A massive fire at the Da Vinci apartment complex in Downtown Los Angeles

A Safer Future and Foundation for Los Angeles

In the past year, in California and around the U.S. and the world there have been intense, devastating natural disasters, such as Hurricanes, major earthquakes, and right here at home, devastating fires in Los Angeles, and Northern California. And with the changing climate, and longer fire seasons, scientists continue to predict longer, and more devastating disasters to come, here in Southern California.

In many ways we are more vulnerable than ever to a major earthquake here in Los Angeles. I wonder, if as a city, we have learned from the Northridge Quake of the early ‘90’s. I worry especially for the most vulnerable people in our city- the elderly and our children, and especially those that live in unstable or outdated buildings, without the proper reinforcements to maximize the potential for residents to survive unharmed in such a disaster.  I worry about anyone living or working in a multi-level structure, where the risks are greater no matter what. Just in the last two years, there have been major fires in new low-rise construction in downtown and other areas of the city.  History has shown us that soundly constructed buildings will survive this type of natural disaster.

I’ve recently learned about some important and simple changes that one of our Los Angeles City Council members Bob Blumenfield is considering, to upgrade the safety standards for new residential multi-story buildings, that many working individuals and families will call home. Knowing that our city is at particular risk of fire, I’m grateful to city leaders for taking proactive measures to assure that the people living and working in multi-level housing will have the best chance possible to endure the worst of what may come. What that comes down to is requiring that the foundations and floors which include barrier walls of the new developments be constructed with concrete and steel, as opposed to wood, which is highly combustible and also far less secure in the event of an earthquake.

As a Rabbi, I pay special attention to what elected officials are doing in the city I call home, because it has a direct impact on the quality and security of life, for me, my community, and the many diverse communities across Los Angeles. I am not alone in this, as many faith leaders across this city and cities alike have taken stands on similar issues that have enormous personal impact.

My colleague from Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, Rabbi Jon Hanish, wrote to City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield on this very matter, applauding Councilmember Blumenfield for his leadership in demanding the safest standards for new developments.  Rabbi Hanish wrote that “by requiring developments to utilize the most reliable and safest materials in the construction process, Los Angeles city leaders are taking a powerful and important step toward the health and sustainability of our communities. It’s important that the City of Los Angeles encourages the use of non-combustible materials when constructing a building which heavily reduces the risks associated with fires and earthquakes, and that new developments meet or exceed existing building codes.”

As religious leaders, we cannot place a value on human life, and I am pleased that a fellow member of our community, Councilmember Blumenfield, has taken the lead in guiding the City Council to enact a measure that will set a higher standard of safety. I am encouraged by the Councilman’s  leadership and pray that his colleagues at City Hall will follow in his footsteps in making sure such a simple, yet critical measure moves forward.


Screenshot from Twitter

URJ Camp Newman to Hold Summer 2018 Camp at Cal Maritime

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) announced on Friday that URJ Camp Newman will be hosting its summer 2018 camp will be held at California State University Maritime University (Cal State Maritime) after most of the camp was destroyed in the October wildfires.

The summer 2018 camp will be called “Newman by the Bay!”, where campers can enjoy the various amenities on campus, including large athletic fields, an Olympic size pool and a Beach Volleyball court, according to a press release.

Abby Michelson Porth, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said that “everything fell into place when we connected with Cal Maritime.”

“When the need became clear, Rabbi Doug Kahn and I quickly reached out to university presidents and nonprofit CEOs whose response was extraordinary and overwhelming,” said Porth. “They were eager to partner with JCRC to help Camp Newman maintain its summer programs, understanding how critical those programs are for thousands of Jewish children. “

Camp Newman’s executive director, Ruben Arquilevich, said in the press release, “We can’t wait to welcome returning campers and new campers for the immersive, overnight, Jewish summer camp experience they’ve come to expect at Camp Newman, but at Cal Maritime’s beautifully scenic campus overlooking the bay, where we’ll be able to take advantage of exciting new facilities and activities.”

