A firefighter is working on extinguishing the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Holy Fire

Sometimes in the midst of destruction, there is holiness. Sometimes in the smoke and ashes, there is kindness, love and meaning.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was the leading rabbi of the town of Piaseczno in central Poland during World War II, when he was sent, along with many of his followers, to the Warsaw Ghetto. There he worked tirelessly at great personal risk to support Jewish life. He operated a secret shul, arranged for mikveh immersions, and conducted weddings.

He became best known for the inspiring sermons he would deliver each week. Although the rabbi ultimately was murdered by the Nazis in 1943, many of his teachings from that period were rather miraculously saved and later published in a volume that came to be called “Esh Kodesh” — Sacred Fire.

In a sermon he delivered in August 1941, immediately after Tisha b’Av, the darkest day in the Jewish year, Rabbi Shapira taught:

“There are calamities for which it is possible to accept consolation. A person may have had an illness from which he recovered. Although he had been in great danger and in tremendous pain, when with God’s help he was healed, he was immediately consoled for all the pain he endured. Similarly, if money was lost, then when God restores the lost fortune, consolation follows quickly. But when lives are lost, it is impossible to accept solace. It is true that when the pain is due to the loss of family and loved ones, or to the loss of other Jewish people because they were precious and are sorely missed, it is possible to take comfort in other surviving relatives and different friends. But any decent person mourns the loss of others not simply because he misses them; it is not only his yearning for them that causes pain and distress. The real cause of his grief is the death of the other — the loss of life.”

Those who have been affected by these fires will be comforted in the arms of friends and in the embrace of a loving community.

What an amazing teaching for the moment in which we find ourselves right now. (And, by the way, part of the extraordinary glory of our tradition is that the wisdom of a man taken from us prematurely some 74 years ago can still teach and guide us today.)

We have suffered losses in recent days in Southern California. We have lost sleep. It has been difficult at times to breathe. Some of us have been evacuated from our homes. Some of us have had to remove our Torah scrolls for safekeeping. Property has been damaged. Homes have been destroyed. But, thankfully, injuries have been few and, so far, there has been only one death attributed to these devastating fires.

And so let us be consoled. What has been destroyed will be, with our help, with our hearts and hands, rebuilt. Those who have been affected by these fires will be comforted in the arms of friends and in the embrace of a loving community.

In the midst of destruction, there is goodness. As we were removing the Torah scrolls from our temple last week, three rabbis in our Los Angeles community phoned to offer their assistance. Congregants and board members called to see how they could help. From all over the world, we have been contacted by friends reaching out to express their love and concern.

Fires rage, but eventually they go out.

Those who risk their own lives to protect others from the flames bring holiness to the fire. Those who reach out in love to help others rebuild bring holiness to the fire. Those who cry out for support and are met with a loving embrace bring holiness to the fire.

Let us be consoled and let us console one another.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters battle flames from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas Fire in Santa Paula, California, U.S. on December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins/File Photo

Over 212,000 People Forced to Abandon Their Homes As Southern California Fires Rage On

The fires throughout southern California have now forced over 212,000 people to leave their homes and have no sign of slowing down.

There are currently six major fires plaguing southern California: the Thomas Fire (Ventura County), the Skirball Fire (West Los Angeles), the Creek Fire (Sylmar), the Rye Fire (Santa Clarita), the Liberty Fire (Riverside County) and the Lilac Fire (San Diego).

The Thomas Fire is the largest of the fires, which has burned 132,000 acres of land since Monday – well over two times larger than the city of Washington, D.C. – and has now spread into Santa Barbara County, resulting in a mandatory evacuation for the people in the city of Carpinteria. A total of over 88,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes as a result of the Thomas Fire.

The Lilac Fire started on Thursday evening and has already blazed over 4,000 acres of land. Several people, including firefighters, have suffered from burns and smoke inhalation from the Lilac Fire and 20 buildings have been destroyed in its wake. Evacuations have already been issued.

None of the fires are anywhere close to being contained. The Creek Fire is the fire that is the closest to being contained at 40%, followed by the Rye Fire (35%), Skirball Fire (30%), Thomas Fire (10%), Liberty Fire (10%) and Lilac Fire (0%).

The fires could potentially worsen over the weekend, as the Santa Ana winds are forecasted to intensify to 40 to 60 miles per hour on Saturday, putting southern California at a heightened risk of fires.

President Trump has declared a state of emergency for the people afflicted by the fires, thus providing the state and localities with federal assistance to deal with the fires. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has already declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego.

Former ‘Catskills of the West’ resort destroyed in California wildfire

A resort that in its heyday garnered a reputation as the “Catskills of the West” was severely damaged in a wildfire that recently devastated Northern California.

Hoberg’s Resort, which at its peak in the 1950s hosted more than 1,000 guests a night, including many celebrities, was destroyed on the afternoon of Sept. 12, with only its chimneys and foundation remaining, JWeekly reported.

The Cobb resort, which was sold in 1974, reopened last year after being closed to the public.

The resort picked up the Catskills moniker in its heyday because of the number of Jews who stayed there, according to JWeekly.

“We did the sorts of activities at Hoberg’s which our brethren enjoyed in upper New York state, including camping, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, archery, crafts, etc.,” San Francisco Jewish historian Stephen Dobbs told the San Francisco-area Jewish publication.

On the resort’s website, the ownership and management said they “are devastated by the loss of historic buildings and artifacts. Our hearts go out to our neighbors who also suffered the incredible loss of their property and businesses within our community.”

At least five people have been killed in two wildfires north of San Francisco, including the Valley fire that destroyed Hoberg’s. The fires also have claimed hundreds of homes.

