Devastated California Jewish Communities Fight Fire with Light
JNS.org – Their voices filled with emotion, Chabad rabbis from across California made clear their determination to help people in need while dealing with the ongoing devastation that uncontrollable blazes have wrought on their hometowns.
“Paradise is a part of our community,” said Rabbi Mendy Zwiebel of Northern California. “We had people over for Shabbat who lost everything. This wasn’t expected. On Thursday morning, we woke up and heard [about the fire]. In just a few hours, the whole town was wiped out.
“One woman told me that she grabbed her siddur and her chumash, and drove through the flames” to escape the fire, the rabbi continued. He believes that some 20 members of his community have lost everything.
As many as 8,000 firefighters were battling the wildfires this week. More than 250,000 people have evacuated their homes, and thousands of residences have been destroyed by the fires.
“The city of Chico opened their doors to their neighbors, and everyone who evacuated found places to stay at friends’ house. People donated clothing and food, and the Red Cross is helping out. For the time being, people’s needs are being dealt with,” said Zwiebel, adding that those who are staying with friends and family will be doing so for the long term.
“They can’t move back home tomorrow; there’s nowhere to move back to,” he said.
Nearly 500 miles to the south, residents of Malibu, Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Calabasas, Westlake Village, and other nearby towns were evacuated, though many have returned home.
“Most people are in total shock right now,” said Rabbi Levi Cunin. “It takes just a few minutes for a house to be completely burned down. We had some parents in our preschool whose homes have completely burned down, so we are working to get their basic needs taken care of to lessen the devastation.”
Cunin himself was evacuated. He and his family left on Friday when a mandatory evacuation order was put into place. Taking the congregation’s Torah scrolls with them, he and his family stayed at Chabad of Pacific Palisades, just a few miles down the road.
“It’s really devastating, but we are praying for the best,” said Cunin. “I’ve been here 24 years, and there’s never been anything close to this.”
And it’s not just the flames that remain a concern. He explained that had just come from visiting a city councilman who was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and was in the ICU. “It’s just not safe to be in Malibu,” he said.
When asked how people can help or what they can do, Cunin said that eventually fundraising efforts will help, but earlier this week, he said that “it’s just too early. We just don’t know what will be. It’s a living situation right now.”
The communities of Thousand Oaks and adjacent Westlake Village were still grappling with last Wednesday night’s deadly mass shooting of a dozen people at a local bar — including a sheriff’s officer and many young adults — when police began driving around with bullhorns ordering people to evacuate.
Rabbi Yitzchok Sapochkinsky, co-director of Chabad of Westlake Village with his wife, Brocha, said his family was evacuated at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, just hours after hosting a conference call for teens in the area to give them support and guidance.
“My daughter Mushkie, who runs our teen programs with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Friedman, arranged the call where we talked about Torah and emunah (‘faith’). We read tehillim together, and we gave tzedakah together. I shared some words of chizuk (‘support’).”
Though people can’t understand why the massacre happened or why the fires are burning, Sapochkinsky told the teens: “God is in charge of the world, and our concern needs to be love and tolerance. I encouraged the kids to show indiscriminate love.” Sapochkinsky and his family were evacuated and had to stay far from home.
Shula Bryski, co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks with her husband, Rabbi Chaim Bryski, noted that dark times really highlight the important message of the Lubavitcher Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
“In the ugliest of times, when you see the worst of human nature, for instance — or through the devastation of fires — you also begin to see the most beautiful parts of human nature,” she said. “Somehow, they work in tandem.”
“That’s what God expects of us,” Bryski continued, adding, “it is almost a cliché to say we are supposed to fight darkness with light, but we when we think about it, our job is to uplift the people around us with goodness. It’s an incredible antidote to pain and despair.”
With the mandatory evacuation order for their neighborhood lifted, the Bryskis went home to Thousand Oaks to lend a hand to those in need. That they returned so quickly to help the community isn’t a surprise to Thousand Oaks resident Cathy Cole, who works as an oncology nurse in the Los Robles Regional Medical Center.
“I’ve known Rabbi Bryski for 18 years, and rely on him every day,” she said. “I don’t think he’s slept in days. I told him to go home and sleep for a while, but he’s always there for us.”
Cole said that the fires have been extremely tough on people in her town.
“I think we are all in shock,” she said, noting that one of her colleagues lost a son, Jacob Dunham, in the November 7 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks. “We are not used to this violence or having back-to-back crises. It’s been very difficult for the families to memorialize their loved ones or plan funerals because of [the] fires.”
Still, like others, Cole said she’s seen good come from the bad. “Everyone is asking, whether you are in a store trying to buy groceries or at work, ‘How are you? Is your house OK? Do you need anything?’ Everyone is going out of their way to help strangers.”
“In our faith,” she continued, “we are adding kindness, listening to the Rebbe’s words, and doing mitzvot.”
Despite the devastation, Rabbi Bryski feels that God is watching out for people. For instance, he said, the Ventura County fire chief, Mark Lorenzen, put on tefillin for the very first time in his life just hours after the deadly massacre and just hours before the start of the fire.
“I feel like God set it up that he should have success and that no lives should be lost here,” said Rabbi Bryski, adding that in the last few days, he’s seen “how much goodness there is in this country.”
“People are providing food for people [they don’t know], helping people, sheltering people — they are living the message of Avraham Aveinu [the patriarch Abraham] from the Torah reading about hachnasat orchim [‘welcoming guests’],” said the rabbi.
To help victims of the Woolsey Fire, click here.
To help victims of the Camp Fire, click here.
A version of this story originally appeared on Chabad.org.