Jewish Journal

Fire Victims Find Comfort in Community

Fire fighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai , California, U.S., December 9, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Almost two weeks after being evacuated from her home because of the Thomas Fire, Jody Shapiro was, for a brief time at least, a picture of peacefulness.

Surrounded by friends in the sanctuary of Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah, she swayed with her hands in the air while blissfully singing along to “This Little Light of Mine” at the end of a Shabbat Hanukkah service.

Evacuated with her husband, Perry, since the fire swept through their neighborhood on Dec. 4, Shapiro said she felt exhausted. The couple had been staying with family and living without their most basic possessions. But for a few hours, as she communed with fellow congregants and other fire victims at the Reform temple, the heaviness of the preceding week and a half melted away.

“It just really felt good to be with everybody,” Shapiro said as she headed out of the sanctuary for a sufganiyot oneg. “You just come in and get hugs and talk to people. There’s just a lot of compassion in this community.”

Located on the edge of a neighborhood ravaged by the Thomas Fire, Temple Beth Torah became a focal point for community relief after the disaster. Temple volunteers offered food, beverages and comfort to the many evacuees coming through the area, and for several days, the synagogue served as a staging area for police escorting residents back to their homes to retrieve belongings and see the damage left by the fire.

On Dec. 15, with the help of donations from sister congregations, the temple provided a free latke and brisket dinner for congregants and community members impacted by the fire, followed by the service.

“It’s been quite the week for us,” Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller said. “We really wanted to draw community together. … This is what our people do: We meet adversity with strength, courage.”

About 11 families from the congregation lost homes in the fire, Hochberg-Miller said. Many more had to evacuate. Some evacuees, like the Shapiros, still hadn’t returned to their homes as of Dec. 15 because the fire-damaged neighborhood remained off limits, and many homes left standing suffered damage from smoke and ash.

Yet the stress and trauma from the devastation also brought people together.

“I saw God so present last week in the way people rose up and helped each other,” Hochberg-Miller said. “There was absolutely the divine spirit.”

She said, after witnessing the destructiveness of fire, lighting the Hanukkah and Shabbat candles served as a way to reclaim fire as a creative and holy force.

About 11 families from the congregation lost homes in the fire. Many more had to evacuate.

For Eliane and Jacques Ettedgui, the Friday night dinner was a chance to connect with other people affected by the fire and to eat a good meal. The elderly couple’s home burned to the ground after they evacuated the night of Dec. 4 with only the clothes they were wearing, never imagining the house they had lived in for 37 years would go up in flames.

“We thought, maybe tomorrow we’ll have time to come back and pack, put things in a suitcase,” Eliane Ettedgui said. “I wish we’d had time to take pictures, get my children’s yearbooks, the things you can’t replace.”

Ilene Gavenman’s home survived, but many of her neighbors’ homes didn’t. When her brother-in-law texted her a photo of her street the day after the fire that he’d captured from a TV news report, she said she felt both relieved and devastated.

“I look forward to going back to my house, but I will be reminded every day what happened to our friends and our neighbors,” she said tearfully. “I’m heartbroken for people. They’ve really lost everything. It’s a very mixed emotional thing for me.”

Amid the chaos and sadness, Gavenman said she and her husband, Howard, have found comfort going to the temple they’ve been members of for more than 40 years. They attended Friday’s event and also a dinner and service held the previous week, she said.

“To say prayers and circle with the love of the community has meant so much,” she said. “It’s been helpful to get through this. You would never imagine this could happen. To be in the middle of it all feels very surreal.”