Numerous Synagogues, Jewish Day Schools Closed Down Due to Skirball Fire

December 6, 2017
Photo by Leo Baeck.

Several area synagogues and Jewish institutions closed Dec. 6 and removed their Torahs for safekeeping after a brushfire exploded on the east side of the Sepulveda Pass.

Leo Baeck Temple, Stephen Wise Temple, American Jewish University’s Familian Campus and the Skirball Cultural Center all were closed due to what is known as the Skirball Fire.

“The fires were literally right on top of us,” Leo Baeck Rabbi Ken Chasen said after recovering Torahs from his campus on Sepulveda Boulevard early Wednesday morning and bringing them to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino for safekeeping.

The threat from the blaze — which led Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to declare a local state of emergency — led Stephen Wise Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback to transfer the temple’s Torah scrolls from its Bel Air campus to VBS. Temple groundskeepers hosed down the hill in front of the campus so that it would be less likely to catch ablaze if the winds pushed the fire there.

“We went basically building-to-building, turned off the gas, power and took all the Torah scrolls down to Valley Beth Shalom,” Zweiback said.

VBS also welcomed the Torah scrolls of Milken Community Schools, which was closed.

“There are 25 Sifrei Torah sitting in my chapel right now from three different places,” VBS Rabbi Noah Farkas said.

Numerous Torahs are being preserved from the Skirball fire in Valley Beth Shalom. Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom.

The Skirball Fire is one of several fires that has blazed across the Southland since Monday. The other fires are known as the Thomas, Rye and Creek fires burning in Ventura County, Santa Clarita and Sylmar.

The Skirball fire’s proximity to Sepulveda also resulted in the closure of the Los Angeles Eruv, which uses fences, hillsides and lines through the Sepulveda pass. An eruv is a halachic perimeter that transforms a public area into a private domain for Shabbat, allowing observant Jews to carry items within its boundaries.

Both Sinai Temple in Westwood and Valley Beth Shalom closed their day schools. A large portion of Sinai Temple’s Alice and Nahum Lainer School (formerly Sinai Akiba Academy) faculty is based in the San Fernando Valley, near the fire.

Sinai Temple also has congregants who have been evacuated. “So as of now, we know about 15-to-20 families that have been evacuated,” Sinai Temple Rabbi Nicole Guzik said on Wednesday in a phone interview from downtown, where she was seeking refuge from the poor air-quality in Westwood.

Several emergency shelters have been set up in the wake of the fire, including at Balboa Park in Encino. Sinai Temple has offered itself up as a shelter for evacuees, and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills released a statement of support for those who need shelter or assistance.

Chasen said he received a telephone call on Wednesday morning ordering his neighborhood to evacuate. Speaking on the phone from his colleague Zweiback’s home, he said there was “some minor damage down in the [Leo Baeck] Temple property, but pretty minor. The main buildings were not breached even though the fire pushing up right against us.”

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