A promotional video for the 2018 camp can be seen here:

Registration for the camp begins on Nov. 12.

The Camp Newman premises were located in Santa Rosa until most of the site was decimated from the wildfires plaguing Northern California at the beginning of October. No one at the camp was hurt and the Torah scrolls were preserved.

Aerial view of Camp Newman after the Tubbs fire. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.

Reform Camp Vows to Rise From the Ashes After Massive Fire in Northern California

No lives were lost when the Tubbs Fire tore through URJ Camp Newman near Santa Rosa in Northern California, incinerating most of its structures. But as news of the disaster spread Oct. 9, campers and alumni gathered on social media or in vigils across Southern California and throughout the United States, mourning what sometimes felt more like a close friend than a group of buildings.

Rachel Katz, 22, who recently moved to Mississippi from Los Angeles, recalled her physical reaction to hearing word of the calamity. “I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I was at a loss for words.”

Quickly, her thoughts turned to teens she had mentored as the camp’s counselor-in-training adviser, some of whom now are counselors.

“I’m just heartbroken for my kids,” she said. “You can’t train them for something like this. You can train them for pretty much everything else, but this is where their good hearts and souls that they all had, go into practice.”

“I’m just heartbroken for my kids. You can’t train them for something like this.”–Rachel Katz

Members of the Camp Newman community gathered in homes and synagogues in states including California, Arizona, Nevada and New York in recent days to discuss the outsized importance the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camp played in their lives, mourning ties to the camp that often spanned generations. Others took to Facebook and Instagram to tag friends in old photos and share messages of loss.

At Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Rabbi Barry Lutz invited current and former campers to share their stories during Kabbalat Shabbat services four days after the fire, which turned prayer halls, dining facilities and cabins into piles of twisted rubble and smoking ash. Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley and Temple Beth Israel in Pomona were among the spiritual communities that mourned the fire during Friday night services.

A Jewish star stands on the scorched campus of Camp Newman. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


The arks that once held the Torahs at Camp Newman burned in the fire. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


The rubble of a burned building at Camp Newman. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


Vivian Gee, whose two sons attended the camp and whose daughter, 11, normally spends her summers there, addressed the congregation at the Northridge temple.

“I never went to camp, but all of my money went to camp,” Gee said jokingly.

Her eldest son, Cole, 24, met his current girlfriend at camp six years ago and still lives with three camp friends in San Francisco. Cole’s younger brother, Chandler, “who is not always wanting to be Jewish,” their mother said, nonetheless cherishes his memories of camp.

“It was such a great loss to them,” she said as her daughter, Ashlynn, and husband, Doug, sat in the pews. “It was their second home away from home. Our kids’ motto is, ‘Camp Newman is life — and the rest is just stuff.’ ”

The camp is located in Santa Rosa, a six-hour drive north of Los Angeles. Wildfires raging across Northern California have claimed more than 40 lives and burned more than 220,000 acres since breaking out Oct. 8.

On the first day of the fire, camp staff and faculty followed the news of the massive Tubbs Fire burning nearby. After midnight on Oct. 9, authorities evacuated the five permanent residents of the camp, according to camp director Rabbi Erin Mason. After that, it was a waiting game, she said.

“I was fairly certain that we were going to lose a couple buildings, but we just didn’t know the near-total loss that we were going to experience,” Mason said in a phone interview.

Camp staff was not allowed back on site until Oct. 13, the Friday after the fire, when the impact of the blaze became clear. Everything outside of seven camper cabins, the poolhouse, some staff housing and a storage shed had burned, Mason said.

But even before the scope of the damage was known — no cost estimates were available as of Oct. 17 — the camp community began to discuss how to rebuild. By the time camp staff inspected the site, a donation page launched earlier that week (campnewman.org) had raised about $150,000 — not counting what Mason had collected personally.

