Snow is Upon You, Land of Israel! A Family's Saga

How a young, idealistic and stalwart family jin the Binyamin area coped with the snow and cold, sans electricity, water and heat.

Rabbi Meir Goldmintz

OpEds Haresha

Translated from Arutz Sheva's Hebrew site by Rochel Sylvetsky.

Most of Israel has just experienced several days of snow, rain and freezing cold. Still, I think that there are aspects of this snowstorm that anyone who has not gone through is not aware of - and which I think readers will find interesting.

In most of the Golan, Galilee, Judea, Binyamin and Samarian hills, the snow began to stick by last Thursday morning, but in my community of Haresha in the Talmonim Bloc of Western Binyamin (part of Samaria), there were some snowflakes at dawn on Thursday, but the snow only began to accumulate on the ground after sunset.

Thursday night: We watch the the snow getting higher and higher. Towards 8 p.m., the main electricity pole in our area falls and electric current to all the communities of western Binyamin is cut off. The community's administrators, chief security officer and other functionaries try to reach the Israel Electric Company to report the need for service, but it turns out that we are far from the top of the list. The city of Tsfat has no electricity. There are entire Jerusalem neighborhoods without electricity.

We are told that almost all the Binyamin communities have no electricity. In the Samarian hilltop communities the current is cut off. And it's the same in many other parts of the country, cities and towns alike. It could take all night until they begin working on our problem. 

No electricity means no lighting. But that's the minor problem. There is also no heat. There is no communication with the outside world because home computers work on electricity, the mobile phone antenna is not broadcasting, the land phones are also electrically operated in our town –and we cannot even charge our mobile phones.

This turns out to be one of the coldest nights ever. Outside temperatures are measured at 4-5 degrees below zero. Snow is piling up in the streets, the gardens and at the entrances to our homes. There is no light and no heat. We manage to have some light with flashlights and emergency lights. But how should we keep warm? Not everyone has a kerosene heater! Can candles serve as heaters?

The answer seems to be yes! The only way for most of the town's residents to heat their homes is by lighting the gas stoves and ovens - for those who have them. After all, it's fire, and if it can cook food, it can warm the house to some extent.

The whole family sleeps in one room, we close the doors to all the other rooms, hoping that the gas flames will warm at least that one room.

At about ten p.m., my son says to me "Abba, there is snow piled up at the front door. By morning we won't be able to open it!"

And so there is. The door to our caravan (mobile home) opens outward, and is now blocked by 8 inches. of snow. I try to open it, but had I not been able to turn the key to the left, I would have thought it was locked. Pushing hard has no effect.

I smile at my nine year old son and say: "I will let you go out through the window, bring a hoe and clean the snow." He is the only one who can do it. We have no way of contacting anyone.

Fine, but it is clear that I cannot let him jump into the snowdrift outside the window, even if it is only 4 feet high, and I go back to the door. There is no alternative to trying harder, because who knows what the morning will bring. More and more pushing and it moves a little bit. Centimeter by centimeter it opens a bit and then just a bit more.

At last we get to an opening that is the width of a human being. Meanwhile, the snow is falling on my face and the bitter cold is entering the room. It's hard to go on.

We go to sleep, all of us, as I wrote, in one room. Two children in each bed, joined by us, their parents. To get a bit more room, we put the mattresses on the floor.

The children are having the time of their lives. Snow is not a daily occurrence for them, and wouldn't you know it – they are full of energy tonight. They look out the window, savoring every snowflake. The window becomes covered in snow.

They try to count the centimeters on the road, the trees, the security fence, and simply enjoy the experience and eagerly await the morning.

The most adorable question is asked by my daughter: "Abba, tomorrow is the fast of the 10th of Tevet. How can we be sad when there is snow (and more importantly, there is no school)?"

Friday morning: Morning has arrived and there is no electricity. Everyone, they said last night,  is working on it. The snow is still coming down and the community is effectively cut off, no one can enter and no one can leave.

The grocer perforrms an act of lovingkindness and opens the grocery for one hour. Since his cash register isn't working, this means hours of work for him to record the purchases of each resident.

 We want to take advantage of a break in the snowfall to build a snowman.

But the problems of last night return in the morning. Another 10 inches of snow have fallen and our door doesn't open once more. The whole family pushes the door together and we reach the same size opening we had reached on Thursday night. 

The snow is not as high there because we had succeeded in cleaning it the night before, so we manage to make some progress. Past that point there is 1.5 feet of snow, and our paltry strength is no match for it. We cannot move the door any further.

 At least we are able to keep the day's main commandment – bulding a snowman. We put plastic bags on our boots and shoes and go out to the snow. At every step, we adults sink in up to our knees. The snow gets up to the children's waists, but all that matters is that we have the raw materials for building that snow man.

Other years, when only 5-7 inches of snow fell, we had to work hard to gather enough white snow for our creation. This year there is no problem. Within minutes, the snowman is ready. We add a carrot nose, leaves for eyes, red pepper mouth, a woolen hat, scarf and have a wonderful snowman.

Except that actually lots of time has passed while we stay outside and the snow begins to fall again. Heavy snow that covers every trace of our footprints and changes the snowman's woolen hat from red to white. "If your sins be crimson, they will turn white as snow" says the prophet.

The hat disappears, the scarf is covered, the eyes cannot see or be seen, the mouth is shut. Only the nose peeps out from the hill of snow that has by now covered the snowman.

Meanwhile we are trying to deal with the cold in the house. The darkness is not so bad, it is still daylight although the light is masked by black clouds and heavy fog.  But it is bitterly cold. And we have no way of heating. The electric oven isn't working and we need some good ideas on how to prepare Shabbat food. In the meantime, we have received a message that the electricity will not be going on so fast because all the roads are blocked and the electric company cannot reach the fallen pole.

It's tough, but one can understand that there are other places that are also having a hard time.

Another problem crops up. When there is no electricity in the entire area, the water pumps don't work either. This means that the amount of water that is now in the community is going to have to last until the electricity is fixed. The reservoir in the water tower is emptying rapidly as we have spent 18 hours without current and Shabbat is still ahead of us.

The community's secretariat informs us that there is a severe water shortage. Use water for drinking and cooking only and for nothing else. Nu, bathrooms must be used,  but showers are out.

That's how one of the most significant parts of getting ready for Shabbat (the Sabbath) – showering the chidren and ourselves – is spared us. There is not much light, no baking of challot (Sabbath loaves) no shower, so what do we do? We have a chance to study Torah and play with the children.

We fill a few bottles of water just in case, and to be doubly safe we gather some snow from outside and fill the children's tub and our pail. If we have no more water, this will serve as a reserve.

Shortly before Shabbat, I switch the gas tank to a new one so that we will at least be able to have warm food and a somewhat warm house for the entire Shabbat.

And suddenly, the whole issue of cooking, covering and other issues in the Talmud become relevant. We don't have our Shabbat electric hotplate (that is, we have one, but can't use it…) and we have never used a cover for gas flames as halakhah demands on Shabbat.

All kinds of questions arise. In what way are we allowed tp put food on the burners before Shabbat? How do we fulfill the halakhic stringencies? And what about during Shabbat? Even something that is completely cooked must not be put on a lit burner on Shabbat.

Solutions are found and actually they are quite simple. Most of the famiies put a roasting pan which now acts as a hotplate on the open flame, but since we didn't want to ruin a baking pan, we covered a metal oven grate with aluminum foil instead.

Shabbat arrives. My wife lights the candles, not just because of the commandment this time, but for the light they give off – it is what our Sages originally mandated, that the Shabbat candles are to cast their light on the home. There is also an emergency light that is working for the second night in a row without charging, we will see how long it lasts.

