I remember the first time I visited the ruins of the ancient city of Beit Shean in the northern portion of the land of Israel. The city was first settled in 4000BCE thanks to the abundant water, fertile soil and access to trade routes. The city is perhaps best known as the location where King Saul, the first king of Israel, fell in battle.
The city was later conquered by King David. It grew in size and importance and King Solomon eventually made it the administrative center for the region.
The Hasmoneans (Macabees) took the city in 107 BCE only to see it conquered by the Romans fifty years later. The Romans subsequently expanded the city, now renamed Scythopolis, and made it one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, ten large Roman cities established throughout the region. The city eventually became home to as many as 40,000 residents.
In 749 CE, however, a powerful earthquake leveled Beit Shean and many cities and towns in the region. Even today you can see evidence of the devastation caused by this earthquake in the form of marble columns that fell in perfect alignment with one another.
Having grown up in New Jersey I had never experienced an earthquake, and as a result, I did not have an appreciation of their destructive power. Seeing the toppled columns changed that. Still, I couldn’t fully appreciate the fact that a grand city, the largest in the region, could be full of life one minute and little more than ruins the next. Even today I cannot grasp the enormity of the human suffering that must have ensued after the earthquake.
Sadly, that devastation and the subsequent suffering of survivors has been visited on the people of Turkey and Syria. Even with before and after pictures of the cities and towns most impacted by the earthquake, the enormity of the destruction is hard to comprehend. Moreover, the images of downed buildings don’t come close to capturing the enormity of the loss of life and the human suffering that is unfolding any more than seeing the downed columns of Beit Shean did. But the suffering is already immense and will likely grow worse as access to clean water and issues of sanitation cause disease to those who are seeking temporary shelter in tent cities that are hastily being established.
I spoke to someone yesterday whose extended family lost everything and spent the last four nights wandering the streets because the existing shelters were already at capacity. (We have already been able to get some direct support to them and will continue to do so.) Sadly, they are fully aware of the long, difficult journey that lays before them.
I take pride in the fact that Israel was the first country to send assistance to Turkey and currently has the second largest emergency team on the ground. I am similarly proud that our American Jewish community is also stepping up to help, and our MetroWest Federation has established a Turkey/Syria Earthquake Relief Fund. Currently donations to this fund or similar funds that have been established are the best way to help. This link will take you to a donation page.
Still, no matter how much international aid arrives in Turkey and Syria, the loss and suffering are beyond comprehension. As Shabbat approaches we pray for the safety and well-being of the survivors and hold those who are grieving in our hearts.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen