June 10, 2007 / 24 Sivan 5767
It is not everyday that a university student from Canada works alongside Israeli firefighters to battle one of the country's most ferocious fires. But, this is exactly what Gilad Ben-Shach (top photo, right), 19, did last summer when he volunteered for the Jewish Agency's Lehavot program. The devastating forest fire near Haifa took more than two days to bring under control. "It was exciting. There were a few hundred if not a thousand firefighters," Gilad remembers. "We were all spread out over the mountain. Our unit was there for 12 or 13 hours."
"I felt like I was really helping," says Gilad. "It was in the paper the next day. You could tell people really appreciated what you were doing."
Lehavot, the Hebrew word for flames, is a month-long program that welcomes young Jews from around the world for an Israel encounter unlike any other. Begun in 2005, Lehavot is one of the Jewish Agency's newest programs designed to strengthen the connection between the next generation and their homeland. Participants volunteer as firefighters, experiencing the unique energy of everyday life in Israel while playing a critical role in providing emergency assistance and saving lives. "I didn’t know what it would be like," says Gilad, "but it was so much more than I expected. Overall it was really great."
Gilad, who is studying math and physics at McGill University in Montreal, had already arrived in Israel and was touring in the North with cousins when the Second Lebanon War broke out. He coolly brushes off the tense security situation in which he found himself. "It was like any other day," he says. "It was normal. Something was happening so we headed back South."
This ability to stay calm under pressure is part of what made Gilad a perfect match for Lehavot. In fact, one could say that firefighting runs in his genes. Gilad's father, who was born in England but raised in Israel, also served his country as a volunteer firefighter during his high school years.
Following three days of basic training and touring in Jerusalem, Gilad was assigned to the Herzliya fire station. He lived nearby with his grandmother in Raanana. The city's volunteer firefighter program for local high school students made the fire house a great place for Gilad to make friends and meet new people his own age. "Most days were a little slow," he says. "You don't have a lot of house fires in Israel. We would come in, wash the trucks and eat breakfast with the firemen… but it was made worthwhile by the occasional really busy day."
And there were definitely some busy days. In addition to the forest fire, he also fought a fire at a Ramat Gan army base. For Gilad, the Lehavot program was a significant experience that deepened his connection with the people of Israel. "It was definitely meaningful…everything from meeting people and the experience of driving on the highway in a fire truck to having an airplane dump water on my head during the forest fire."
In addition to his university studies, Gilad coaches students at his old high school for the International Bible Contest held in Israel each year on Independence Day. He will return to Israel this coming summer, performing research in theoretical physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Israel's heroic firefighters are internationally renowned for their fine service and expertise; they are widely considered the number one specialists in responding to acts of terror. During the Second Lebanon War they played a critical role in saving the homefront from utter devastation. In just a few weeks a barrage of more than 4,000 Katyusha rockets resulted in hundreds of fires and untold damage to life and property. More than 6,000 acres of natural forest were burned.