During a Simchat Torah celebration Mason attended Oct. 12, she said a camp mom handed her a brown paper bag and told her, “The kids wanted me to give you all their tzedakah.”

Mason said about one-third of the camp’s summer participants come from Southern California. “The connection to our Southern California community is huge and is not something that we take for granted,” she said. “We appreciate knowing people come all the way up here.”

Each summer, the camp plays host to some 1,200 third- through 12th-graders during sessions that last two to eight weeks. It also hosts gatherings for NFTY — The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, as well as schools and families.

Mason said the camp is intent on reviving its programs for the coming summer even as it remains unsure how or where.

“We don’t know what that looks like or where that looks like, but it’s first on our priority list to find out how we run camp next summer in whatever iteration that takes,” she said.

Across the region, some campers cast an eye toward rebuilding while others grieved for losses that can never be recouped.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, ‘But we will rebuild,’ ‘But we’re a strong community,’ ” said Ariella Thal Simonds, a Los Angeles-based attorney. “All of that is true, but that’s not where my head is right now.”

Instead, Simonds said she was thinking about the tile murals she and fellow counselors-in-training had installed together by hand, intended to be a permanent testimony to their time and memories there.

Simonds met her husband, Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue, at Camp Newman, and the pair “had every intention” of sending their kids, who are 3 and 6, to the camp when the time came, she said.

“When we play the movie in our heads of our memories, of those special times, there’s a backdrop to them, and those places played an important role,” she said, adding, “That’s why it’s so devastating to everyone, even though everybody’s safe.”

This year, the camp celebrated 70 summers since it opened as Camp Saratoga at a nearby location, later became Camp Swig and finally Camp Newman. Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas has been on the camp’s faculty since it moved to its current location 20 years ago.

“We’re going to be OK, and camp’s going to end up in a stronger position for the next 70 years,” he said. “The hardest part is for these kids and the staff. These are places where we made memories, where people had their first kiss, where Judaism was deeply spiritual and completely creative.”

On Oct. 11, Congregation Or Ami held a support service for those mourning the loss preceding its Simchat Torah holiday celebration.

Elsewhere across Los Angeles, thoughts of mourning mingled with hope for the future.

Emily Kane Miller, 35, lives in L.A. but grew up going to Camp Newman. Her mother attended Camp Swig.

“As childhood gets further away, knowing there are these places that exist that are touchstones for your memories is something that brings a lot of comfort, and when they go away, it’s extremely sad,” she said. “But camp was never meant to be something that is a time capsule. It’s a living place that helps to greet each new camper’s summer with fresh energy.”

Miller said she and her husband, Nate, still intend to send their kids to Camp Newman, when and where it rebuilds.

“When Nate and I talk about the things that are sort of mandatory for our kids and what we absolutely want them to do to have Jewish identities, summer camp is at the top of the list, because of [my experience at] Camp Newman,” she said. “Knowing that the space is devastated doesn’t change that for me.”

Back at Temple Ahavat Shalom on Oct. 13, Lutz, who has spent more than a dozen summers on the faculty at Camp Newman, led the congregation in song and prayer as Spencer Hyam, 16, accompanied him on the guitar, playing camp melodies.

When it came time for the Hashkiveinu prayer — “Blessed are You, Lord, who spreads a shelter of peace over us” — the congregation enacted a camp tradition, where counselors spread prayer shawls over their charges as the camp director offers blessings. At the Reform temple, parents spread tallitot over their children while Lutz led the prayer.

“Camp Newman will rise from the ashes,” he said afterward.

The fire had threatened the storage shed where the tallitot are kept that are normally used for the Haskiveinu ritual at Camp Newman, Mason said. But when camp staff returned to the site and inspected it, they were surprised by what they found.

“The ground all around that shed is burned; the ground underneath the shed is burned; the water pump behind it is burned; the trees all around it are burned,” she said. “They opened the door to the shed — and all of the siddurim and all of the tallitot are untouched.” 

