SoCal Fires Burn Homes, Jewish Community Builds Bridges

December 15, 2017
The Thomas Fire crosses Foothill Road in Ventura County. Photo by Jim Heller

Nan Waltman and her husband, Hal Nachenberg, know all about paradise lost.

For decades, they lived happily in a house on a hill, overlooking the beach in Ventura and the tip of the Channel Islands, and counting their blessings.

Then came a call on the night of Dec. 4 — a robocall from the city announcing that the Thomas Fire was moving from Santa Paula to Ventura and they needed to evacuate immediately. Now they have little more than the clothes on their backs and the ruins of a home that’s been completely destroyed.

“We all say we live in paradise,” Waltman said of those who live in seaside Ventura. “Apparently, there’s a price to be paid to living in paradise.”

Last week, several fires in the Southern California area uprooted the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish community members. There were closures of schools and synagogues. Residents evacuated their homes as ash rained from the sky and flames tore through the hills. Some, like Waltman, will never see their houses again.

The largest blaze was Ventura County’s Thomas Fire, consuming more than 200,000 acres and claiming at least one life. It was still burning as of Dec. 12, while firefighters had mostly contained the Skirball Fire, which temporarily closed the 405 Freeway and threatened residents of Bel Air. Other fires included the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita and Creek Fire in Sylmar.

The Skirball Fire — named such because of its proximity to the Skirball Cultural Center — broke out in the wealthy neighborhood of Bel Air on Dec. 6 and destroyed six homes while damaging 12 others. The brushfire exploded on the east side of the Sepulveda Pass, prompting several area synagogues and Jewish institutions to close and to remove their Torahs for safekeeping.

Leo Baeck Temple, Stephen Wise Temple, American Jewish University’s Familian Campus and the Skirball Cultural Center all closed. All have since reopened, except for Leo Baeck, which has held joint Friday night services with Stephen Wise Temple, where other programs and its preschool were operating as of Dec. 12.

“People have been extremely supportive of each other across denominational boundaries and institutional boundaries, and that has just been beautiful,” said Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, whose day school reopened Dec. 11.

The morning of the outbreak of the Skirball Fire, Leo Baeck Temple Rabbi Ken Chasen came face to face with the flames engulfing the hill above his synagogue.

“The fires were literally right on top of us,” Chasen said after recovering Torahs from his campus and bringing them to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino for safekeeping. VBS accommodated the Torah scrolls of several institutions evacuated during the fire, including Stephen Wise Temple and Milken Community Schools.

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

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

Zweiback said 94 Stephen Wise Temple families were evacuated due to the Skirball Fire, and the mother of one of the temple’s congregants lost her home.

From left: At Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbis Noah Farkas and Yoshi Zweiback organize Torah scrolls kept for sake keeping during the Skirball Fire. Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom

Meanwhile, both Sinai Temple in Westwood and VBS, which have families who live in evacuated areas, closed their day schools temporarily. Sinai Temple had about 15-20 families who were evacuated, Sinai Temple Rabbi Nicole Guzik said on Dec. 6 in a phone interview from downtown, where she was seeking refuge from the poor air quality in Westwood.

North of Los Angeles, while the fire in Ventura County did not encroach on Camp Ramah in Ojai, the Conservative summer camp underwent a mandatory evacuation on Dec. 6. Largely empty at the time of the evacuation order, there were a couple of families who live at the camp who had to leave, said Rabbi Joe Menashe, Camp Ramah’s executive director. Additionally, the camp removed Torah scrolls and other ritual and historic objects for safekeeping.

“I woke up this morning and was very relieved to find that camp was intact,” Menashe said last week. “We are incredibly grateful to all the first responders, other agencies and personnel that had to keep not only our camp but tens of thousands of people in homes safe.”

Chabad of Santa Clarita Rabbi Choni Marozov said he opened up the Chabad house on Dec. 5 to accommodate residents who had been evacuated due to the Rye Fire.

“People came in for a few hours until they were able to go back home,” he said, adding, “To the best of my knowledge, no homes were burnt, but it came close.”

Other communities also helped one another in the face of the fires. Sinai Temple 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. And when Chasen received a telephone call on the morning of Dec. 6 ordering him to leave his residential neighborhood, he evacuated to his colleague Zweiback’s home.

As rabbi of Chabad of Ventura County, Rabbi Yakov Latowicz was one of the lucky ones: His suitcase was packed and he was ready to evacuate, but the evacuation order never came.

Able to stay in his home, which also serves as the Ventura Chabad center, he made himself useful to those who needed help. On Dec. 6, with Chabad of the Valley Rabbi Yanky Khan, he delivered a truck with toiletries, clothing and diapers to Oxnard College, an evacuation center for displaced people and for those who left their homes voluntarily.

“One of the primary directives of Judaism is to get off your butt and do something, so when the opportunity arises, you have to move. You don’t form committees and discuss what we can and cannot do. You act first, ask questions later,” Latowicz said. “That is the essence of the Chabad philosophy: Act, do good, worry about the rest later.”

That kind of assistance also happened at Temple Beth Torah, the Reform congregation on Foothill Road in Ventura that has seen many members’ homes destroyed by the fire, Waltman and Nachenberg included.

It opened its doors to people in the community who were in need of wireless internet, bathrooms or shelter from the poor air quality in the area. The synagogue also served as a staging place for families who were blocked from entering their homes near the synagogue. They parked their cars at the synagogue and were escorted by police to their homes, where they could grab a few belongings and head back to their temporary places of shelter.

Temple Beth Torah congregant Jim Heller, 59, said he still hasn’t been able to make sense of what happened — both to him and his community. A director of energy management for the U.S. Navy, he and his wife, Carol Ecklund, evacuated to a naval base in Oxnard last week. They said they were fortunate not to lose their home, as many houses in their neighborhood were destroyed.

“I cannot imagine why I was spared and someone else wasn’t. I think it was random — where the wind blows,” he said.

The Thomas Fire destroyed homes across the street from Temple Beth Torah congregant Jim Heller. Photo by Jim Heller

He sought spiritual guidance from Temple Beth Torah Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller.

“I am scientist, but I do have a spiritual side and said some prayers of thanks for getting through it,” he said.

“You don’t form committees and discuss what we can and cannot do. You act first, ask questions later.” — Rabbi Yakov Latowicz

Hochberg-Miller said her community was doing all it could to respond to the overwhelming need in Ventura. Those who have lost the most have displayed an unbelievable ability of staying positive, she said.

“People I talked to who lost their homes, their attitudes are unbelievable; they are grateful for their lives and are understanding that stuff is stuff and life is the most important thing that matters. People over and over again have said, ‘All I own is what I’m wearing at this moment.’ You couldn’t get cars out of garages because electricity is down,” she said. “People only have the most basic kind of things at this moment. They are a little overwhelmed.”

Waltman, for her part, has tried to see the upside of losing everything: Never again does she have to go through the mess in her garage.

Stepping away from her synagogue women’s study group to speak with the Journal by phone, she said she was both tired of sharing her story with well-intentioned people who wanted to know how she was doing but also appreciative of the support of her synagogue during the trying times.

“It’s been our anchor and it continues to be,” she said. “The truth of it is hitting me.”

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