In Wake of Fires, Ilan Ramon Day School Vows to Rebuild

November 11, 2018
Photos by Amit Zilberstein

On Sunday morning, Yuri Hronsky, Head of School at Ilan Ramon Day School in Agoura Hills, had to briefly step away from a phone interview with the Journal because his young children were arguing over the animals.

The animals in question are the rabbits and birds that Hronsky rescued from the school early Sunday morning from the fires that destroyed part of the school’s campus.

“It’s a bit of a zoo here,” he quipped from his Sherman Oaks home. The Hronskys have also taken in Jesse Lefton- Zilberstein’s family, who voluntarily evacuated from their Woodland Hills home on Thursday night. Lefton-Zilberstein is both a parent and a board member at Ilan Ramon.

Elementary school bathrooms. Photos by Amit Zilberstein

At a time when the community should have been getting ready to power down for Shabbat, Hronsky sent out a message to the entire school community of 90 families and their 150 children they cater to from pre-school through 5th grade, that the 25-year-old school’s computer lab, administration building and the bathroom on the lower field had been destroyed by the fire.

Lefton-Zilberstein told the Journal that on Thursday around 3:30 p.m., when people were in the carpool line to pick up their kids, “We were seeing the smoke coming from Newbury Park as well as from the Bell Canyon fires and it was apparent that it wasn’t terribly far from the school.  At that point Yuri realized if nothing else he should take the Torah, which he did.” He also managed to grab his laptop and the head of the Judaic Studies’ department’s laptop.

Hronsky said, “There was just something about the skies that afternoon that made me think ‘better safe than sorry.’” He also called all the parents who still had kids at the school for after-care programs on Thursday to come and collect their children. Hronsky’s instincts that the fire could spread and the freeway could potentially be shut down proved to be correct.

Using the school’s online communications network, on Friday morning Hronsky and his staff began contacting all the teachers, and the teachers contacted all the families to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for.  

“The Havdallah service was affirming and empowering and I think it allowed our children to feel a lot calmer seeing our community was just the same and all together.” – Jesse Lefton-Zilberstein

“Most of our [evacuated] families ended up with other Ilan Ramon families,” Lefton-Zilberstein said.

Like most people Lefton-Zilberstein watched the fires unfold on television. “On Friday we saw firefighters fight back an avalanche of flames on our property,” she said.

On Saturday morning, news reports stated that the entire campus had been destroyed. “Ilan Ramon was on the bottom of the news screens,” Lefton-Zilberstein said. “We were being told there was no way to save the campus and at that point our entire community was shattered.”

However, Hronsky reached out to a contact at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s department who went out to the campus. “He was able to reassure us that it was only the left side of the school that was burning, but the rest of the campus was okay. It’s truly a miracle,” Hronsky added. “The spaces where the children study and learn are still basically untouched. They’re dirty, but untouched.”

On Sunday morning, Hronsky, together with a Sheriff’s deputy managed to go back and collect important student records, memorabilia, yearbooks “and stuff that we need to operate if we have to move off campus for a while,” he said. “But the heart and soul of the school were intact.”

He added he knows that could change because as of Sunday morning, evacuation orders were still in place and there was no way of knowing if the fires would continue to spread.

But since the fires began on Thursday, Hronsky and his staff have had to think on their feet. On Saturday night they managed to pull together an impromptu Havdallah service at de Toledo High School in West Hills, where close to 250 community members attended.

“That’s our school,” Hronsky said when asked how Ilan Ramon managed to pull the gathering together so quickly.

“Yes. As a parent and a board member I can say it happened organically,” Lefton-Zilberstein added. “Everyone was texting and reaching out and saying, ‘We wish we could be together.’ Everyone was scattered and nobody knew what was going on. And at that point we decided to make it happen.”

The school graciously offered their space. A local synagogue offered food.

Computer Lab, Parent Organization office, server space

“It was absolutely overwhelming to see who was in that room,” Lefton-Zilberstein said. “There were founding members of our community there whose kids are now 30-years-old. We had families with kids who are 2-years-old. We had a past president whose house burned down who came. It was affirming and empowering and I think it allowed our children to feel a lot calmer seeing our community was just the same and all together.”

Moving forward is difficult given that there’s no knowing exactly when the fires will be contained, but Hronsky said right now the school is operating on two parallel paths: The first is to work with the insurance company and the fire mitigation people to clear the rubble and get the classrooms sanitized, deal with water and power and get electricity back on the campus “as soon as humanly possible,” he said. “And when it’s safe and secure and clean, have the students back on campus.”

The second path is families have been told the school is closed at least until Wednesday. “Our goal is to then put into place a way to operate either half day mode and to be somewhere as a community for Shabbat,” Hronsky said.

And while the school does have insurance, they have set up a GoFundMe page because, as Lefton-Zilberstein said, “Insurance takes a while and we want to have a seamless transition for our families. We want our children to have as little interruption as possible. Most of our families are going through so much stress right now. We want to have the cash flow to be able to make the changes and have the safety provisions that need to happen right now.”

Ilan Ramon Day School’s GoFundMe Page can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/help-rebuild-ilan-ramon-day-school


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