Screenshot from Twitter

A Blessing for those who Love URJ Camp Newman

First there was Saratoga and Swig, where our grandparents and parents and then our generation made memories.

Then there was Newman which we all begrudgingly marched over to And worked hard to rebuild the memories of our past.

And with the lessons of Swig and the lessons of Newman, I feel we were all in a place where we were looking towards the future of Jewish youth in California, and then this fire had to come in and remind us once again that buildings and physical objects do not make memories but the love we share all together as a community does.

Let us remember that we still have our memories, that we still have our pictures, and that we still have one common goal, and that is to infuse a shelter of peace over our hearts and the future Newman generations.

Let us continue to pray for this metaphorical shelter of peace, because perhaps the prayers for physical shelters of peace are not in God’s plan.

From Saratoga, to Swig, to Newman… the lessons and blessings of the past are infused in our blood.

May we remember that fires and floods don’t take away our love for our Jewish community.

Hurricanes and earthquakes don’t erase our memories.

We are Camp forever and always Camp Newman.

Let us remember in these difficult times that we must continue to bless the creations of God, because without these creations we wouldn’t have the memories to begin with.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit.

Screenshot from Twitter

URJ Camp Newman Devastated By Wildfires

The wildfires that have been raging in northern California on Monday has devastated most of the buildings at URJ Camp Newman.

The camp made their somber announcement on their Facebook page on Monday, writing: “It is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.”

Because fires are still ravaging the area, it could be up “to a few days” before anyone from the camp is able to reach the site. No one from Camp Newman’s staff was injured in the fires.

The Facebook post thanked “the first responders and firefighters who attempted to save our camp buildings” and suggested that anyone in need of shelter in the area should go toward Congregation Shomrei Torah.

“We have been so moved by your outpouring of love, support and concern for camp,” the post read. “It is a powerful reminder that Camp is about our holy community, our kehillah kedosha.”

Camp Newman will be using their Facebook page to share more details about how the camp will proceed going forward and how people can help them.

The full post can be read below:

According to Dan Pine and Sue Fishkoff of J.-The Jewish News of Northern California, everyone living at the site was evacuated and the Torah scrolls are safe from the fire.

Located in Santa Rosa, Camp Newman has been providing over 1,400 campers per summer a place to learn about how Judaism can be a way of life for them since 1997. They opened a $4 million conference center back in November.

The fires in northern California began at 10 p.m. on Sunday and resulted in 10 dead and forced as many as 20,000 people to evacuate. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is calling on President Trump to declare the fires as a major disaster.

Were claims of Israel’s ‘arson intifada’ overblown?

As wildfires threatened Israel last week, rhetoric linking arson to terrorism heated up. 

For about a week, fires across the country burned huge swaths of land, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Dozens were injured, though few seriously.

As the blazes raged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said several times that they were set by arsonists and amounted to acts of terrorism. He and other ministers in his government pledged to work to revoke the residency of those found guilty — a threat typically reserved for Arab Israelis.

“Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters last month at a briefing in Haifa, a northern city where tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes. “Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.”

Netanyahu was not alone in apparently singling out Israel’s Arab residents and citizens. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Culture Minister Miri Regev both threatened last month to revoke the citizenship of arsonists. Education Minister Naftali Bennett described the blazes as “terrorism in every sense of the word.” And Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called for expanding West Bank settlements in response to the supposed terror wave.

But now that the fires have been stamped out by the heroic efforts of Israeli and foreign firefighters and rain has finally come, it appears that some of the claims about terrorism may have been premature. Amid ongoing investigations, fire and security officials investigating the blazes have been much more cautious about drawing conclusions than Netanyahu and his government partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at microphone, surrounded by security and government officials, speaking at a briefing in Haifa about the fires raging in the northern city and elsewhere in Israel on Nov. 24. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office

“In most areas you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” Ran Shelef, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief investigator, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

A day earlier, the authority’s Northern District investigator Herzl Aharon said, according to Israel’s Channel 2: “We still don’t know anything. I wish I had a direction. I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call a illusion of the topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate.”

