TEL AVIV — Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz was in the middle of the Torah reading on Saturday when he felt the ground shake.
It was “as if a small windmill was underground and was moving the entire area,” the Kathmandu Chabad rabbi said.
That night, by the end of the first phase of Nepal’s worst earthquake in 80 years, hundreds of Israelis were crowded into Lifshitz’s courtyard, huddled in their tents and sleeping bags. Local hospitals were saturated with patients, so Lifshitz recruited local doctors to treat lightly injured Israelis at his home.
“All the Israelis got here quickly and just stayed here in shock,” Lifshitz told the Israeli radio station Reshet Bet on Saturday night. “People were frightened and scared. The buildings here are swaying as if they’re a leaf in the wind.”
By Tuesday, more than 300 Israelis had returned home from the earthquake-ravaged country, including 25 infants born to surrogate mothers. The death toll from the 7.8 magnitude quake centered near Kathmandu had risen to more than 5,000 and could climb as high as 10,000 Nepalese officials said.
Nepal has long been a popular destination for young Israelis, many of whom travel there for extended periods following their years of mandatory military service. Two Israelis reportedly refused to be evacuated from Nepal, saying they wished to stay and help the locals. Some 11 Israelis remain unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, an airplane carrying an Israeli field hospital and 260 personnel landed in Kathmandu on Tuesday following delays due to weather and the condition of the runway in the capital. The hospital will have the ability to treat 20 people a day.
In the past, the IDF has set up field hospitals following natural disasters in Haiti, the Philippines and Japan, said IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.
“It’s one of the missions the IDF sees itself prepared for and willing to do,” Lerner said. “The Home Front Command is ultimately built to carry out evacuation-type scenarios in Israel, so they are planning and preparing and executing for buildings that have collapsed here. If we can take that knowledge and help people across the world who are in desperation, it’s the right thing to do.”
A separate, private mission organized by three Israeli emergency response organizations — United Hatzalah, Zaka and First Israel — left Tel Aviv for Nepal on Sunday and aims to stay two to three weeks. Along with search-and-rescue operations, the mission will provide basic medical care to far-flung villages near the quake’s epicenter whose health clinics are either destroyed or saturated with wounded. IsraAid, which has sent aid missions to 28 countries, and Magen David Adom are also sending delegations.
“There’s an inclination in Israel and the world to come to the center of the action, where the cameras are,” said Dov Maisel, United Hatzalah’s volunteer chief operating officer and the mission’s deputy head. “So there are lots of people who don’t get the care they need.”
Israeli search-and-rescue teams began trying to reach about 80 Israeli hikers trapped in remote areas throughout the country, including in Langtang National Park, using rented and borrowed helicopters.
For many Israelis, Nepal is among destinations in south Asia to unwind after military service and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life.
“It’s recreation and leisure — it doesn’t have the intensity that Israel has,” said Chaim Noy, a professor of communications at the University of South Florida who wrote the 2007 book Narrative Community: Voices of Israeli Backpackers. n
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is participating in a national Nepal Relief Fund. For information, go to shalomdc.org/Nepal. Checks may be sent made payable to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, 6101 Executive Blvd., Suite 100, North Bethesda, MD 20852. Please indicate “Nepal Relief Fund” on checks.
— JTA News and Features