Dressed in flame-resistant boots and wearing a gray uniform adorned with various patches and insignias, Moshe Geffen came across like a mischievous Boy Scout who seemingly can't get through a sentence without cracking a joke.
But the 34-year-old Israeli firefighter's demeanor suddenly turned serious when the topic switched to the deadly Carmel Fire. The blaze made international headlines in December when it burned out of control for four days, killing 44 people, including a fellow firefighter that Geffen had known well.
During a recent interview at the Jewish National Fund's Philadelphia office, the Orthodox Jew and father of four reached for a biblical metaphor — the crossing of the Red Sea — to describe the inferno.
"You have the Jews going through the Red Sea. On one side is a wall of water, and the other side is a wall of water. Translate those cool, nice, calming walls into flames, 30, 40, 50 feet high," said Geffen, adding that the fire was more than 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or hot enough to cook a chicken.
"It was crazy. We were working an hour-and-a-half, resting an hour-and-a-half, just on and off — because we lack the equipment and manpower," said the sergeant in the Ashkelon Fire Department who is also trained as an ambulance driver, EMT and high-angle rescuer, which means saving people stuck in really high places. (Although he's based in the south, almost all Israeli firefighters were called up north to fight the country's worst blaze.)
Last week, Geffen spent several days in Philadelphia trying to drum up financial support for Israel's various fire departments, speaking at several law firms and at a community Tu B'Shevat program held at Old York Road Temple-Beth in Abington. Specifically, he was soliciting donations for the Friends of Israel Firefighters, a five-year-old joint project with the Jewish National Fund. The goal is to raise cash to purchase firetrucks.
While the initiative may have been around for several years, the efforts have been stepped up since the Carmel fire.
The blaze, which broke out Dec. 2, consumed 5 million trees, destroyed 250 homes and burned 12,000 acres of land. By nearly all accounts, Israel — a nation well-known for disaster preparedness, which often assists other nations in times of natural calamity — was woefully unprepared to respond to such a conflagration.
The tragedy also caused some American Jews to ask whether it was still the community's responsibility to help Israel pay for basic services, since the Jewish state is a fully developed, first-world nation.
'A Beacon of Saving Lives'
Geffen — who was born in Boston, but made aliyah with his family at age 4 — sidestepped such questions, saying he was only here to report what he saw.
But Marina Furman, director of Philadelphia's JNF office, chimed in that it wasn't ethical to refuse to help fellow Jews in need, regardless of whether or not Israeli authorities could have handled the situation better.
Geffen said he's making sure to tell U.S. audiences about his friend, 35-year-old Danny Hayat, one of three firefighters, along with a 16-year-old volunteer, who died trying to pull prison guards from a burning bus. At the time of his death, Hayat's wife was pregnant with their third child. Ten days later, Hofit Hayat gave birth to a baby girl.
Geffen said that she had told an Israeli journalist that given a choice and knowing the price, her husband would have chosen to risk his own life again.
"If a widow is saying that about her husband, that's a hero," said Geffen. "If we have to aim towards something — towards a beacon of saving lives — that's the light that we see ourselves going towards."