Devastated California Jewish Communities Fight Fire With Light

Chabad of the Valley and Chabad at Porter Ranch team up to take food and drink to firefighters.

Devastated California Jewish Communities Fight Fire With Light

By Faygie Levy Holt  November 12, 2018 1:16 PM

Voices filled with emotion, Chabad rabbis from across California made clear their determination to help people in need while dealing with the devastation a weekend of at-times uncontrollable fires has wrought on their hometowns.

“Paradise is a part of our community,” said Rabbi Mendy Zwiebel of the town in Northern California where 29 people were killed as the Camp Fire decimated all of structures in its path. “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.

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“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 are reported to be battling the wildfires as of Monday morning.

“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,” Zwiebel said, 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 are waiting for word about when they can return home, and if they still have a home as the Woolsey Fire, which began on Thursday, is still burning. As of Sunday afternoon, the fire had taken two lives, destroyed some 177 homes and burned 83,400 acres. With a “Red Flag Warning” in effect and heavy winds expected over the next 36 hours, the danger is far from over.

“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 hasn’t been home in days. 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 have been staying at Chabad of Pacific Palisades just a few miles down the road.

The Simons family brings drinks and food to firefighters. “It’s really devastating, but we are praying for the best,” Cunin said. “I’ve been here 24 years, and there’s never been anything close to this.” And it’s not just the flames that are 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.

The Simons family brings drinks and food to firefighters.

When asked how people can help or what they can do, Cunin said he is sure that in the coming days, fundraising efforts will be set up to help those in need, but right now “it’s just too early. We just don’t know what will be. It’s a living situation right now.”

‘An Antidote to Pain and Despair’

The communities of Thousand Oaks and adjacent Westlake Village were still grappling with 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 on Thursday night at 2 a.m., 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: “Hashem is in charge of the world, and our concern needs to be love and tolerance. I encouraged the kids to show indiscriminate love.”

Though Sapochkinsky and his family are far from home—they are staying with family in Rancho Mirage some 140 miles away, as the evacuation order remains in effect for Westlake Village—he believes that both his family’s home and the Chabad House are OK.
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, of righteous memory.

“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 G?d 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.


Students of the Ryzman Family Hebrew School pack care packages for children effected by the Woolsey fire.

Residents Not Surprised by the Help

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 the last few days 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 Wednesday night’s massacre at the Borderline Bar & Grill. “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 fires that began on Thursday afternoon.”

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 G?d is watching out for people. For instance, he said, the Ventura County fire chief, Mark Lorenzen, put on tefillin for the very first time inhis life just hours after the deadly massacre and just hours before the start of the fire.

“I feel like G?d 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. “This is something that the world has accepted and learned to do. We are ready for Moshiach.”

The Chabad Center of Agoura Hills will be opening its doors to provide materials, gift cards and other necessities to people who have lost their homes, regardless of their religious affiliation.

To help victims of the Woolsey Fire, click here.

To donate to help victims of the Camp Fire, click here.





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