By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
At the same time rockets were falling on Israel during the height of its devastating conflict with Hamas, the single biggest wildfire in Washington State’s history ripped through Eastern Washington, consuming some 550 square miles and traveling up to an acre a minute through Okanogan and Chelan Counties.
In a mobile command unit trailer in Pateros, a tiny town perched above the Columbia River about three and a half hours from Seattle, Navonel Glick shows me a map of the state with massive green blotches representing the Carlton Complex fire.
Pateros, population 662 at last count, was one of the worst affected towns, with 20 percent of its buildings destroyed. “Tornadoes” of fire swept over the hills, leaving residents mere minutes to evacuate. Entire homes, entire family histories, literally went up in smoke.
Despite the war back home, Glick, the program director for IsraAid: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, was here in Washington with a crew of six workers to help clean up the destruction for two weeks in late July-early August.
“We were sitting there in Israel throughout everything, and we heard about this,” said Glick. “We thought it would be an opportunity to show that life goes on back in Israel.”
IsraAid was founded in 2001, and has been one of the first relief organizations to respond to nearly every major crisis, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Japanese tsunami in 2011, and the Philippines typhoon in 2013. IsraAid linked up with Team Rubicon, an organization that brings military veterans to help in disaster zones, which was organizing the response in Pateros. They originally connected when both teams helped with floods in Colorado in 2013 and tornadoes in Arkansas earlier this year. Altogether, about 30 volunteers worked six to seven days a week, sifting through the rubble of destroyed houses, clearing out the plots, and discarding hardened globs of melted metal, glass, fiberglass, and anything else that isn’t reduced to ash in a fire.
“We like to pride ourselves on being some very tough, rugged people that will do a job a lot of organizations will shy away from, but IsraAid is a step above us when it comes to that,” said TJ Porter, an incident commander in Pateros with Team Rubicon. “On a personal level, everyone’s just great to be around.”
The morning of my visit, the IsraAid team was in its final day of cleaning up the site of a destroyed home. The few objects that survived were stacks of dishes, blackened silverware that looks like it was unearthed at Pompeii, and a smattering of porcelain religious figurines. On one side of the property, in cruel irony, the fire line stopped about 20 feet from a neighbor’s home. As we dismantled a lump of plastic that was once a gazebo, laundry dries in the hot breeze just a few yards away next to a perfectly intact prefab home on a patch of bright green grass.
The work of piling up rocks and twisted metal and tearing down charred trees in Washington was not like landing in the Philippines and seeing bodies in the street, Glick told me. But all disasters are handled with the same sensitivity.
“We talk a lot about working with the mind and not just the heart,” said Glick. “It’s easy to do more harm than good. You arrive in disasters and you try to keep a part of yourself there with the people. You have to make sure people don’t become numbers, because they’re not, and to try and respect every individual that you work with. But at the same time, you have to try and be levelheaded, and having a purpose and a meaning within the disaster really keeps you going.”
But why, with crises the world over, was IsraAid here?
“We discovered this very weird thing,” said Glick. “When there’s a disaster in the U.S., everything’s taken care of in the beginning. The period immediately after, the homeowners are left alone. It’s because the U.S. is so developed that you have this issue.”
Helping the homeowners in Pateros recover the few items spared by the fire, and clearing out the plots to rebuild or move on from, is more meaningful than even the victims might expect.
“That in and of itself has had a huge impact on people,” said Glick. “Homeowners often don’t want to save anything. We go through the process as much as possible to take out personal effects. They’ll find things they thought were lost forever.”
In Glick’s experience, victims who are involved in the cleanup don’t suffer as much trauma. He recalled a young couple in Colorado whose newly built home had to be dismantled after the floods. As they watched, a smile crept onto their faces.
“They were finally able to let go of this mansion they had built…that they had never been able to live in,” said Glick.
IsraAid usually makes an effort to connect with the local Jewish community, particularly to inspire youth who struggle to find a connection to the Jewish people. Glick spoke at Temple De Hirsch Sinai and Congregation Beth Shalom over Shabbat Aug. 15-16.
Given that the disaster response community tends to consist of military and local churches, it’s also a good opportunity to introduce Jews and Israelis to Americans who might not have ever met any.
“We’ve started a campaign that we call ‘haverim’ [friends] to do more missions like this,” Glick said. “Israel knows a lot, and a lot of times our groups do informal interactions. All these things together make it for us sort of unique but highly enriching and important experience.”
According to Bob Obernier, another incident commander, the cross-cultural interactions have been rich. He, for one, is proud to have learned how to say “l’chaim” correctly, which comes in handy around 5 p.m. when a metaphorical “beer flag” goes up.
“We’re one-sided here in the States about what life’s really like in Israel,” he said. “All they want is to live a peaceful life. Same here.”
The Israelis, too, gain from their interactions with U.S. military veterans. Putting the veterans to work is part of Team Rubicon’s humanitarian mission, motivated by the memory of an early Team Rubicon member who committed suicide — or, as one person put it, “lost his battle with PTSD.”
“Nobody understands what they went through,” said Glick. “It’s the first time they’ve had a purpose in decades. It’s very interesting to see a different side of America.”
Given that natural disasters are one of the sure things in life on this planet, Team Rubicon and IsraAid will probably meet again.
“There’s a strong connection to the U.S.,” said Glick. “It’s important to us to give back.”