Westward Ho

When I accepted a job to transfer from New York City to Los Angeles, I figured October would be the ideal month to move. Just as bone-chilling winds began sweeping the East Coast, I’d be basking in year-round sunshine on the other side of the country.

But the timing couldn’t have seemed worse when I arrived here to find wildfires ravaging the region, labor strikes disrupting the city’s transit system and grocery stores and a new governor whose qualifications included "Kindergarten Cop." Snow was starting to become a fond memory as I came to grips with feeling as if I’d moved to biblical Egypt during the Ten Plagues.

Still, there’s no turning back now. Turning 30 had left me with a creeping sense of stagnation about my life, which I’d lived entirely in New York. I hoped a different state would help me find a new state of mind.

And then there was the sneaking suspicion I had dated every Jewish single girl available in New York. That notion finally fully dawned on me when a friend-of-a-friend recommended a woman who he deemed compatible. Upon further inquiry, I discovered we had more than just interests in common: we shared DNA. I politely declined the opportunity to date my cousin.

Then again, incest might seem more advisable than coming to Los Angeles in hopes of meeting single, stable Jewish women. I had been duly warned that everyone here is superficial and insincere. These sentiments, of course, came from that hotbed of depth and sincerity known as Manhattan, so I paid them no mind.

Dating in Manhattan isn’t quite what you’ve seen on "Sex and the City." What irks me most about that show is how it glamorizes every aspect of city living, as if horrific weather and sluggish subways don’t interfere with single, attractive people. If Carrie Bradshaw were a real person, she wouldn’t last five minutes in her Manolo Blahniks, much less afford them on a writer’s salary.

But I must admit my own fantasies of Los Angeles living were fueled by another HBO show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." How I yearned to be Larry David, roaming carefree around this eternally sunny city, bumping into one quirky character after another even more neurotic than he is. Even as it satirized the loopy conventions of suburban life, "Curb" made Los Angeles seem like a place I’d come to love.

Perhaps it might partly explain how eerily calm I was being about making such a huge change in my life as I made the extensive preparations to move. No 2 a.m. cigarettes, jagged fingernails or circling psychotherapists names in the Yellow Pages. It was an unfamiliar feeling, and newfound maturity seemed an unlikely explanation. It got to the point where I started to get anxious about not being anxious.

But soon enough I realized what brought on inner peace: For the first time in who knows how long, due to my complete preoccupation with moving, I was not engaged whatsoever in the customary histrionics associated with meeting/dating/loving/arguing/breaking up with any woman. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to avoid the opposite sex; I simply didn’t have the time.

I’m no historian on Buddhism, but I’d hazard a guess the Dalai Lama was not dating anybody when he first achieved that whole nirvana thing. With all the energies I usually devote to wrecking relationships channeled entirely into the equally messy business of relocation, friends and family marveled at my Zen-like demeanor. I presumed all the pent-up emotion would cause me to breakdown at my goodbye party like a beauty pageant winner, but I sailed through it as if I were going to see everyone again the next day.

Now that I am in Los Angeles, I know I can only repress my romantic life for so long. As consumed as I have been by the challenges associated with obtaining an apartment and a car, celibacy won’t fly once I’ve settled in and have no distractions.

I’ve been here only a month now, and the more time I spend here, the more sobering my new reality becomes. Topping wildfires, earthquakes and other Egypt-esque plagues common to Los Angeles are more mundane concerns like traffic, car insurance payments and, yes, finding Jewish women.

Adjusting to my new surroundings can be stressful sometimes. But it all seemed worth it one fine evening not long after I got here, when I strolled out to the beach in Venice during sunset. In New York, you actually forget there is a sky over your head because so many buildings block your view.

But standing in front of the ocean’s vast expanse, my head swimming with all of the possibilities that lay before me in Los Angeles, I was able to forget about my ash-sullied car and Pharaoh Schwarzenegger.

But if the Pacific Ocean turns red, I am so outta here.

Andrew Wallenstein writes for
the Hollywood Reporter. His work was included in the recently published “Best
Jewish Writing 2003” (Jossey-Bass). He can be reached at awally@aol.com.

Fire-Damaged Temples Take Stock

As 10 wildfires, which ravaged large areas of Southern California, were finally brought under control, Jewish communities joined fellow citizens in facing the aftermath of the painful human and property toll.

The worst damage was suffered by synagogue congregants in the San Bernardino and San Diego areas.

Preliminary figures in San Diego County showed that the homes of 30 Jewish families had been destroyed by the fires, and the final count may reach 60 homes, said Tina Friedman, spokesperson for the United Jewish Federation (UJF) of San Diego.

To the east of the city, in Scripps Ranch, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad Hebrew Academy was desperately searching for temporary classrooms, offices and equipment, lost when the fire torched all 20 of the academy’s trailers.

“We also need computers, desks and books,” Goldstein said. “We need everything.”

A new nearby Chabad building, surrounded by flames, was saved, but it won’t be ready for another two months.

The homes of six member families of Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino burned down completely, but Rabbi Douglas Kohn expressed his gratitude for the instant response to the tragedy.

“We’ve have had checks from as far away as the Midwest, and calls from all over the world,” he said. “One temple sent over trays of sandwiches and cookies for Shabbat services. I tell you, in time of crisis, there is nothing anywhere like the Jewish community.”

In the Pomona-Claremont area, members of Temple Beth Israel suffered the loss of two destroyed and one damaged homes.

The stubborn fires in the Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead areas forced the evacuation of all residents, but no Jewish homes or institutions were damaged, said Mike Cross, president of the B’nai Big Bear congregation.

UJF is developing an extensive assistance plan. Forinformation, visit www.jewishinsandiego.com. To provideassistance, and for the location of various Chabad drop-off centers, visit, www.chabad.com .