At least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of committing arson or inciting others to do so, mostly Palestinians and the rest Arab Israelis. But by Saturday, only 10 remained in custody for suspected arson, with the rest released unconditionally, Channel 2 reported.

Only two suspects have been indicted, and one claims he was just burning garbage. And though no one doubts there was some arson involved, motives remain unclear.

“It’s still too early to rule nationalistic motives,” police officials told Channel 10 on Tuesday. “Yes, there were incidents of arson, but nationalistic motives are far from being definitively concluded.”

In the absence of proof, some have criticized the rush to judgment.

“The habit of inflaming the atmosphere by politicians is playing into the hands of the terrorists,” Yoram Schweitzer, a former Israeli intelligence official and the head of terrorist research at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told JTA. “A basic principle of fighting terrorism is to differentiate between the community who is allegedly or potentially supportive of such acts and the terrorists themselves.

“This is the first principle that was breached,” he added.

On Monday, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab political parties, said he would seek to have Netanyahu investigated for incitement for seeming to accuse Arab Israelis of deliberately setting fires. Odeh said he would formally request a probe by the attorney general.

“Everyone knows that there wasn’t a wave of terrorism, there wasn’t a ‘fire intifada,'” he said, using a term some Israeli media outlets had put in their headlines.

Police officials have said they suspect arson in 29 of the 39 major fires, and in about one-third of the 90 total fires they investigated. There are no suspects in the large fires in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov, nor clear proof of arson.

One Arab Israeli who was arrested and held for three days on suspicion of inciting arson was released after police admitted they had mistranslated his sarcastic Facebook post. The tweet was meant to condemn those supporting arson on social media and ended with the hashtag “Sarcastic, not serious.”

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive fire in Haifa on Nov. 25. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90

Orit Perlov, who researches Arab social media at the Institute for National Security Studies, said self-critical humor became the dominant tone on Arab social media as the fires in Israel raged. Initially, she said, there was widespread rejoicing and talk of divine punishment under the Arabic hashtag “Israel is burning.”

But especially after the Palestinian Authority sent firefighting help and some Arabs publicly condemned the arsonists, people began asking questions like, “If it’s coming from God, what did we do wrong to explain what’s happening in our states?” she said.

Schweitzer, the terrorism researcher, said it was noteworthy that the arson had flamed out despite the incendiary comments by Israeli politicians. Among other things, he said, that was because Arab Israelis are “part of the victims and part of Israeli society.”

“Instead of calming the population, which is the task of leaders, Israeli politicians did the reverse and claimed an ‘arson intifada,'” he said. “That’s just not wise, to put it very mildly.”

Firefighters gain ground over devastating California blaze

Firefighters in the foothills of central California have made significant gains against a blaze that has killed at least two people and destroyed scores of homes in a devastating start to the state's wildfire season, authorities said on Monday.

By Sunday night, crews had carved containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter, up from 10 percent earlier in the day, and evacuation orders were lifted on Monday for two communities previously threatened.

But officials reported a higher toll of property losses on Monday, with about 250 structures reduced to rubble, 50 more than estimated the previous day, and 75 buildings damaged.

As of Monday morning, the so-called Erskine Fire has blackened more than 45,000 acres of drought-parched brush and grass on the fringes of Lake Isabella in Kern County, California, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon and spread quickly through several communities south of the lake, driven by high winds, as it roared largely unchecked for two days and forced hundreds of residents from their homes.

At the fire's peak, some 2,500 homes were threatened by flames.

