MEVASSERET ZION, Israel (Sep. 16)
Just weeks after a firebomb nearly destroyed a Reform movement nursery school, Israelis have banded together to help reopen the school.
But for one of the nursery’s teachers, the shock she experienced upon first discovering the charred school still persists.
Aliza Landau, a child Holocaust survivor, thought she had seen her last hate crime when she immigrated to Israel many decades ago.
But on Sept. 1, Landau realized that she was wrong.
The school, affiliated with the Reform congregation Kehillat Mevasseret and located in a rented apartment in this town a few miles from Jerusalem, was almost completely destroyed by the firebombing that took place the night before.
The private nursery, which serves children between the ages of 3 and 5, had been scheduled to open its doors at the beginning of this month.
Its walls and floors burned and blackened, most of its furniture and toys beyond repair, the school remained closed — the 48 preschoolers displaced by the fire have been meeting in temporary quarters provided by the municipality.
Standing in the doorway of her freshly painted school, which was set to reopen this week, Landau recalled the moment she saw the damage.
“When I opened the door, everything, everything was black. Things were still smoking, and the stench was unbelievable. I was in total shock,” she said.
Landau’s shock turned to anger when a fire inspector ruled that the blaze had been set deliberately.
Although the police have refused to comment pending the completion of their investigation, congregation members and many others in the town, strongly suspect that the blaze was started by religious extremists who want Reform Jews to leave.
While no one is willing to attribute the crime to any one group, Hannah Sorek, president of Kehillat Mevasseret, said the congregation “has been meeting with a great deal of resistance from members of the [fervently Orthodox] Shas Party, which opposes our being in the community.
“The Shas council members opposed the council’s decision to give the nursery a temporary home,” she added, referring to a move by the local council after the firebombing to help the nursery continue its operations.
Landau said the fire was all the more upsetting because it was the second tragedy to hit the school in just over a year.
On July 26, 1996, Rachel Monk, one of the school’s teachers, was killed in a drive-by shooting near Beit Shemesh. Her husband of less than two months, Ze’ev, and her father-in-law, Uri, were also killed in the attack.
After the latest incident, Landau said, “some of the children in the school are still traumatized.
“They’re asking why people don’t like our kindergarten. They’re afraid,” Landau said. “We’ve tried to explain that the people who started the fire wanted to burn the walls, not the children.”
Although clearly shocked by the firebombing, members of the 120-family Reform community say that some good has resulted from the incident.
Sorek said, “There was almost a unanimous decision” by the local council to find a temporary home.
Neighbors, too, have been supportive, Sorek said, noting that many residents – - as well as other Israelis — sent toys and words of sorrow.
Perhaps most important of all, several strangers have volunteered their time to get the school up and running again.
In addition to contributing $5,000 toward the purchase of furniture and supplies, the Jewish Agency for Israel encouraged some of its workers to go to the school and pick up a hammer.
Mimi Tarablus, who coordinates agency projects in Beit Shemesh, said she was volunteering “in order to help the children.”
Sifting through dozens of children’s books to see which ones were still usable, Tarablus, 25, said, “I don’t know much about Reform Judaism, but religion isn’t the issue.
“What matters is that someone burned a school and it needs to be repaired.”
Avshalom Tzadok, director of the agency’s Jerusalem Department of Rural and Urban Development, agreed.
“When something like this happens, you have to get involved. Sure, coming here is a symbol, but it’s also very personal,” he said. “We have a personal responsibility to each other as people and as Jews.”
Tzadok said that his decision to repair the nursery was his way of fighting the “hatred and divisiveness that is tearing apart the Jewish people.”
“When Hezbollah attacks Kiryat Shmona, they don’t distinguish between Jews from this country or that country, from this stream of Judaism or that stream. When terrorists attacked Ben Yehuda Street, they didn’t differentiate between Reform or Orthodox Jews.
“The Bible says to love the other as yourself, and that’s what we’re doing.”