We get to synagogue for the afternoon prayer for fast days and for the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer that welcomes the day of rest. "It is good to praise G-d", we sing. Two months have passed since the start of the winter, and almost no rain had fallen by last week. It seemed as though we were going to have a drought, and thank G-d, the heavenly windows have opened and the Almighty has given us an abundance of water.

The congregation suddenly begins a dance of gratitude that warms the heart as well as the body.

After prayers, we are given security reminders and other instructions. Families that have better means of heating invite other families to their homes and everyone leaves, either to his home or to a friend's warmer one.

We eat the Shabbat meal with little light, in the kitchen, near the gas flames. The food is piping hot, the fire seems to heat better than our regular electric hotplate (or maybe we need a new one…), we sing Shabbat zemirot (songs) with special feeling, exchange Torah thoughts that warm our hearts.

After the meal, we get organized for sleep. There is not much light. The children are exhausted from the night before, snuggle under blankets and fall asleep early.

Shabbat morning: There are still snowflakes in the air. Our footsteps are covered again and only small indentations in the snow are proof of where we walked yesterday.

I walk towards the synagogue, with empty pockets, after all, who knows if the eruv (string around the community that allows carrying objects on Shabbat) is still up. I try not to sink in the snow as the snowflakes brush my face. Within minutes my entire beard turns white.

After prayers, we see the sun for a few minutes peeping from behind the clouds and we feel that maybe there is a temperature change.

This time we heat the food on the metal hot water container that we had left - before Shabbat - on the grate covering the burners.. The emergency light is useless and a bit of light from the window is all we have, but after our meal, we use that light to study Torah because at night we will not be able to do that anymore.

As Shabbat draws to an end, a helicopter arrives. Everyone is frightened at the approaching sound, and even more when they can see the lights, but it comes nearer and lands. What has happened?

One of the families that warmed its house with cooking gas as we all did suffered gas poisoning because the gas tank became too empty to support the flame but enough gas kept flowing out to suffocate them. Unfortunately, this happened as they were taking their afternoon Shabbat nap, so they did not smell the gas.

Luckily, they have a brother in the community who noticed that his brother did not come to the afternoon prayers and went to see what was going on. When he entered the house, he saw his brother and family lying there unconscious, immediately ran to the rescue services and a helicopter came to evacuate them to the hospital.

Thank G-d, it came on time, and shortly after Shabbat was over, we received the news that they had regained consciousness. The verse in Proverbs says: "A close-by neighbor is better than a distant brother", but there is no doubt that a close-by brother beats both of them.

Saturday night: Still no electricity. This is the third night in a row that we have to manage in darkness and without normal heating. The emergency lights are out and now we really only have candles.

We say the Havdala (end of Shabbat) prayer, note that the stovetop has been lit for 48 hours straight (minus the 5 minutes it took to replace the used gas tank), and the house is quite dark. No one knows when electricity will be restored.

Suddenly we notice that everything in the home freezer is not frozen anymore. For the last 48 hours, the plug was in the wall, but there was no current, of course. The freezer and refrigerator are in the room with the gas stove, relatively warm, a bit above 50 degrees and that affects them.

No problem We have a snow bathtub in one of the unheated rooms and it is still frozen. We have a natural freezer for whatever needs to be frozen. After all, once people bought blocks of ice. We have them for free. We just have to bring them into  the house.

Just like the righteous who had manna fall right at their door…

We use the darkness and the flickering candlelight to play games with the children. Family  games like what city begins with the letter "aleph", what country begins with the letter "bet' . The children, of different ages, have to be familiar with our country from north to south, east to west, find the names of communities with the appropriate letters – and then we expand to learning about the rest of the world.

During the night it becomes freezing cold again. There is no snow, but frost is too delicate a word for what is going on outside. All the batteries in the town's emergency lights are used up. The street is pitch dark, but the secretariat sends teens to distribute candles to homes whose supply is gone. This in order to be sure that no one is without any light. They also give out matches, just in case – and as an extra, a package of cookies.

