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Jewish Journal

Israeli firefighters, underfunded heroes

by Orit Arfa

December 22, 2010 | 3:46 pm

Amir Levy, fire chief of the Western Galilee, remembers encountering a little girl in an elevator while he was training in the United States a year ago. She looked at him admiringly, commenting to her mother how firefighters are heroes.

“That’s not the reaction we were used to getting in Israel,” Levy told an audience of 250, including Los Angeles city officials and the morning shift of the Beverly Hills Fire Department, at an executive breakfast meeting of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on Dec. 14 at the Beverly Hilton.

Following the inferno in the Carmel forests earlier this month that left 44 dead, Israel’s firefighters are now getting recognition as heroes — but heroes whose skill and bravery are undermined by insufficient resources.

“The supplies have been depleted, the equipment has been used,” said Mark Egerman, a former mayor of Beverly Hills and the Western regional director of JNF’s Friends of Israel Firefighters. “They are in dire need of restocking, resupplying and building the organization to the next step.”

Israel’s fire departments are funded publicly at the municipal level, leaving them shortchanged, Egerman said. The ratio of firefighters to residents is 1 to 8,000, compared to the average of 1 to 1,000 in the Western world. Since the fire broke out on Dec. 2, JNF has raised more than $3 million. 

Levy expressed gratitude for the dedicated backup from around the world of firefighting forces who offered help.

“All firefighters around the world are one big family,” Levy said in a speech translated from the Hebrew, acknowledging his Beverly Hills counterparts in the audience.

“Really, the best family that God ever gave me was the fire department,” he said, relating his own personal story of growing up as a foster child with the dream of becoming a firefighter.

Levy made his home as a teen at the Akko fire station, where the firefighters adopted him and encouraged him to finish school. At 36, he is the youngest fire chief in Israel’s history.

In a gesture of solidarity, Capt. Dennis Andrews, president of the Beverly Hills Firemen’s Association, pledged $2,500 to Friends of Israel Firefighters and declared his interest in exchanging expertise.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.”

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