On Friday, at least two people were confirmed to have been killed in the blaze, and Kern County fire authorities warned that the death toll could rise as investigators comb through the rubble of homes that went up in flames.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

More than 2,000 personnel have been assigned to the blaze, the biggest and most destructive of nine large wildfires burning up and down the state, from the Klamath National Forest near Oregon to desert scrubland close to the Mexico border. Most of those were at least 60 percent contained as of Monday.

A blistering heat wave that has baked much of California in abnormally high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the triple digits has been a major factor contributing to the conflagrations.

While California's wildfire season officially began in May, the rash of blazes since last week signaled the state's first widespread outbreak of intense, deadly fire activity this year.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the state has already experienced some 2,400 wildfires, small and large, since January. They burned a total of 99,000 acres (400 square kms).

Winter and spring rainfalls helped ease drought conditions but also helped spur growth of grasses and brush that have since dried out, providing more potential fuel for wildfires, he said.

Israeli official claims country has fewest fire fatalities in world

Despite some high-profile cases of arson in the past year, Israel is the world’s safest country when it comes to fire-related deaths, its fire commissioner said.

In remarks to a Knesset committee Tuesday, Israeli Fire and Rescue Services Commissioner Shahar Ayalon reported that the number of fire fatalities has been steadily declining since 2010, when over 70 Israelis were killed in fires, the Times of Israel reported.

Ayalon said there were nine deaths from fire in 2015.

“We are today the safest country in the world in terms of casualties from fire,” he said, crediting the hundreds of millions of dollars Israel has invested in firefighting services in the aftermath of the 2010 Carmel Forest fire.

“Our [average] response time was 14 minutes in 2010, and it went down to six minutes in 2015,” he said, according to the Times of Israel.

According to WorldLifeExpectancy.com, a website that uses World Health Organization data to rank death rates by country, Israel’s fire fatality rate in 2014 was 0.38 per 100,000 people, placing it 153rd out of 172 countries (the higher the rank number, the lower the rate of fire fatalities), or in the best 20. According to that ranking, the five countries with the best fire safety records are Luxembourg (0.1 per 100,000), Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

The five countries with the worst fire safety records were Nigeria (21.13), Burundi, Uganda, Mozambique and Somalia.

With a rate of 0.75 fire deaths per 100,000, the United States ranked considerably behind Israel, in 133rd.

Hess Kramer campers evacuated due to fire concerns

Ventura County Star is reporting tonight at 10:18 p.m.: Roadrunner Shuttle donated two charter buses to pick up the 165 poeple at Camp Hess Kramer on Yerba Buena Road.

Other reports say campers are being transported to Malibu High School as part of a mandatory precautionary evacuation related to the possible spread of the Ventura County Springs Fire.

We felt so safe there

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with

Tzedakah With Toys

When 5-year-old Ariela Weintraub learned about the recent Southern California fires during a family dinner discussion, she was worried. The Santa Monica resident asked her mother, Susan Weintraub, "Mommy, do you think the children who lived in those burning houses lost their toys?"

Her mother told her yes, and the youngster ran to her room and returned with a big white teddy bear. To her parents’ surprise and delight, Ariela announced that she wanted to donate her cherished stuffed animal to a child who lost his or her own toys in the fires.

When Susan Weintraub told her daughter’s story to Rabbi Karmi Gross, the principal of Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles, which is attended by Ariela and her older sister, the 5-year-old’s generosity inspired a school toy drive for local children affected by the fires.

"When we think communitywide, we usually think of the Jewish community," Gross said. "This seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a point to our students that we have to sometimes look past our family. The needs of the general community have to be a genuine concern to us."

On Nov. 12, the American Red Cross stopped by Maimonides and picked up the boxes of treasured stuffed animals, lunch boxes, art activities and board games. The toys will be distributed to local homeless shelters and specifically given to children who lost their possessions in the tragedy.

"I just thought they might’ve lost their favorite toys in the fire," Ariela said. "I think they’ll be happy when they get new ones."

To donate to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, visit www.redcross.org or call (800) 435-7669.