Fire prompts evacuation of Chabad of Calabasas on Shabbat

There was no doubt in his mind about what to do when Rabbi Eli Friedman saw flames he estimated to be 30 or 40 feet high barreling down the hill behind Chabad of Calabasas on the afternoon of June 4: Even though it was Shabbat, he and his family piled into their car and drove away.

If there were any electronic messages ordering residents to evacuate in the path of a 500-acre fire that burned in Calabasas and Malibu over the weekend, Friedman and his family, who live in the Chabad house, would have missed them.

He told the Journal they had been watching the fire burn opposite the Mulholland Highway for much of the morning, when suddenly the flames were behind them.

“It was so sudden, ­– this wall of fire coming down the hill behind the Chabad house – that we evacuate in a hell of a hurry,” he said.

The flames ultimately stopped about 10 feet short of the structure, he said, and though the evacuation order had been lifted by Monday, June 6, Friedman and his family are still staying at Chabad of West Hills to avoid the pervasive smell of smoke at their home.

Friedman also made sure to evacuate the other sacred objects in his home: two Torah scrolls.

The rabbi said the rules around breaking Shabbat, while clear when saving a human life, are more complicated when it comes to saving a Torah. But because the Chabad house has a fence that acts as an eruv – a symbolic extension of the home that allows for carrying objects on Saturdays – he felt he could bring the Torahs to the car. Friedman added he hopes nobody draws conclusions from his actions about Halachah (Jewish law) around saving a scroll.

When neighbors and community members came by to check on the Chabad house after the flames had been contained, they asked about the well-being of the scrolls.

“All night long, people were coming by to check on the Torahs,” said Calabasas Councilmember Fred Gaines, a friend of Friedman who stopped by the house on Saturday. “It was amazing.”

Friedman said at least one nearby resident whom he had never met stopped by to check on the Torahs.

“I don’t think he even understood why I was so touched by it,” he said. “But I’m marveling at it. I still think it’s so special.