November 21, 2018

Finding Gratitude in Terrible Times

Getting ready for Thanksgiving this year has required some real work. I’m not talking about prepping the turkey and baking pies. Amid all the chaos, vitriol and rage that surrounds us in our political discourse, people in our communities in California and across the U.S. have been severely tested by the worst of natural disasters and acts of hate.

The past month’s litany of events has left us reeling, wondering what could possibly come next.

Sandra and Jim, both 87 years old, spent the past couple of weeks sleeping at a friend’s house. Amid the worst wildfires in California history, they and thousands of residents in their community were forced to evacuate their Ventura County homes on Nov. 9. Dozens are confirmed dead and hundreds were still unaccounted for from communities extensively damaged or entirely destroyed by the Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California and the Woolsey Fire that has burned through the Santa Monica Mountains from Point Mugu to Malibu and Calabasas. Those who were able to escape the flames stayed at public facilities, hotels and motels, houses of worship or with relatives or friends. Some will never return to their homes, which are now cinders and ash. The lucky ones whose homes survived, like Sandra and Jim, have discovered that the soot and smoke were so intense that their residences will require extensive work to make them habitable again.

“The kind of effort required for this year’s Thanksgiving is the inner work of affirming courage and hope, of strengthening resilience, and refusing to be defined by rage or deprivation.”

On Nov. 7, the day before the Woolsey Fire broke out, college students Frank and Dennis decided they needed a break. They headed to the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks to enjoy its country music, good drinks and the fun and welcoming atmosphere it was known for. But their anticipated night of dancing and flirting turned into bloody tragedy. A man armed with a handgun illegally modified with an expanded magazine, entered the bar and murdered 12 people, killed himself and left 23 wounded or injured. Frank and Dennis escaped physical harm.

And, of course, there’s more.

• The shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Shabbat, Oct. 27, that killed 11. The alleged shooter espoused anti-Semitic views on social media.

• The shooting of two African-Americans that same day at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky by a white man who reportedly tried but failed to enter a nearby Black church moments earlier.

• The shouting of “Heil Hitler” by an audience member at a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Baltimore, which sent people heading for the exits. (The man later apologized, saying he had been drunk at the performance and was “ashamed” for the outburst.)

We have all witnessed the rapid rise of hate crimes, now carried out in the open as racists, anti-Semites, homophobes and sexists seem to believe they can now spew their hatred and impose their terror whenever they choose. During the recent midterm elections, candidates of mainstream political parties publicly advocated racial superiority, religious triumphalism, violence toward women or gays or people with special needs. That’s the new normal. And that is just here in the United States, just in the past few weeks.

Around the world, we are witnessing the alarming rise of extreme nationalist movements, predicated on a fascist notion of pure blood, racial supremacy or sheer intimidation and power. Deliberately organized assaults on entire ethnicities or regions are the daily strategy of Saudi Arabian, Russian and Chinese governments, just to name a few. In Washington, D.C., and from the far corners of the globe, the world seems more vicious, more deadly and more hateful as thousands of children remain forcibly separated from their parents and siblings, as ethnic minorities are subjected to a barrage of violence, deliberate disenfranchisement and explicit terror.

Is it possible that the only thing that unites us now is our sense of being under assault? Of being caricatured and misunderstood? Wherever we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, we find ourselves yelled at, belittled, despised and attacked.

Bad Timing, But the Time Is Now.

Amid all this chaos, vitriol and rage comes Thanksgiving. Of course, there are troubling aspects to its actual history, but the story we tell ourselves of this day is one of reaching across racial and ethnic lines, of an imagined paradise of harmony and shared purpose, of a bountiful meal of local foods and loving families, and above all — of gratitude.

“In giving and receiving love, we solidify our expansive joy and our soul-strengthening connections.”

When President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the United States was in a similar state of darkness — riven by a war between those who would maintain a brutal system of racial enslavement even at the price of national union, and those who would oppose them. In the depths of that conflict, the bloodiest war (per capita) in American history, Lincoln understood the need to lift our eyes above the soul-wearying reality that had been forced upon us, and instead to focus our hearts and hopes on what might yet be possible. He drew our attention, prophetic leader that he was, on the gap between God’s vision of what we were called to be and the sorry mendacity of what we had allowed our reality to become. He understood that only by planting our imaginations and our determination in what might be, what must be, could we hope to mobilize the resilience and the courage needed to make that better tomorrow a reality.

The kind of effort required for this year’s Thanksgiving is the inner work of affirming courage and hope, of strengthening resilience, and refusing to be defined by rage or deprivation. The effort that also calls us is the outer work of building community and alliances across communal divides, of modeling a renewed level of civility and compassion (and then demanding that others do so as well), of standing for and with the despised and the marginalized. And then, the capstone to this effort is the determination to live along two simultaneous tracks: to peel back the hardened shell encasing our hearts so we remain open to feeling the pain of others and responding to it, and also cultivating the deep interiority that lets us celebrate our private joys —not as a selfish distraction but as a fountain of renewal and connection. We don’t get a second chance: the time to enjoy this gift of life is now. And the time to give back to others so that they can do the same is — you guessed it — now.

There’s a lot to do, so let’s get started.

The Inner Work

Like everything in creation, we have an interiority — our character, temperament, biology — that requires and demands our attention. And we have an exteriority — the ways we interact with the world around us and the people around us. As we organize ourselves to engage others with compassion, justice and love, we must also attend to our own inner lives. How we do that, and whether we do that, is both a choice and a commitment. We choose to focus our energy and our attention on what we have, not what we lack; on the loves we share, not those denied; on simple joys and the miracle of life itself.

To maintain that focus takes real effort and strength. It isn’t easy to maintain our perspective when all of us could easily tell our life stories as victims, underappreciated and overburdened. Every single one of us could narrate our lives through a prism of deprivation and hurt, and there is more than enough evidence to justify that narrative.

The danger, of course, is that in surrendering to that version of our own story we make it self-fulfilling. All we will notice is what we don’t have, what we can’t do, and that will blind us to all we have, to all we love, to the possibilities still beckoning and luring us. Giving in to a pity party locks us in as victims (not that we aren’t victimized in different ways). But being victimized and telling our story as heroes, as people capable of rising above it to wrest meaning, joy and triumph from the garbage thrown our way is radically different than letting the ways we are victimized turn us into victims. We do not have to choose to be victims.

Think, for a moment, of the example of our people throughout the ages. Despised and persecuted throughout the Medieval period, Jews nonetheless told an exalted story of a people on a mission to proclaim the prophetic voice of spirit, universal harmony, human dignity and holiness to this wounded planet. We might have been poor and assaulted, but we saw ourselves as children of the Most High, and we clung to our Torah as a life raft that could float us above the wreckage of bigotry, ignorance and violence. Jews didn’t ignore the deadly reality of anti-Semitism and hate. But we retained our power to contextualize it. In construing our story as heroes rather than as victims, we made that perspective real for ourselves and our children, and played a disproportionate role in the ongoing struggles for enlightenment, liberty and decency. Our telling made it so.

Even today, we can choose to give in to despair and fear. We can allow the bullies and the bigots to define how the tale is told. But if we do that, they win. Thanksgiving, like Jewish holy moments such as the Sabbath, invite us to narrate on our own terms: think Hanukkah, if you will. Ignorant bigots tried to roll back the clock on pluralism, diversity and religious freedom, yet we refused to give in. That resistance rolled back their hate, as love always does. We told the tale through the prism of our values and our vision until that telling became the meaning we derived from its time, our agenda for the present and the bequest for future generations.

So the inner work of Thanksgiving, this year and every year, is to refuse to let the bigots set the terms, to deny the haters their version of reality. Instead, we gather to celebrate a renewal of freedom, gratitude for life itself, and the chance to sit with those we love, confident that marinating in their love is the first step toward reclaiming a world of justice. Thanksgiving is a dress rehearsal for the inclusive banquet that our work will make possible. It is practice in not hardening our hurts into a self-perpetuating grudge story. The inner work is to celebrate in advance, and then to turn to the outer work of building a world worth celebrating.

The Outer Work

As we insist on seeing ourselves as heroes and our story as greater than just the doleful listing of our wounds; as we focus on the love we are privileged to share, the joys that come our way, and the ways we are able to surpass the expectations of our naysayers; we transition from the inner work to the task that lies beyond: to take that harvest of joy, contentment and love, and to shine it out in the world.

No Jew is every truly alone. Indeed, no human is either. Common to our mammalian stock, we are who we are in companionship with those who have loved and nurtured us and with those whom it is our delight to love and nurture. In giving and receiving love, we solidify our expansive joy and our soul-strengthening connections.

“Precisely because the news is so bleak, precisely because there are dangerous forces of hatred prowling these times, we need to gird ourselves with the shield of community and the sword of justice, which is love embodied.”

Part of the opportunity of this Thanksgiving, set on the backdrop of such bleak vulgarity and self-interested intimidation, is to harness our love to strengthen the ties that make us human and allow us to resist. By feasting and rejoicing with those we love, by taking time during the weekend to volunteer to help those in need, we shine the liberating light of connection and meaning that can come only from relationships. We nurture, we care, we love. And in those acts of decency and
justice, we show ourselves and the world who we are meant to be. Compassion is as compassion does.

Precisely because the news is so bleak, precisely because there are dangerous forces of hatred prowling these times, we need to gird ourselves with the shield of community and the sword of justice, which is love embodied. Each time we stand together and act in harmony, we cause the light to shine that much more brightly, driving the bigots back into their swamps.

And it is not enough — not today, not tomorrow — to define community narrowly. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves behind the moat of family, or even exclusively of the people who look like us or who share our label. In this time when the haters seek to divide us, we are called to redouble our belonging across the divides. Tell the Thanksgiving story as you heard it as a child, but then tell it again from the perspective of a Native American, because we now know they are not outsiders to our story, they are part of our story. Tell the human story from the perspective of the women, the slaves, the LGBT person, the person with special needs, the poor, the rich, the fundamentalist, the worker. The more perspectives we bring to the telling, the more the story glitters, like a multifaceted diamond. Our differences are beautiful; they make us more fully human.

Not only must our telling of the tale encompass the millions, but we must, in this time of division, join hands together beyond our own communal lines. Can we strike up conversations with people we don’t agree with? Can we find common cause working for the shared uplift of each other, and in doing so, realize that we belong far more extensively than we had previously dared hope? If God is one, then so are God’s children. Let’s live the oneness.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is vice president.

Summer Camps After Woolsey: What Is This Place?

Photo by Eric Thayer / REUTERS

I am the grandchild of Shoah survivors. Until my bar mitzvah, I did not have the faintest understanding of what that truly meant. Around that time, I began to understand the gravity of the Shoah, but prior to that, my experience and understanding of being Jewish had only the vaguest notion of tragedy.

For me, however, defining Jewish identity in response to the Shoah would never work. I formed my Jewish identity at 9 years old when I began to attend summer camp in Malibu — Camp Sholom (later Camp JCA Shalom, and now part of the Shalom Institute). Because of summer camp, I rooted my Jewish identity in positive experiences. Rooting Judaism in Maccabiah, and mud gaga, and song sessions, and the ropes course, and arts and crafts — summer camp’s immersive Jewish experience — made and makes Judaism positive first and entirely about experiences in community. After years as a camper, I worked as a counselor and spent one summer as the counselor-in-training director.

Summer camp has always allowed me to put my grandmother’s survival in perspective. Instead of informing my life and my Judaism, I see her survival in the context of the entire history of the Jewish people. This requires me to join in the building and sustaining of our Jewish community, not as a response to the Shoah, but as something transcendent and positive.

“Summer camp has always allowed me to put my grandmother’s survival in perspective.”

About 12 years ago, I joined the Shalom Institute’s board of directors. Within three years (at 33 or 34), I started a two-year term as the president of the board, overseeing a $3 million annual budget and a staff of over 20.

When I got married at 38, I convinced my now wife and her children (my stepsons) that our wedding should be a family-camp weekend at my childhood camp, my treasured JCA Shalom. In 2016, we hosted 150 friends and family (including two cabins of kids, with counselors, of course) for a weekend and an additional 250 for our wedding itself. Rabbi Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, performed our ceremony.

Over the last 12 years, I have been involved in almost every major decision related to our campus and our institute. I have recruited board members, raised untold sums of money and, along with my wife, personally donated to projects throughout the camp. One such project was a cabin in memory of my grandmother in which each of her grandchildren participated.

Because of this gift, the Shalom Institute became more than a camp and philanthropy. After that gift, the Shalom Institute became the place where I honored my grandmother’s memory, not as a survivor but as a part of the Jewish people. Camp became a place where my grandmother’s survival would forever be about sustaining and growing the Jewish people through making Judaism positive.

So when the Woolsey fire ravaged Southern California and burned the camp, including my grandmother’s cabin, one would think I would be more devastated, more heartbroken than I am. Again, my grandmother guides me.

In 1995, my grandparents took our family to what is now Uzhgorod, Ukraine (formerly Ungvar, Hungary). This is the town where my grandmother grew up, and where, after World War II, she decided to marry my grandfather. We went to my grandmother’s childhood home on a scorching August afternoon. The house still stood, now behind a locked gate. Hot and sweaty, we rang the bell and rattled the gate but no one came. Standing outside in the sun, we could not see anything but a few branches of the tree on which her father once put a swing. Through the space between the gate and the wall, we caught the smallest glimpse of the garden where she and her entire family spent Shabbat afternoons. Though visibly upset that we could not get in, Grandma looked at me and said something like, “It is just a house.”

The structure of a few walls, a roof, windows and trees was just a house. The people who lived there were not her parents. Her childhood bedroom, though likely still there, did not hold her childhood, the kitchen where her mother made dinner no longer carried the scent of her mother’s cooking. The den where her father would read the paper no longer had her father’s heavy coat slung over a chair, or her father’s newspaper on the table. It was just a house. The memories of her parents, of her siblings and her entire family were with her, in the stories she told us, and the way she loved us, tucked us in and cooked for us.

“Camp has never been about the cabin, the bunk bed or the ropes course. For each of us, camp is about the people, the feelings and the memorable moments that change lives forever.”

This past week, as I saw the first photos from the devastating fire that leveled my camp — the fire that took out the dining hall, the amphitheater and my grandmother’s cabin — I recalled my grandmother standing outside her childhood home: “It is just a house.”

The remaining piles of rubble where the dining hall once stood, where my grandma’s cabin once housed children, is not camp. The ash heaps where buildings once stood hold no stories of the people who fell in love there, or got married there, or had their first kiss while their counselors were not looking. The buildings never held the Jewish future, or even the Jewish past.

