The first thing you notice when you pass through the gate and into the moshav is the smell. Like a campfire that was doused with water and left to sputter. The second thing: just how many of the trees look like they’ve survived an inferno.

Because they have.

Back in May, Moshav Mevo Modi’im (aka Me’or Modi’im or just “the Moshav”) lost nearly all of its 60 homes to a fire so intense that it fried the electrical and plumbing systems. And though the investigation was inconclusive, many insiders still suspect arson.

But against the odds, surrounded by a landscape of burnt-out homes and the scorched skeletons of trees, it was business as usual for the Moshav Mevo Modi’im Country Fair on Oct. 16, just like it has been every Sukkot since 2006.

Founded in 1975 by famed “singing rabbi” Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and friends, the moshav has long been home to the “Chevra,” a clan of counterculture artists, musicians, aromatherapists, rabbis, yoga teachers and poets practicing a joyous amalgam of Chassidic Judaism in the spirit of his House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. The rabbi, who split his time between Israel and New York, died exactly a quarter-century ago, on Oct. 21, 1994.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (left) with Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The intermediate days of Sukkot is a time when Israelis—both the native-born and the newest arrivals—are reborn as tourists, crisscrossing their own country as if seeing its sights for the first time. And for many, the Moshav Fair is a much-anticipated part of their holiday (as well as their Passover) travel plans.

Where else can you have your hand henna-ed, learn how to tap your way to health and happiness, and buy tie-dyed T-shirts for toddlers, painted tambourines, feathered earrings and a range of seriously spiritual books with authors primed to engage visitors in a myriad of other-worldly topics? Where else can you take in the likes of Shlomo Katz, Nuriel and the Solomon Brothers, and assorted other musical favorites while munching organic kosher foods? Not exactly your average country fair.

After the fire, with nearly everyone evacuated and scattered around the country—and only the silent army of gutted homes cordoned off with plastic sheeting standing guard—few people expected to see a fair this year.

“But the strange thing was in the center of the moshav, in the fairground filled with highly flammable trees, not a blade of grass was burnt,” says organizer Leah Sand. “Nor were any of the communal buildings. So, really, how could we not hold the fair this year?”

View of burnt homes after a forest fire wiped out most of the houses last week in Mevo Modi’im, near Ben Shemen Forest, on May 26, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

And some 4,500 responded, more than any previous year, says Sand. “We had splendid weather, and we never had this many people. Everyone wanted to give us support, and everyone was happy. It was like a family reunion.”

‘The Carlebach spirit will live on’

The vast majority of the folks who showed up had never met Rabbi Carlebach, though they know his music and reputation for bringing Jews together to celebrate the joys of a Torah life.

“A lot of young people relate to his spirit,” says visitor Micki Weinberg, a Los Angeles native now living in Berlin. “When you look around and see what’s happening here today, it’s obvious that this is what the Torah means when it says. ‘Choose life.’ Shlomo got it, and so do his people here … this kind of day is what that’s talking about,”

For those who have called this place home, the trauma remains fresh.

“It still seems surreal to me that my mom’s home is gone, reminding me that you can’t ever go home again,” says Miriam Leibowitz of Jerusalem on hand to sell her watercolors. “With so many people here today, it’s a lot of beauty and a lot of pain all mixed together.” One surprise: In sifting through the ruins of her mother’s home, she found a few special pieces of her grandmother’s jewelry. “With that extreme heat,” she adds, “it’s a miracle it didn’t melt.”

Members of moshav Mevo Modi’im continue to stick together in temporary housing in Yad Binyamin, May 30, 2019. Credit: JNF.

Another insider put it this way: “Only four months after the devastating fire, this day was not only a huge success but an important marker on the way to rebuilding the moshav,” said Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, who with his wife, Rachel, were moshav founders back in 1976. “Further, it is a testament to the members’ determination to not only carry on but to forge ahead despite the daunting work that lies ahead … and just how important the moshav is for Klal Yisrael.”

“It cheered us up to have all these people here,” says Shira Shapiro, whose home was completely consumed, and who now lives in temporary housing with her two children and mother in nearby Modi’in. “All you have to do is look around you at the devastation; until today, the place has been a ghost town.” One thing that keeps up their spirits, she notes, is the “absolutely phenomenal” moral and financial support that’s poured in.

“The day was an amazing opportunity for everyone associated with the moshav and everyone who cares about it to come together, reconnect and inspire each other,” says Orah Moshe of Pardes Hanna, who’s helped Sand with various aspects of  the fair over the years. “The backdrop of the burnt-out homes, the smell of the fire, they’re unavoidable reminders, but I felt so much love for the moshav here today.”

What Lilian Ritchie, another founder with her husband, Joshua, and children, says strengthens her is the things that escaped the inferno: the beautiful hand-painted synagogue and a stack of Rabbi Carlebach’s holy books that somehow survived in his family’s otherwise destroyed home. “I believe Shlomo was keeping an eye on those things,” says Ritchie. “And I’m sure he’s proud of everyone here today; he always was.”

“The Carlebach spirit will live on,” said visitor Shlomo Walfish of Ramat Beit Shemesh. “Because Shlomo’s message was love, acceptance and dedication to God, everyone here is picking that up through osmosis.”

As singer Shlomo Katz said from the stage: “If these people are able to pull off this festival and live with such determination, then the least we can do it pull ourselves up and dance and sing, and learn from them to strengthen our own lives, too.”

And, speaking of strength, if you look very carefully, you could see a few green shoots making their way through patches of charred earth.

“It won’t be easy, but I believe they’ll make a comeback here,” says Shapiro’s sister-in-law, Bracha Amster. “There’s something special about the place that makes people want to raise their kids here.”

“Don’t give up on us. We’re going to be back,” adds Shapiro. “We’re going to come home, we’re going to rebuild this place; there’s no question about it.”

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