Philadelphia native Danny Stein is living the Zionist dream.
Following a study-abroad semester at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) when he was a day-school student at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Stein continued to give back to the next generation of young Zionists. He worked as a counselor at AMHSI for a while, though planned to return to the United States.
But fate had different plans for Stein, who had fallen in love with Israel, as well as with his future wife, Chana, a fellow teacher at AMHSI. Eleven years and four children later, Stein was set to celebrate his 11th wedding anniversary last week when the life he and his family had built in their home in the tranquil village of Mevo Modi’im suddenly and literally came crashing down.
“I was with a group of students in the Golan on their final trip, and during lunch I received a message that there was a fire close by and to be ready to go,” said Stein, who serves as a volunteer firefighter for the community. “Twenty minutes later, my wife called asking what we needed to pack up.”
In just 10 minutes, Chana Stein, who was alone at home on May 23 with their four children (ages 1 to 9), had to collect nearly a decade’s worth of memories and seek a safe distance from the blaze encroaching on the home they had built. “For the rest of the day, I followed the news not knowing the extent of the disaster for my family. We eventually learned that it was basically complete devastation.”
Over the last week, the Stein family—like 40 other members of Mevo Modi’im in central Israel and founded by “The Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach—have had their world turned upside down by the devastating fires that have to date claimed nearly 1,200 acres across Israel.
Israel Fire and Rescue Services, an affiliate of Jewish National Fund, has been at the forefront of this tragedy after 45 hours of combating the fires with 1,312 volunteer and professional firefighters aiding in relief efforts, along with aircraft support from nine countries.
“In recent years, JNF understood the importance of bolstering our fire and rescue teams, which has unfortunately proven even more essential over the past week,” says Yael Levontin, a JNF coordinator who works directly with Israel Fire and Rescue. “The American Jewish community have been champions directly supporting the building of state-of-the-art fire stations, equipment and trucks, which help to increase response time and efficiency.”
‘A teachable moment’
Although the support of Israel Fire and Rescue has significantly reduced the number of casualties, for Stein and his family, putting out the fires is just the beginning of a long struggle to regain what was lost.
“Our local municipality has been supportive, but the national government has been absent. With the instability of our current government, we are fearful that we will be forgotten quickly, but we hope that will not happen,” Stein lamented, realistic but not hopeless. “If there is a silver lining, it is that from the first minute, the amazing amount of love coming from the people of Israel and overseas. Complete strangers show up daily, and everyone I know is offering us to stay with them for as long as we want. People are willing to vacate their own apartment for us or inviting us to come live in their home with them.”
Just days after the initial destruction, a makeshift market was set up for the residents of Mevo Modi’im, currently residing in a yeshivah in Yad Mordechai, with a seemingly endless supply of clothes, arranged by gender and size, baby supplies, food, electronics and more each day. Teenagers from Yad Binyamin have been appearing each evening asking if they can babysit kids, take children for walks and do activities with the families, allowing parents to get some time out from the constant stress.
Determined to use this as “a teachable moment,” Stein returned on Sunday morning to AMHSI to see his students, who had one week left in their high school study-abroad program. Looking at “life lessons learned,” Stein shared with the young Americans that the outpouring of support from across the globe has reinforced his belief in Ahavat Yisrael, “the love of one’s fellow Jew,” and, in fact, people of other backgrounds who have jumped in to offer help.
“My staff has been a dream,” said Stein. “When I had to go to work, AMHSI sent a babysitter to help my wife take care of the kids. Our entire network of people has been pouring in infinite support to help our family.”
The entire AMHSI staff even pitched in to sponsor a two-day date for the Steins, including tickets to a concert in Caesarea, sponsored by the band after hearing of his story.
For Stein, the wide-eyed kid from Philadelphia who chose to make Israel his home, the recent tragedy has not deterred his Zionist spirit. “I love being in Israel, knowing there is a purpose for me here. There is a feeling that you are in the middle of making Jewish history on a regular basis. I love the unity and the whole ‘big family’ aspect of living here.”