Another family is evacuated, this time for hypothermia. Once again, a helicopter is called, but this time a four wheel drive ATV ambulance beats him to it. .

Those in charge are getting nervous. It is unbearably cold. The roads are blocked, It is the third night without electricity. The Regional Council announces that anyone who wants to leave for a few days will be evacuated.

During the coming hours, our wonderful young men work to clear the roads. They have rakes, shovels, hoes and are also straightening every spot that has steps. Those are the most dangerous spots. Snow is slippery and on stairs, it becomes diagonal and turns into an unplanned slide. This is not the children's slide that is fun to play on, but a very dangerous slide, especially for adults and the elderly. The boys work hard to clear the steps. Even if the dew freezes on them again, at least they will be visible steps and there will be less chance of slipping. It is backbreaking work to break the ice that is under the snow.

Towards midnight, the water is used up. There is not even a drop left in the town. Nothing comes out of the faucets. None for drinking, none for cooking, nothing at all.

But everything is covered in snow, so what's the problem? We gather snow from outside, put it into a pot to melt on the stove. The stove has been on for over  50 hours anyway. Now, in addition to heat, the gas flame will provide water.

And so we go to sleep, hoping that electricity will return during the night, but planning to melt water on the gas stove in the morning.

Sunday morning: Still no electricity. There's lots of work to do and the children have no school, so they will offer lessons in the community. I am asked to teach one group at 9 a.m. Not to worry, the class doesn't last long. The students soon go back to their regular work of throwing snowballs.

Before the study session, I managed to melt several pots of snow so we have water to drink and for use in the bathroom.

I dream about taking a shower with melted snow, but suddenly the lights go on. What happiness!

Not so fast. We are informed that the electricity has only partially returned, that the water pumps are still not working and we have to continue heating snow. The current is weak and we must limit our use of it.

We turn on  a heater for a while to raise the room temperature a bit, and just as important, we charge our mobile phone.  The battery is long dead.

The electricity lasts for half an hour. They tell us that it is being turned off on purpose for repairs. Maybe. Meanwhile, no more electricity and no more water.

We take some small comfort from the news that the hilltop communities in the Shomron have over 3 feet of snow and are still without electricity.

The sun begins to shine. Little by little, the room's chill begins to depart. We might even say the room "warms up" – after all, the thermometer has gone above the minus numbers and is working its way up to the positive ones.

The snow is not melting as of yet. That will take several days, but at least we can leave the house and give the children what they have longed for all this time. Didn't  we build a snowman already?  So what – let's build another one. Everyone is pelted with snowballs and the atmosphere is festive.

Here and there visitors arrive in Haresha. They come in 4X4 ATV's that can drive on the snow. They come to open the road officially. The authorities are against opening the road up to the community because they feel the gradient is too steep and might cause vehicles to slip.

The children are angry at the cars that arrive for destroying the snow. Wherever you drive, they say, the white carpet is ruined!

However, one vehicle makes everyone happy. Young fellows from Modiin Illit (Kiryat Sefer) arrive with a large hot water heater, teabags and sugar. "We heard that you have had no electricity for the past few days. We heard that the water is used up. At least have some tea." They enjoyed the giving and we enjoyed accepting their goodwill.

Afternoon is coming. We have been without electricity for over 60 hours and  without water for more than 12 hours. People are afraid to light the gas burners. How long can the fuel last? One family has already been injured by an unplanned running out of gas.

The Regional Council suggests evacuating all of us until the water and electricity begin working and bring army ATV's to help us reach more tranquil places. However, the vast majority of the community's residents decide to stay. We live here and here we will remain.

Perhaps the adamant stand of the community's residents is what made us merit the return of electricity and running water that afternoon. We had lived through over sixty frozen hours and stayed put.

Thanks to Hashem, we are firmly rooted here in our land.