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Family with ties to St. Louis deals with aftermath of a fire that destroyed their Israeli village

MEVO MODI’IM, Israel — “Stay close, Sam,” Tia Pinsky said to her dog as they walked around Mevo Modi’im, a collaborative village of observant Jews 30 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv.

She was trying to protect her dog, a pit bull mix, while also letting him walk without a leash. 

But on July 24, all around them, uncertainty lurked. The plastic, metal and stone remnants of 40 homes in the village of 240 people lay in piles on the ground. Some buildings still stood with roofs burnt into distorted shapes. Scorched children’s bicycle frames remained locked to a fence along the pathway where Pinsky and her dog walked.

Two months earlier, all residents evacuated before a fire started ripping through their village.

Pinsky and her husband, Avi Esterson, who grew up in St. Louis, had since returned to the village to live in a caravan next to their par tially-destroyed home. But while the flames had long died down — with no causalities —  it remained unclear whether their chosen agrarian lifestyle of, as Esterson put it, “completely expressing our Yiddishkeit in eretz Yisrael” could continue as before the fire. 

A few minutes after Pinsky provided instruction to her dog, he started to chase one of the many feral cats that roam around Israel. And suddenly there was the sound of a cascade of loose materials falling to the ground.

“Sam! Get out of there, right now!” Pinsky ordered. 

Sam hustled over and calmly sat. 

An hour or so later, a group of police officers arrived and explained their order to Pinsky: she and her family would again need to evacuate. 

Planting roots in Israel

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, an Orthodox Jew known as “the singing rabbi” whose music and non-judgmental approach to spirituality attracted a following in the counter-culture of the 1960s and ‘70s Bay Area, started the moshav in central Israel in 1976. It became a place where people farmed, played music, produced crafts, worked day jobs and staged music festivals on Jewish holidays that attracted people from throughout Israel. 

Esterson’s family moved to St. Louis from Baltimore when he was 3 years old. He recently found letters between his parents from before they were married in which they discussed Habonim Dror, the Zionist youth movement, and how neither person could see themselves marrying someone who didn’t plan to move to Israel. But they remained in the United States during Esterson’s childhood because of his parents’ careers — his dad was an engineering professor at Washington University, and his mother worked at the St. Louis juvenile court. 

Esterson, meanwhile, attended University City High School and studied with Rabbi Zvi Magence of the former Orthodox synagogue Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol. Esterson said he “always knew that I was going to end up [in Israel]. It was just a question of when and under what conditions.”

He dropped out of college when he was 18 during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and moved to Israel to volunteer. Pinsky, meanwhile, grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and came to Be’erot Yitzhak, a religious kibbutz, when she was 17 to participate in ulpan, a program to learn Hebrew. Esterson was living there and knew one of Pinsky’s roommates through Young Judea, a Zionist youth group. He and Pinsky started spending time together and two weeks later on Shabbat, they were walking around and saw someone yelling at a small child, Pinsky recalled.

“And I said to Avi, ‘We’re never going to speak to our children like that, are we?’ So he turned red and then he turned green and then he turned white,” said Pinsky, 63. 

But the two did end up marrying and had three sons. They moved to the moshav in 1979 because they were attracted to Carlebach’s approach to Judaism that wasn’t a closed circle in which you had to behave a certain way but rather “like a spiral where wherever you were, you could get on and keep getting higher from that point,” Pinsky said.

Esterson also liked the prospect of organic farming. He started off working as part of the moshav’s agricultural commune, which later broke up. He built up his private farm to include 11 acres of avocado orchards and another 10 acres of lemons and vegetables. He hired three workers from Thailand who lived on site.  

“When you’re a farmer, it’s an intense profession,” Esterson said. “The hours are long. In terms of the conditions of work, you really have to be dedicated or crazy about it to enjoy it because it’s physically difficult and challenging.”

A village in flames

On May 23, Pinsky, a nurse-midwife and clinical instructor at Chaim Sheba Medical Center, was at their two-story home, which they had moved into just a year earlier after planning and building it for 15 years. 

She received a call from Esterson who was driving home and noticed smoke in the air. Surrounded by forest, there had been wildfires throughout the family’s years on the moshav. Usually firefighters put them out in a few hours. 

Pinsky went outside to see how bad this fire was. She found the Thai workers, who spoke little English or Hebrew. 

“I screamed to them, ‘Passports, Passports! We go! Big fire!’” Pinsky recalled.

They waited at a nearby cemetery, expecting to be able to return home in a few hours. Then police informed them that the village was largely gone. 

In addition to the destroyed homes and property, 25 percent of Esterson’s lemon trees were damaged and the rest of the vegetable plantings were destroyed. The irrigation and farming equipment were also lost. The avocado trees were fine.

The Israel Fire and Rescue Service investigated and found that the fire started simultaneously in several spots, indicating that it was possibly arson, according to news reports. 

They went to stay at an apartment in Ra’anana where Esterson’s mother had lived before she died last year. That meant Esterson had to wake up a 3:30 a.m. to drive to the farm and tend to the damaged crops. Pinsky also fell and broke her hand while she was living there, so she couldn’t work at the hospital. 

“We are in Ra’anana, but it’s impossible,” Pinsky said in June. 

And then someone broke into the remnants of their home. So the couple purchased a used caravan from another farmer in central Israel and moved back to the moshav.

Keeping the faith

In July, while Pinsky walked with her dog and Esterson worked the farm, a squad of Israel Defense Forces soldiers arrived for a training exercise. Aside from Pinsky and Esterson and their son, the village was vacant, which made it a good site for the soldiers to practice taking control of small homes. 

Pinsky showed the Jewish Light the moshav’s synagogue, which looked as it did before the fire; residents described it as miraculous. As she finished, she noticed a white sedan pull up next to the house. A group of police officers in plain clothes told her that they were there to serve her because she and her family were living illegally on public land. The officers were reluctant to evict the family and told Pinsky to contact an attorney to get an injunction.

In addition to trying to recover from the fire, the residents’ lives were further complicated by the fact that most of them, despite years of negotiation, had not been able to sign a long-term lease with the Israel Lands Authority. That’s part of the reason why almost no residents had insurance on their homes and why Pinsky and Esterson were now considered to be trespassing. 

If the Israeli government determined that the fire was not only arson, but an act of terrorism, the residents would then be compensated regardless of whether they had insurance. But despite the initial news reports and the fire service’s earlier speculation, the agency concluded last week that there was not enough evidence to declare it arson, according to Israeli news organizations. 

“We are making all sorts of jokes. It must have come down from the moon. It must have been the hand of God and he had his pinky tucked under,” Pinsky said, riffing on the fact that the fire started in four places. 

Still, the family has received about $47,000 in donations through online crowdfunding campaigns in Israel and the United States (available at http://bit.ly/Mevo-Modiim), Pinsky said. And the court granted them a six-month injunction so that they can remain on the property. They hope to have what’s left of their home rebuilt in four months. 

Other residents continue to live for free in guest houses at Hafetz Haim, a kibbutz in central Israel. Despite not declaring that it was arson, the government will still provide residents with compensation for rent at an apartment or if interested, the cost of a caravan.

“What I can tell you in general is that we all feel that it was a real miracle what happened,” said Nechama Silver, the moshav’s representative to the Regional Council, a local government entity. “Even though it was not very pleasant — at least 80 percent of the community was totally wiped out…Even though it was extremely traumatic, we really believe it was a total miracle for a few reasons. One, no one was hurt.”

Pinsky is now out of a cast and back working part-time at the hospital. Esterson lost “an entire season in vegetables,” but is continuing to farm. A few other residents have also returned, and they have shared a few meals.

As to the future, even if the moshav residents are able to rebuild the village as it was before, other fires likely loom around Israel. In addition to fire balloons becoming a regular weapon for terrorists in Gaza, climate change could lead to an increase in the size and frequency of wildfires around the world. For example, according to a study in the journal Earth’s Future, the size of wildfires in California has increased fivefold since 1972. 

Pinsky is concerned about climate change and can no longer look at balloons, but she believes that she and other residents will be able to return to the sort of life that inspired her to move there in the first place. 

She explained, “It was — and is going to be — a very nice place to live.”