uncles; I could walk into any home, day or night. We all felt, ‘we’re in this together,’ unlike any community I’ve seen.”

In time, the adults found “the economic system confining,” said Trugman, a musician and co-director, with his wife, of Ohr Chadash, an educational group. “We had many individualists — musicians, artists, writers, silversmiths, ceramists. Now everyone is responsible for their own livelihood.” The only thing still communal is “the spiritual aspect of the Moshav.” There is only one shul.

When the peripatetic Shlomo was away, “we would pretty much eat on our own,” said Trugman, but when Shlomo came, meals were held in a large communal room. Pearlstein, 36, remembers her father “bringing sleeping bags so my siblings and I could sleep under a table. At three or four in the morning, he and my mother would pick us up and carry us home.”

The legacy is such that, like the Dominican town of San Pedro deMacoris, which produces a disproportionate number of major league shortstops, the small Moshav developed a disproportionate number of progressive neo-chasidic rock bands — Soulfarm, the Moshav Band (musicians from both of those bands played at last week’s concert), and the Diaspora Yeshiva Band — each nurtured by the Moshav’s ambiance and Shlomo’s influence.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, early 1990s. Shlomo Carlebach Legacy Trust

The Moshav exiles grow wistful with the memories. “My parents are living out of a suitcase in Jerusalem,” said Pearlstein. “I hear the sorrow of what was lost. I hear the exhaustion in my father’s voice.”

“Right now it’s still an extremely difficult time,” Trugman said. “Burnt trees are getting cut down. Houses that could not be repaired have to be knocked down. We’re planning to bring in 38 [temporary housing modules] while houses are being rebuilt.”

The women’s Rosh Chodesh group returns monthly to the Moshav, even after the fire. And on Tisha b’Av, said Trugman, “A large group of us returned to the Moshav to hear Eicha,” the exquisitely haunting tune of the Book of Lamentations. “We returned to be together.”

On Tisha b’Av, Trugman spoke to the group, reminding his friends that the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av was Shabbat Chazon, named after the Haftarah’s beginning, “the vision of Isaiah… after [the fire] you will be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Trugman said, “I pointed out that we originally came to the Moshav with a ‘vision.’ Through many challenges, we hung on to that vision. Even after this disastrous fire, we are not willing to let go. Just like Am Yisroel [the Jewish people] have gone through terrible times but we never gave up on our vision of returning and rebuilding Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel]; we see that vision for the Moshav. We are committed to returning and rebuilding.”

With the arrival of Elul, shofars are heard at dawn in Jerusalem and at the kibbutz of the exiled, a New Year is coming. Trugman said he is reminded of a long ago afternoon, just prior to Rosh HaShanah, when “Shlomo came into shul and said, ‘Chevra, this is the last Mincha of the year. We better make it good!’ After Mincha he started teaching, and teaching some more. In other communities I’m sure they were already in the middle of their meal, but Shlomo’s teaching was just getting longer. He finally says, ‘To tell the truth, I’m stalling. I just don’t feel ready to let go of last year, and I’m not ready to receive the New Year. I think we should escort the old year to the Moshav’s gate.’ Everyone in shul got up,” said Trugman, “singing, dancing all the way to the gate, one niggun [holy melody] after another. At the gate, we kept singing, dancing, until Shlomo says, ‘You know, I think we’re ready for Rosh HaShanah.’ We returned to shul, davened Maariv,” and so began the new.

“So I’m thinking,” said Trugman, “it’s hard to let go. For reasons beyond our comprehension, we had this terrible fire. But after exile comes a new beginning.”

But not too new, say the exiles, echoing Lamentations, “Restore our days as of old.” It was so lovely, said Neshama Carlebach of the lost Moshav. “The air was sweeter there. The wind was softer there.”

The air and the wind remain.

The central address for donations to the Moshav is jgive.com/new/en/ils/donation-targets/17611/about

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