About four years ago, at this time of year, I got a phone call from Alan Novins, z"l, asking me if I could come to his apartment in one of the richer neighborhoods of Jerusalem, ReHavia, near the Residence of the Prime Minister. He said that Danny Mountwitten, the only son of Bob Mountwitten, my night commander in yashá"m, the Unit of Police Volunteers that I belong to, had disappeared somewhere in India and wanted to know if I was interested in going to Bob's house to lend moral support that evening. He was going to drive to Bob's house in one of the northern neighborhoods of the city. Bob's a friend as well as a night commander, so naturally, I was interested.
When I got to Al Novins' apartment, I found loads of bookcases filled with law books, attesting to his having been a lawyer in the States, and Jewish texts, attesting to his wife's involvement in Jewish education. But what Al drew down from the the bookcase was an atlas, and we all started to look for the Parvati valley. All we knew was that it was in northern India. We found the valley and discussed over some iced tea what might have happened, and then went on to Bob's house.
Lots of Israeli soldiers who have been demobilized run off to India to get away from the pressure cooker that is Israel, and Danny Mountwitten was one swallowed up in that valley. In four years he has not been seen. The Parvati is not merely a place of lush beauty.
According to the 2005 Jerusalem Post article linked to above,
"Israelis don't know. When they come there, a lot of people think it's a very nice place," said Yochai Lelior, who is the commander of the Harel insurance company's rescue unit. "There is a feeling of shanti [tranquility]. But if you come with the eyes of someone who searches or investigates, like my eyes, it's very dangerous."
"We're talking about maybe the most rugged place in the world. It has peaks like you've never seen. And you've never seen ravines like this either," said A.P. Singh, police superintendent for the Kulu district. "The Parvati Valley has a lot of small villages and they're quite famous with Israeli tourists for various reasons – some like the climate, some like the cannabis…"
"This location allegedly produces the finest cannabis in the world, or so people believe."
The intoxicating combination of Himalayas and hashish draws 30,000 foreign tourists each year, according to Singh. Some of them never leave.
Whatever the total, it's high enough that backpacker bibles like the Lonely Planet travel guide have flagged the Himachal Pradesh state, which contains the Parvati Valley, as having "a reputation for foreign tourists going missing and drug-related violence."
But kids don't listen.
So, it was with a sinking sense of disappointment that I heard from my own son, who is going into the army at the end of this month, that AmiHai Steinmetz had disappeared from the Parvati over three weeks ago. I had never really seen Jake Steinmetz's boy. He was already in the army by the time we moved here, and I didn't know that he was vacationing in India after having served his time in the IDF. Like Daniel Mountwitten, he had spent several months already in India and was planning to return home soon. He was planning to attend the autumn semester at the Hebrew University to study archaeology.
Apparently he went on a day hike, and planned to spend the Sabbath upcoming at the Haba"d House in the area. He never returned from the day hike, and frankly, based on what Bob Mountwitten told me when he visited India to work with the Himchal Pradesh police to find his own son, there very likely was foul play involved.
There have been several articles discussing AmiHai's disappearance. This article from the Haba"d, a wing of the Lubavicher Hassidim, was from the end of July, around the time I found out about all this.
For me this is all a bit close to home in a number of ways. First of all, because I live in Ma'alé Levoná, I share the distress of the Steinmetz family, even though I had never met AmiHai and have never been particularly close to the Steinmetzes; second of all, I have a son who will go into the army at the end of this month. While he is well aware of the fact that two kids demobilized from the IDF have disappeared in India, that doesn't mean that when he is demobilized, he will not want to go there himself. So in addition to the normal worries for the welfare of my boy when he dons his uniform, I have to worry what he'll do when he doffs it as well. I know I signed up for a life of worry when I signed up to be a father – but this seems a bit beyond what I had bargained for.
Enough complaining, however. These things get expensive, it seems. A notice has gone around the village explaining that it has been nearly three weeks since AmiHai's disappearance, and searching for him costs NIS 8,000 daily – or NIS 56,000 a week. That is what a sitting member of the Knesset makes in a month. The village secretariat has set a goal for the village of contributing one week's worth of money for searching for AmiHai. For this family, that works out to over NIS 400.
But if the search is to go on, it will take more than a week, and the Steinmetz family will likely find their life's savings drained in the effort. So a notice has gone out to the public as well. I'm repeating it here. It's the least I can do for a neighbor.
From Batya Medad's blogsite:
To contact the search to offer assistance, email 4Amichai@gmail.com.
To make donations to assist in the search effort, send funds to "The Barak Rodovsky Fund for Locating and Rescuing Backpackers" at Bank haPoalim, branch #615, account #258259. The full account information in numeric form is 12-615-258259. Funds can be sent from overseas using the SWIFT Code "POALILIT".
May we hear good news soon.