Whatever decisions the Shalom Institute’s board and executive team make about the physical place will be guided, I am certain, by the truth that these buildings are just walls and wood, and pipes and plaster and windows — they are not “camp.” For every one of us involved with camp, we know the truth: Camp has never been about the cabin, the bunk bed or the ropes course. For each of us, camp is about the people, the feelings and the memorable moments, whether a Shabbat song session or a lazy Saturday afternoon hanging out, waiting for Havdalah and the weekly all-camp dance, or any of the seemingly innocent moments that change lives forever. This is the secret to the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

Ours is a history of dislocation. While wandering in the desert, we became a people. The desert mountain, at which revelation occurred, is no more or less sacred than a Shabbat table, or a summer camp dining hall. We lost our home and our Temple (twice) and still were able to remain Jewish for close to 2,000 years. What keeps us this way? Not places, but our ability to build, in time, moments where with our community we can experience something sacred, something transcendent, something positive and life-affirming.

Now, as the Shalom Institute looks toward the future, we are mindful of who we Jews have been and will always be — a people not fixed to location but to one another and infused with the ability to make any moment holy and any place sacred.

Ari Moss is on the board of directors and is a past president of the Shalom Institute.

Los Angeles Jewish Home Welcomes Motion Picture Home Fire Evacuees

As the fires spread on Friday, Nov. 9 in Thousand Oaks, residents from the Motion Pictures Home in Woodland Hills were among those who needed to be evacuated. It was a difficult process, requiring patients to be sent to multiple alternate locations, so Motion Pictures & Television Fund’s (MPTF) Linda Healy reached out to the Los Angeles Jewish Home (LAJH).

LAJH responded to the call and welcomed 26 patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia into their Eisenberg Village facility in Reseda.

“We are tremendously proud of the staff of the Los Angeles Jewish Home,” said Molly Forrest, CEO and president of LAJH. “Their immediate response to the need to shelter and care for the fragile seniors from the Motion Picture Home during this crisis was truly heroic. It is reflective of the quality care and compassion for which the Home is known.”

Motio Picture Home evacuation, Jewish journal

Motion Picture Home Evacuation

LAJH also arranged transportation to pick up – and later send home – their special guests and set up cots and supplies in their boardroom. Residents, their family members and staff from the Motion Pictures Home were greeted with matzo ball soup and a heaping dose of compassion.

Residents, their family members and staff from the Motion Pictures Home were greeted with matzo ball soup and a heaping does of compassion.


LAJH COO Larissa Stepanians said the entire staff pitched in. They joined forces to deliver and assemble cots, hold hands of residents who were confused and afraid and speak with family members. “There was such teamwork of our staff coming together,” she said.”

Stepanians, who lives with her family in Simi Valley, had to evacuate her own home, but then drove into work, as did many other LAJH staff.  “What’s important for me is everyone felt safe, families were happy and we were able to care for this special group of residents,” Stepanians said. “It was a beautiful scene in a very scary situation.”

All residents from Motion Picture Home returned to their facility safely after breakfast Saturday morning.

“In [these] times, we all need to pull together as a community to support and shelter and we are very, very lucky to have you in our world,” MPTF President & CEO Bob Beitcher wrote in a thank you note to the Home. “And I hope you know that we are there for you in the event anything like this is ever needed.”

Jewish Federation Launches Hotline, Fundraiser After Wildfires

On Friday, Nov. 9, The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles launched a hotline for those affected by the fires so they can seek all forms of support.

Support can be anything related to housing, food, legal questions, insurance questions or just someone to talk to you.

“If somebody belongs to a synagogue a rabbi has connection to them. If they don’t belong to synagogue we only hear from them if they let us know,” Federation CEO Jay Sanderson told the Journal. “Getting word out to people…it’s wildfire emergency hotline. Someone will answer it between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. seven days. As long as it is needed.”

Anyone who calls will speak to a staff member from the Federation. This includes members of the Jews in Need initiative who are trained in knowing specific issues.

The Federation has already received many calls over the weekend.

The non-profit also launched The Wildfire Relief Fund Monday, Nov. 12 where 100 percent of all money raised will go to victims of the fires and institutions that have received significant damage.

“We will be working with those institutions to help them raise additional funds, to help them with their planning go forward, whatever they need we are going to help them,” Sanderson said.

To donate, click here. To reach the Hotline, dial (323) 761 – 8100.

Families Open Their Homes to Fire Evacuees

Photo from Twitter

As fires raged through Southern California, thousands of families had to evacuate their homes, and many in the Jewish community stepped up to provide shelter and support.

Among those who opened their home were Sherman Oaks resident Elizabeth Yung, her husband and her three children, ages 5, 11 and 13.

The Yungs took in Westlake Village residents Sonja Hillman Suchy, her husband, her 13-year-old step-daughter, her mother and the family’s cat and dog.  

Yung was checking Facebook on the evening of Nov. 8, when she saw a post from their Rabbi Sarah Hronsky at Temple Beth Hillel that said, “If anybody needs assistance with some place to stay, please get in touch with me and I’ll help.”

This, despite the fact that the Hronsky’s were dealing with their own problems. Hronsky’s husband is Yuri Hronsky, who is the head of Ilan Ramon Day School, which suffered major damage in the fires.  

When Hillman Suchy posted that they needed a place to stay, with Hronsky’s post in mind, the Yungs quickly invited them to stay.

“My little one is bunked up with us and they are taking his room and the living room,” Yung said. “My daughter is having a great time, because she has a friend now with her.”

Despite the close quarters, Yung said, “It’s a mitzvah, and I know [Hillman Suchy] would do the same for me too.”

“We are part of the Nashuva community. Everything about the way we think is tikkun olam. That’s how we look at life and how we raised our children.” — Wendy Altman Cohen


When news of the fire started to spread on Nov. 8, Santa Monica resident Wendy Altman Cohen reached out to friends she thought might need a place to stay.

One of her good friends, Cherryl Goldstein, lives in Thousand Oaks. Altman Cohen texted her around 10:30 p.m. to see if she and her son, Evan, needed to evacuate.

“My initial instinct was, ‘Are you OK?,’” Altman Cohen told the Journal. As soon as [Cherryl] wrote back her comment was, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Come here.’ ”

The two texted back and forth until 1 a.m. but Goldstein said she was OK for the night. However, when Altman Cohen woke up the morning of Nov. 9 and saw the extent of the fires, she texted Goldstein again. This time, Goldstein responded they were on their way.

“She brought her son, herself and a mini-van full of stuff,” Altman Cohen said. “What was really nice was when she and her son went to sleep on Friday night, they felt safe and secure,” she added. The Goldsteins headed back home on Nov. 11 with supplies.

Opening her home, Altman Cohen said, was the most natural thing she could do. “I grew up in a Jewish household in New York, and we are part of the Nashuva community. Everything about the way we think is Tikkun Olam. That’s how we look at life and how we raised our children.”

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

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:


Jewish Institutions, Families Flee Fire Threat

Photo by David Shukiar.

The Woolsey and Hill wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties have prompted the evacuation of synagogue families and Jewish institutions in Calabasas, Malibu and Thousand Oaks.

Among those evacuated were 175 families of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS) families, Steven Weinberg, president of MJCS, said while undergoing a mandatory evacuation on Friday morning with his wife, Dana.

Speaking from his vehicle by phone as he sat in southbound traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, Weinberg said the synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Schwartz had relocated the community’s three Torah scrolls to Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

Kehillat Israel has offered itself as shelter to evacuating families, Weinberg said.

He said he saw plumes of smoke rising and ashes raining over Zuma Beach, along with firetrucks and water-dropping aircraft headed to battle the flames.

“There’s no way to describe it,” Weinberg said. “We don’t know and nobody does know [what will happen. We’re] getting conflicting reports on the news about the extent of the fire and best way to evacuate. Seems like the majority of folks are heading down to Santa Monica.

“North of Zuma [Beach] it is raining ashes,” he added. “We see a lot of firetrucks passing by — there are five fires raging all over the place, (and) a limited amount of help. There are some planes flying in, but these winds aren’t helping and the temperature keeps getting warmer and the humidity is dropping. It’s pretty scary.”

He said he received an alert from the city of Malibu at 7 a.m. and had already begun to prepare for evacuation the night before. He and his wife packed their valuables from their home and from the law office Weinberg, an attorney, works out of in a duplex next door. Then they hit the road. They initially headed north but as it got too smoky, they turned around and headed south toward Santa Monica.

He said fortunately, MCJS was 10 miles south of the fires, and was presently safe from any damage. However, he worried about what the fire meant for planned programming over the weekend, including a bar mitzvah scheduled for Saturday.

“I feel bad. A wonderful family is having a bar mitzvah tomorrow for one of their sons, Chase. I’m hoping that can still go on. That would be very sad” if it had to be postponed, he said.

Also affected was the Shalom Institute, which operates summer camps and community-wide celebrations at its Malibu property. The organization evacuated its staff, animals and Torah scrolls to a “safe location,” a statement said.

The fire line is not near us at this time, and we will closely monitor the situation and provide updates as they become available,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by the fires and we want to express our deep appreciation for the firefighters working to battle this blaze, our first responders and disaster relief organizations serving the community. Please, use an abundance of caution and stay safe.”

Cantor David Shukiar of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks posted on Facebook that his synagogue’s campus was not damaged by the fire.

“We have confirmation that the structure of our synagogue is still standing and in great shape,” he wrote.

Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills closed, cancelling its Friday and Saturday services.

Authorities said the fires were being fueled by dry conditions and extreme winds. The fires broke out the night of Nov. 8 and experienced rapid overnight growth.

Congregations that have offer assistance to those affected by the fires include Sinai Temple in Westwood and Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.

IDF Warns That They Could Strike Back Against Hamas for Use of Fiery Kites

REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) warned on June 5 that they may have to launch retaliatory strikes against Hamas for their use of fiery kites against Israel.

According to Haaretz, IDF Brig. Gen. Yossi Bachar gave senior United States military official to opportunity to survey the damage from the kites at the Gaza border, suggesting that the military is preparing for action.

Ever since the riots at the Israel-Gaza border started, protesters used kites that were either lit on fire or had attached explosives on them and flew them into Israeli territory. The result has been 9,000 dunams (approximately 2200 acres) of land destroyed in Israel, according to Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Firefighters have had to deal with at least nine fires raging in Israel on June 5 from the kites, most of which were in the Eshkol region.

Consequently, Israeli military officials think they can’t show any more “restraint,” per Haaretz.

“We will settle accounts with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the rest of the terrorists acting against us from the Gaza Strip,” Lieberman said in a speech in the Knesset.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on June 3 that funds allocated to the Palestinian Authority would instead be diverted to Israeli farmers whose fields were destroyed by the fires.

Farmers have seen their wheat and irrigation lines destroyed by the fires and there has been some serious damage to forests and parks, prompting the Jewish National Fund to sue Hamas for “environment terrorism” under international law.

“It’s not easy, but we have strength and it won’t break us,” Daniel Rahamim, who supervises irrigation at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, told the Jerusalem Post. “We know we are here because this is our mission – to raise children here and live our lives. It is our home and we won’t give up.”

Latest Gaza Riots: One Dead, 170 Injured As Rioters Set Fire to Gas Lines

Screenshot from Twitter.

The latest round of Hamas-led riots at the Israel-Gaza border resulted in one Palestinian dead and 170 injured as rioters set gas lines ablaze.

The May 11 riots had the usual features of violence from the prior riots: rocks, burning tires, and pipe bombs were hurled at Israel Defense Force (IDF) members. Kites that were ablaze in flames were flown toward the Israeli side of the fence, causing fires.

Additionally, for the second week in a row, rioters set gas lines on fire at Kerem Shalom, where humanitarian goods are transferred from Israel to Gaza, meaning that the rioters have been engaging in actions that harm the people of Gaza.

The IDF issued a statement saying they were using “riot dispersal” measures that are “in accordance with the rules of engagement.”

“The IDF will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary,” the IDF said.

Here are some scenes from the riots:

Around 15,000 Palestinians took part in the May 11 riots.

These latest riots are the last of Hamas’s weekly riots protesting the displaced Arabs from the 1948 War of Independence. However, this was just the opening act to the riots expected to occur on May 14 and 15, when the United States unveils its new embassy in Jerusalem.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar declared on May 10 that he hopes that Palestinians are able to penetrate the Israel-Gaza fence during the upcoming riots, which is essentially an admission that this has been Hamas’s goal all along.

“What’s the problem with hundreds of thousands breaking through a fence that is not a border?” Sinwar said.

Saluting a Lonely Tree: A Story of Renewal

It’s impossible for anyone living in the Greater Los Angeles area to forget the terrible fires of a few months ago. December’s fires ravaged Bel Air and land off the 405 Freeway but extended far beyond. Throughout the the Central Coast and Southern California, stretching as far north as Ventura and Ojai, and south to Orange County and San Diego, ruthless flames, fanned by seasonal winds and chronic shortfalls of rain that have become a new normal, combined to produce levels of devastation that seized the attention of the entire nation and dominated the news and conversations of everyone in the region. Those fires threatened cultural treasures of the region, among them the Getty Center, UCLA, American Jewish University and others.

One famous video gained particular notoriety, showing the flames descending the mountains of Bel Air and Westwood, impeded only by the 405 Freeway. Those of us whose commute takes us along that route were terrified by the size, speed and proximity of those flames. In the days and weeks that followed, we observed a mute tribute to the powers of destruction as we drove next to the charred and denuded hills, which until then had been bountiful in shrubs, grass, trees and life.

There was one hill, east of the freeway, whose flora had been completely burned to ground level. Nothing living remained on its barren, blacked landscape except at the very peak. One lone tree had survived, and I would salute it every morning as I drove to work, honoring its tenacity and resilience. Life doesn’t give up without a fight.

Four months later, we recently finished celebrating two ancient festivals of spring, Passover and Easter, both of which celebrate forms of rebirth. Judaism’s Passover celebrates the liberation of ancient Israel from Pharaoh’s slavery, the rebirth of a people into freedom and self-determination. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christianity’s messiah and the possibility for rebirth for its adherents.

As I drive toward Mulholland on the 405, I see those same hills, so recently denuded and bleak, now covered again with patches of bright green grasses.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these festivals of resurgence, renewal and hope take place in the springtime. As I drive toward Mulholland on the 405, I see those same hills, so recently denuded and bleak, now covered again with patches of bright green grasses. Even some of the scorched trees show fuzzy green buds, gearing up to bloom where there was only death and destruction a few months ago. The hills themselves trumpet an ancient spiritual truth: Life carries with it the determination for self-renewal. What was once destroyed can thrive again. As the psalmist promised millenniums ago: “Weeping may tarry in the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

We need that reminder now. In the bleak wreckage of today’s partisan battles, as human greed and venality looms across lines of race, gender, ability, religion, orientation (and so many others), small wonder that the world’s wisdom traditions join with the season itself to remind us of a timely truth: We can turn this around, we can thrive again, all of us. If we dare hold onto hope, if we are willing to trust in the promise, we, too, can be vessels of a springtime rebirth.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Moving & Shaking: Camp Ramah Celebrates ‘Miracle’ of Surviving Fires

Top row, from left: Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) President Mark Berns, BJE honoree Keren Dunn, BJE gala co-chair Rena Slomovic, BJE honoree Bennett Spiegel and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff. Bottom row, from left: gala co-chair Jennifer Elad, honorees Jerry and Jean Friedman and gala co-chair Jill Lasker. Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) culminated its 80th anniversary celebration with its 2018 gala on Jan. 16 at Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall.

The event honored Jean and Jerry Friedman, who served on the BJE board from 1982–2004, and Bennett Spiegel, who has served on the board for 16 years, for their “decades of service to Jewish education and the community,” according to the BJE website. Keren Dunn, another board member, was recognized with BJE’s prestigious Young Leadership Award.

“We believe BJE is so important, because through its programs, it facilitates both formal and informal Jewish education,” the Friedmans said in a joint statement. “That combination is the best way to preserve Jewish community.”

Spiegel expressed his respect for the “the mission of BJE to enhance the quality of, increase access to, and encourage participation in Jewish education in Los Angeles.”

Dunn’s children have participated in BJE programming. She credited the organization with giving her son “exposure to hands-on community service and tying the experience to Jewish teachings.”

Rena Slomovic, Jill Lasker and Jennifer Elad co-chaired the event. Mark Goldenberg served as the emcee. Additional attendees included BJE President Mark Berns and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff.

Established in 1937, BJE describes itself as “an independent nonprofit serving the greater Los Angeles area. BJE provides programs and activities that connect families and children to a broad range of Jewish educational opportunities.”  The organization facilitates, among other things, teen experiential education, including the BJE March of the Living program, which sends delegations of Jewish teens to Poland and Israel.

“This is the 80th anniversary celebration of BJE and I am honored to play a role in that celebration,” Dunn said, “as BJE focuses on the past and future dedication of Jewish education in Los Angeles.”

Camp Ramah Executive Director Joe Menashe dedicated a sign to the firefighters who fought off the recent Thomas Fire, a disaster that prompted Ramah to remove its Torahs for safekeeping. Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai celebrated the return of its five Torahs on Jan. 7 after they were removed for safekeeping during the recent Ventura County wildfire.

Though it wasn’t directly affected by the fire, the Conservative summer camp had a mandatory evacuation on Dec. 7.

Exactly one month later, more than 300 volunteers gathered to fill sandbags, write thank-you notes and bake cookies for firefighters, reshelve siddurim and plant trees.

“From the Ramah Beit Knesset, where we returned the Torah, we went to the area where the firefighters fought off the fire,” said Ramah Associate Director Ariella Moss Peterseil. “We dedicated a sign to them and their bravery and courage, which will remain on our campgrounds and remind us of this personal Hanukkah miracle we had in that place. It truly was the best of Ramah and Judaism: Being able to acknowledge what we are grateful for, with a Jewish ritual, and then launching into action.”

Executive Director Rabbi Joe Menashe shared a story about how a tree that has a sign that reads “ze hashar lashem tzadikim yavo uv” (This is the gate of the Lord, and the righteous shall pass through it) was only slightly burned, and that the camp had many “righteous people” in the firefighters and first responders who saved the camp.

Board chair Andrew I. Spitzer called the celebration a “true and sacred partnership between man and God.”

Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

From left: TELACU President and CEO Michael Lizarraga, songwriter Melissa Manchester, journalist and television host Jackeline Cacho, U.S. Congressman Juan Vargas and Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg attended the fifth annual Fiesta Shalom. Photo by Michal Mivzari

Jewish and Hispanic community leaders gathered on Jan. 14 at Tomayo Restaurant and Art Gallery in East Los Angeles for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles’ fifth annual Fiesta Shalom celebration.

Consul General Sam Grundwerg, whose office has long been concerned with strengthening Jewish-Latino relations, hosted the festive evening along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and TELACU President and CEO Michael Lizarraga.

The event honored U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) and Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Melissa Manchester for their visionary leadership and roles as inspirational figures in their respective fields.

Jackeline Cacho, Emmy Award-winning journalist and television host, emceed the evening event, during which several members of Congress spoke, including Vargas and Reps. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Together, they discussed the multitude of similarities, shared values and shared interests between both communities and their vast areas of cooperation.

“The family values, beliefs and rich cultures that the Latino community upholds align with the values that the Israeli people hold dear,” Grundwerg said. “In the last century, we witnessed the great and abiding friendship between the Jewish people and Spanish-speaking peoples.”

The event featured a kosher-style dinner and music performed by the salsa band Orquesta Tabaco y Ron. More than 200 guests danced, networked and celebrated the strong bonds between the communities in the United States, and the desire to maintain their distinctive and diverse cultural identities working in solidarity and support of each other.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Members of the third cohort of the The First 36 Project, which supports parents of children ages 0-3, attended a reception held at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A reception was held on Jan. 18 at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for its The First 36 Project.

“The First 36 Project is a groundbreaking program that connects families with Jewish community and helps them put cutting-edge development research directly into practice, precisely when experts say it matters most — from the start,” a Federation statement said. “Developed by the Simms/Mann Institute, Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, The First 36 Project provides Parent and Me facilitators at our Jewish Early Childhood Centers with an exclusive professional development opportunity designed to enhance their knowledge and amplify their ability to support parents of children ages 0–3.”

The dessert reception featured remarks by Federation CEO Jay Sanderson, BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff, and Victoria Simms, a nationally recognized child development specialist and the president of the Simms/Mann Family Foundation.

The evening event also marked the graduation of the second cohort of The First 36 Project and welcomed the third group to the program. Participants of the second cohort included, among others, Emily Glickman of Leo Baeck Temple, Wise School’s Nicole Mevorak, Debbie Myman and Jenna Pitson, and Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Molly Mills. Other participating schools include Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu, Harkham Hillel Academy and Valley Beth Shalom.

The first cohort launched in 2015-2016.

B’nai David-Judea honored (from left) Rae and Shep Drazin, Emil and Lola Sassover and Andres Terech and Nikki Sieger at its annual gala dinner. Photo courtesy of B’nai David-Judea

The B’nai David-Judea (BDJ) annual dinner on Jan. 15 honored Lola and Emil Sassover, Rae and Shep Drazin, and Nikki Sieger and Andres Terech.

The Sassovers received the Tiferet David award in recognition of “a lifetime of commitment to the Jewish community.” The Drazins, Migdal David honorees, “were honored for their commitment to men and women’s tefilah and Torah study.” Sieger and Terech, who received the Chasdei David award, “were honored for their commitment to service for the BDJ community, including organizing the Purim Mishloach Manot every year and leading the once-a-month BDJ East Minyan,” said a statement provided by BDJ executive director Adynna Swarz.

Approximately 275 people attended the event, which was held at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Among the highlights of the evening was when the Sassovers’ grandchildren read excerpts from the couple’s newly published memoir,  “From Dust to Dawn, Rebuilding Our Lives After the Holocaust,” which was authored by former Jewish Journal senior writer Julie Fax.

Q&A with Antonio Sabato Jr., Republican Candidate for Congress

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Antonio Sabato Jr. is an Italian-American actor with Jewish roots who is best known for his role as a Calvin Klein model and in the television shows “Melrose Place” and “General Hospital.” He is now running for Congress in the Ventura County area against Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) after speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Sabato Jr. talked to the Journal in a phone interview and discussed the campaign as well as the fires plaguing Los Angeles. The article has been edited for clarity.

Jewish Journal: Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you decided to run for Congress.

Antonio Sabato Jr.: I am an immigrant. Me and my family moved to the United States in 1985 from Rome, Italy. My mother was born in Prague, and she escaped the Communist Party and her mother escaped the Holocaust in World War II and the Nazi Party. So we know about socialism and communism very well and we don’t want to anything to do with it.

In the ‘80s we decided that the family wanted to move to this country and have a better life for me and my sister. My parents just wanted the best for us. We went to school here, learned the language… at a young age I wanted to pursue career of acting – my father was an actor, and that’s what I wanted to do. So we struggled and put in a lot of time and effort and it all worked out, so I’m very thankful for this country and what it’s done for me and my family.

JJ: So what made you want to run for Congress?

ASJ: Over the last decade I’ve seen the government take advantage of the American people. I believe that this is the greatest country in the world and we owe it to our country, and we have great laws, a great history… I’ve seen this country deteriorate in the wrong direction with a lot of socialism and liberals have this propaganda to change people’s minds on what this country is all about. I just wanted to put my consent, wanted to fight for my county that I live in, I lived in Ventura County for over 13 years and I love it. The congresswoman who has been representing us for six years has not done anything for the county. On the other hand, she’s been able to build policies like AB 109, Prop 47, 57 that have been a danger in our communities and definitely making it a lot harder for police officers to do their job.

I want to work for farmers, I want to work for the teachers, I want to be able to see if we can get more funding for our police stations and our schools that need more funding. Farmers need to be helped with regulations and a much better visa program that’s going to allow workers come here in more of a humane fashion. I just want to be able to give farmers and everyone in my community a chance to do better: to open up business and to be pro-business, to be pro-military. I’m pro-Second Amendment. I believe we do need the wall on our border and we need to reform our immigration system altogether because it’s definitely not working. I want to add to the solution, I don’t want to keep watching this. I believe that my country means that much to me, so that’s why I’m in it.

JJ: You talked about how the country is deteriorating, what are some examples of that?

ASJ: Food stamps. Unemployment. We live in a society right now where everything is entitlements: if I have a problem, I need the government to come and fix it for me. We are able to fix it for ourselves. We should only be able to go to government to get more for our community, to get more for our state, to get more for our country. At the end of the day, I want the government to make it easier for me to go to work and get a job and pay my own bills. So instead of getting less government, we got the biggest government under Obama for eight years. Our military was deteriorating, our country as a unit, as a light, a beacon for everyone to dream big, was going away. We were always apologizing for everything, we were always saying we’re not as big as we’re used to, we need to make our country smaller and equal like everyone else. We can’t allow that to happen. Our country need to be first and foremost there to help and be the greatest country in the world because that’s what America’s all about. We’re not like every other country in the world, I’m sorry. This is the country is the place that everyone wants to come to and create their dreams and have a better way of life. There’s not many places in the world where you can do that. I’m sick of apologizing. We’re still there in every country in the world protecting them, taking care of them, we should be appreciated and respected because anytime there’s a problem we’re always there.

Finally, we have a president who’s not apologizing, who’s pretty much saying how it is. We want our country back, we want things to be made in America, we want to show respect for our flag and respect for our country. I’m glad we’re heading in the right direction. The stock market is better than it ever was, unemployment is as low as it’s ever been, these are things that are related to the way that our president is attacking all the issues and problems and he is succeeding. I want to do the same thing for my county. My county needs me. The farmers need me. The police stations need revamping. We need to find the money to give the police officers everything they need. We need more police officers. We need to have more respect for our teachers and police officers and just our country. I want to represent our county and I want to be available to everyone. For example, we have been going through a lot of fires, a lot of turmoil, hundreds of thousands of acres and a lot of homes have been lost. I was there at the shelters. I was there bringing food, I was there helping  supplies and bringing food for our police officers and our firefighters. That’s the kind of congressman that I want to be, so I’m dedicating 24 hours a day seven days a week to become that congressman and help my community in any way shape or form.

I ask everyone to listen: liberal Democrats have been running the state, have been running this county for almost six years, what have they done for you? When was the last time you were able to call Congresswoman Miss Julia Santa Monica Brownley to come and then talk to you? When was the last time she picked up the phone and call you back? She lives in Santa Monica. Her productivity level in Washington D.C. is about a zero in almost six years. I want to do more. I think my family deserves more, deserves 100% from their congressman or congresswoman.

JJ: Being an actor you talk about how you think you’ve been blackballed as a conservative, I was hoping you could talk about that a little bit.

ASJ: It’s their way of bullying someone. They have the decision to say we’re going to hire you, we’re going to represent you, or we’re not. They have this hate. I believe liberals in Hollywood want to be right about everything, they lost a big race with Hillary Clinton and they’re going to hold this grudge for a long time. I’m going to keep working with people who want to work with me,  and it shouldn’t be about politics or parties. You should be able to like or dislike any parties you want or no parties at all. But that’s not the case. I’ve dealt with it for quite some time now. It is what it is, but I’m going to fight for it because I don’t like bullies, I don’t like people telling me I shouldn’t do something. I can do whatever I want if I’m not hurting anyone. I’m a law-abiding citizen and I should be doing what I like and it’s right for me. I urge everyone out there who’s a conservative in Hollywood to step up. Come to Join this race, which is a race that’s going to take us all over country. We need this seat in Ventura County District 26 to be red again.

JJ: And how exactly do you plan on making it red again?

ASJ: I’m going to talk to the people and knock on the doors. Those are the voters. The voters of my community are the ones that got to get to know me. We got to have everything in sync, we got to be on the same level, we got to understand each other, understand me, ask the questions. I’m going to go door-to-door. That’s how I’m going to win. The last three races, those are pretty much low-turning voting with a 110-111,000 people voted. I figure if I go to 200,000 homes and I knock on 200,000 doors then I’m going to get their votes and that’s what I’m planning on doing.

And I’m going to talk to my Latino community. I speak Spanish. I understand what they’re going through, I’m an immigrant like they are. Liberal Democrats haven’t done much for the Latino communities. All they do is promises and promises and that’s not been working out too well. I believe in my core that a Latino family, a Latino community to the core is conservative. They go to church, they believe in God, they’re family-oriented and they love this country. They just have to find somebody who they can talk to and ask questions. Family members, that’s all they care about: they want to have their family protected and they want to be able to know they’re going to go to work and work hard for their families, so I’m going to talk to them and I’m going to talk to everybody. I’ve been talking to pretty much everybody and everybody has an option to call me and ask me questions. Like I said, this is the guy I want to be, the leader I want to be is someone you can talk to anytime.

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.”

SoCal Fires Burn Homes, Jewish Community Builds Bridges

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.”

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

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.”

A Safer Future and Foundation for Los Angeles

A massive fire at the Da Vinci apartment complex in Downtown Los Angeles

In the past year, in California and around the U.S. and the world there have been intense, devastating natural disasters, such as Hurricanes, major earthquakes, and right here at home, devastating fires in Los Angeles, and Northern California. And with the changing climate, and longer fire seasons, scientists continue to predict longer, and more devastating disasters to come, here in Southern California.

In many ways we are more vulnerable than ever to a major earthquake here in Los Angeles. I wonder, if as a city, we have learned from the Northridge Quake of the early ‘90’s. I worry especially for the most vulnerable people in our city- the elderly and our children, and especially those that live in unstable or outdated buildings, without the proper reinforcements to maximize the potential for residents to survive unharmed in such a disaster.  I worry about anyone living or working in a multi-level structure, where the risks are greater no matter what. Just in the last two years, there have been major fires in new low-rise construction in downtown and other areas of the city.  History has shown us that soundly constructed buildings will survive this type of natural disaster.

I’ve recently learned about some important and simple changes that one of our Los Angeles City Council members Bob Blumenfield is considering, to upgrade the safety standards for new residential multi-story buildings, that many working individuals and families will call home. Knowing that our city is at particular risk of fire, I’m grateful to city leaders for taking proactive measures to assure that the people living and working in multi-level housing will have the best chance possible to endure the worst of what may come. What that comes down to is requiring that the foundations and floors which include barrier walls of the new developments be constructed with concrete and steel, as opposed to wood, which is highly combustible and also far less secure in the event of an earthquake.

As a Rabbi, I pay special attention to what elected officials are doing in the city I call home, because it has a direct impact on the quality and security of life, for me, my community, and the many diverse communities across Los Angeles. I am not alone in this, as many faith leaders across this city and cities alike have taken stands on similar issues that have enormous personal impact.

My colleague from Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, Rabbi Jon Hanish, wrote to City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield on this very matter, applauding Councilmember Blumenfield for his leadership in demanding the safest standards for new developments.  Rabbi Hanish wrote that “by requiring developments to utilize the most reliable and safest materials in the construction process, Los Angeles city leaders are taking a powerful and important step toward the health and sustainability of our communities. It’s important that the City of Los Angeles encourages the use of non-combustible materials when constructing a building which heavily reduces the risks associated with fires and earthquakes, and that new developments meet or exceed existing building codes.”

As religious leaders, we cannot place a value on human life, and I am pleased that a fellow member of our community, Councilmember Blumenfield, has taken the lead in guiding the City Council to enact a measure that will set a higher standard of safety. I am encouraged by the Councilman’s  leadership and pray that his colleagues at City Hall will follow in his footsteps in making sure such a simple, yet critical measure moves forward.


URJ Camp Newman to Hold Summer 2018 Camp at Cal Maritime

Screenshot from Twitter

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) announced on Friday that URJ Camp Newman will be hosting its summer 2018 camp will be held at California State University Maritime University (Cal State Maritime) after most of the camp was destroyed in the October wildfires.

The summer 2018 camp will be called “Newman by the Bay!”, where campers can enjoy the various amenities on campus, including large athletic fields, an Olympic size pool and a Beach Volleyball court, according to a press release.

Abby Michelson Porth, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said that “everything fell into place when we connected with Cal Maritime.”

“When the need became clear, Rabbi Doug Kahn and I quickly reached out to university presidents and nonprofit CEOs whose response was extraordinary and overwhelming,” said Porth. “They were eager to partner with JCRC to help Camp Newman maintain its summer programs, understanding how critical those programs are for thousands of Jewish children. “

Camp Newman’s executive director, Ruben Arquilevich, said in the press release, “We can’t wait to welcome returning campers and new campers for the immersive, overnight, Jewish summer camp experience they’ve come to expect at Camp Newman, but at Cal Maritime’s beautifully scenic campus overlooking the bay, where we’ll be able to take advantage of exciting new facilities and activities.”

A promotional video for the 2018 camp can be seen here:

Registration for the camp begins on Nov. 12.

The Camp Newman premises were located in Santa Rosa until most of the site was decimated from the wildfires plaguing Northern California at the beginning of October. No one at the camp was hurt and the Torah scrolls were preserved.

Reform Camp Vows to Rise From the Ashes After Massive Fire in Northern California

Aerial view of Camp Newman after the Tubbs fire. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.

No lives were lost when the Tubbs Fire tore through URJ Camp Newman near Santa Rosa in Northern California, incinerating most of its structures. But as news of the disaster spread Oct. 9, campers and alumni gathered on social media or in vigils across Southern California and throughout the United States, mourning what sometimes felt more like a close friend than a group of buildings.

Rachel Katz, 22, who recently moved to Mississippi from Los Angeles, recalled her physical reaction to hearing word of the calamity. “I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I was at a loss for words.”

Quickly, her thoughts turned to teens she had mentored as the camp’s counselor-in-training adviser, some of whom now are counselors.

“I’m just heartbroken for my kids,” she said. “You can’t train them for something like this. You can train them for pretty much everything else, but this is where their good hearts and souls that they all had, go into practice.”

“I’m just heartbroken for my kids. You can’t train them for something like this.”–Rachel Katz

Members of the Camp Newman community gathered in homes and synagogues in states including California, Arizona, Nevada and New York in recent days to discuss the outsized importance the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camp played in their lives, mourning ties to the camp that often spanned generations. Others took to Facebook and Instagram to tag friends in old photos and share messages of loss.

At Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Rabbi Barry Lutz invited current and former campers to share their stories during Kabbalat Shabbat services four days after the fire, which turned prayer halls, dining facilities and cabins into piles of twisted rubble and smoking ash. Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley and Temple Beth Israel in Pomona were among the spiritual communities that mourned the fire during Friday night services.

A Jewish star stands on the scorched campus of Camp Newman. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


The arks that once held the Torahs at Camp Newman burned in the fire. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


The rubble of a burned building at Camp Newman. Photo courtesy of Camp Newman.


Vivian Gee, whose two sons attended the camp and whose daughter, 11, normally spends her summers there, addressed the congregation at the Northridge temple.

“I never went to camp, but all of my money went to camp,” Gee said jokingly.

Her eldest son, Cole, 24, met his current girlfriend at camp six years ago and still lives with three camp friends in San Francisco. Cole’s younger brother, Chandler, “who is not always wanting to be Jewish,” their mother said, nonetheless cherishes his memories of camp.

“It was such a great loss to them,” she said as her daughter, Ashlynn, and husband, Doug, sat in the pews. “It was their second home away from home. Our kids’ motto is, ‘Camp Newman is life — and the rest is just stuff.’ ”

The camp is located in Santa Rosa, a six-hour drive north of Los Angeles. Wildfires raging across Northern California have claimed more than 40 lives and burned more than 220,000 acres since breaking out Oct. 8.

On the first day of the fire, camp staff and faculty followed the news of the massive Tubbs Fire burning nearby. After midnight on Oct. 9, authorities evacuated the five permanent residents of the camp, according to camp director Rabbi Erin Mason. After that, it was a waiting game, she said.

“I was fairly certain that we were going to lose a couple buildings, but we just didn’t know the near-total loss that we were going to experience,” Mason said in a phone interview.

Camp staff was not allowed back on site until Oct. 13, the Friday after the fire, when the impact of the blaze became clear. Everything outside of seven camper cabins, the poolhouse, some staff housing and a storage shed had burned, Mason said.

But even before the scope of the damage was known — no cost estimates were available as of Oct. 17 — the camp community began to discuss how to rebuild. By the time camp staff inspected the site, a donation page launched earlier that week ( had raised about $150,000 — not counting what Mason had collected personally.

During a Simchat Torah celebration Mason attended Oct. 12, she said a camp mom handed her a brown paper bag and told her, “The kids wanted me to give you all their tzedakah.”

Mason said about one-third of the camp’s summer participants come from Southern California. “The connection to our Southern California community is huge and is not something that we take for granted,” she said. “We appreciate knowing people come all the way up here.”

Each summer, the camp plays host to some 1,200 third- through 12th-graders during sessions that last two to eight weeks. It also hosts gatherings for NFTY — The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, as well as schools and families.

Mason said the camp is intent on reviving its programs for the coming summer even as it remains unsure how or where.

“We don’t know what that looks like or where that looks like, but it’s first on our priority list to find out how we run camp next summer in whatever iteration that takes,” she said.

Across the region, some campers cast an eye toward rebuilding while others grieved for losses that can never be recouped.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, ‘But we will rebuild,’ ‘But we’re a strong community,’ ” said Ariella Thal Simonds, a Los Angeles-based attorney. “All of that is true, but that’s not where my head is right now.”

Instead, Simonds said she was thinking about the tile murals she and fellow counselors-in-training had installed together by hand, intended to be a permanent testimony to their time and memories there.

Simonds met her husband, Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue, at Camp Newman, and the pair “had every intention” of sending their kids, who are 3 and 6, to the camp when the time came, she said.

“When we play the movie in our heads of our memories, of those special times, there’s a backdrop to them, and those places played an important role,” she said, adding, “That’s why it’s so devastating to everyone, even though everybody’s safe.”

This year, the camp celebrated 70 summers since it opened as Camp Saratoga at a nearby location, later became Camp Swig and finally Camp Newman. Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas has been on the camp’s faculty since it moved to its current location 20 years ago.

“We’re going to be OK, and camp’s going to end up in a stronger position for the next 70 years,” he said. “The hardest part is for these kids and the staff. These are places where we made memories, where people had their first kiss, where Judaism was deeply spiritual and completely creative.”

On Oct. 11, Congregation Or Ami held a support service for those mourning the loss preceding its Simchat Torah holiday celebration.

Elsewhere across Los Angeles, thoughts of mourning mingled with hope for the future.

Emily Kane Miller, 35, lives in L.A. but grew up going to Camp Newman. Her mother attended Camp Swig.

“As childhood gets further away, knowing there are these places that exist that are touchstones for your memories is something that brings a lot of comfort, and when they go away, it’s extremely sad,” she said. “But camp was never meant to be something that is a time capsule. It’s a living place that helps to greet each new camper’s summer with fresh energy.”

Miller said she and her husband, Nate, still intend to send their kids to Camp Newman, when and where it rebuilds.

“When Nate and I talk about the things that are sort of mandatory for our kids and what we absolutely want them to do to have Jewish identities, summer camp is at the top of the list, because of [my experience at] Camp Newman,” she said. “Knowing that the space is devastated doesn’t change that for me.”

Back at Temple Ahavat Shalom on Oct. 13, Lutz, who has spent more than a dozen summers on the faculty at Camp Newman, led the congregation in song and prayer as Spencer Hyam, 16, accompanied him on the guitar, playing camp melodies.

When it came time for the Hashkiveinu prayer — “Blessed are You, Lord, who spreads a shelter of peace over us” — the congregation enacted a camp tradition, where counselors spread prayer shawls over their charges as the camp director offers blessings. At the Reform temple, parents spread tallitot over their children while Lutz led the prayer.

“Camp Newman will rise from the ashes,” he said afterward.

The fire had threatened the storage shed where the tallitot are kept that are normally used for the Haskiveinu ritual at Camp Newman, Mason said. But when camp staff returned to the site and inspected it, they were surprised by what they found.

“The ground all around that shed is burned; the ground underneath the shed is burned; the water pump behind it is burned; the trees all around it are burned,” she said. “They opened the door to the shed — and all of the siddurim and all of the tallitot are untouched.” 

A Blessing for those who Love URJ Camp Newman

Screenshot from Twitter

First there was Saratoga and Swig, where our grandparents and parents and then our generation made memories.

Then there was Newman which we all begrudgingly marched over to And worked hard to rebuild the memories of our past.

And with the lessons of Swig and the lessons of Newman, I feel we were all in a place where we were looking towards the future of Jewish youth in California, and then this fire had to come in and remind us once again that buildings and physical objects do not make memories but the love we share all together as a community does.

Let us remember that we still have our memories, that we still have our pictures, and that we still have one common goal, and that is to infuse a shelter of peace over our hearts and the future Newman generations.

Let us continue to pray for this metaphorical shelter of peace, because perhaps the prayers for physical shelters of peace are not in God’s plan.

From Saratoga, to Swig, to Newman… the lessons and blessings of the past are infused in our blood.

May we remember that fires and floods don’t take away our love for our Jewish community.

Hurricanes and earthquakes don’t erase our memories.

We are Camp forever and always Camp Newman.

Let us remember in these difficult times that we must continue to bless the creations of God, because without these creations we wouldn’t have the memories to begin with.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit.

URJ Camp Newman Devastated By Wildfires

Screenshot from Twitter

The wildfires that have been raging in northern California on Monday has devastated most of the buildings at URJ Camp Newman.

The camp made their somber announcement on their Facebook page on Monday, writing: “It is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.”

Because fires are still ravaging the area, it could be up “to a few days” before anyone from the camp is able to reach the site. No one from Camp Newman’s staff was injured in the fires.

The Facebook post thanked “the first responders and firefighters who attempted to save our camp buildings” and suggested that anyone in need of shelter in the area should go toward Congregation Shomrei Torah.

“We have been so moved by your outpouring of love, support and concern for camp,” the post read. “It is a powerful reminder that Camp is about our holy community, our kehillah kedosha.”

Camp Newman will be using their Facebook page to share more details about how the camp will proceed going forward and how people can help them.

The full post can be read below:

According to Dan Pine and Sue Fishkoff of J.-The Jewish News of Northern California, everyone living at the site was evacuated and the Torah scrolls are safe from the fire.

Located in Santa Rosa, Camp Newman has been providing over 1,400 campers per summer a place to learn about how Judaism can be a way of life for them since 1997. They opened a $4 million conference center back in November.

The fires in northern California began at 10 p.m. on Sunday and resulted in 10 dead and forced as many as 20,000 people to evacuate. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is calling on President Trump to declare the fires as a major disaster.

Were claims of Israel’s ‘arson intifada’ overblown?

As wildfires threatened Israel last week, rhetoric linking arson to terrorism heated up. 

For about a week, fires across the country burned huge swaths of land, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Dozens were injured, though few seriously.

As the blazes raged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said several times that they were set by arsonists and amounted to acts of terrorism. He and other ministers in his government pledged to work to revoke the residency of those found guilty — a threat typically reserved for Arab Israelis.

“Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters last month at a briefing in Haifa, a northern city where tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes. “Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.”

Netanyahu was not alone in apparently singling out Israel’s Arab residents and citizens. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Culture Minister Miri Regev both threatened last month to revoke the citizenship of arsonists. Education Minister Naftali Bennett described the blazes as “terrorism in every sense of the word.” And Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called for expanding West Bank settlements in response to the supposed terror wave.

But now that the fires have been stamped out by the heroic efforts of Israeli and foreign firefighters and rain has finally come, it appears that some of the claims about terrorism may have been premature. Amid ongoing investigations, fire and security officials investigating the blazes have been much more cautious about drawing conclusions than Netanyahu and his government partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at microphone, surrounded by security and government officials, speaking at a briefing in Haifa about the fires raging in the northern city and elsewhere in Israel on Nov. 24. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office

“In most areas you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” Ran Shelef, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief investigator, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

A day earlier, the authority’s Northern District investigator Herzl Aharon said, according to Israel’s Channel 2: “We still don’t know anything. I wish I had a direction. I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call a illusion of the topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate.”

At least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of committing arson or inciting others to do so, mostly Palestinians and the rest Arab Israelis. But by Saturday, only 10 remained in custody for suspected arson, with the rest released unconditionally, Channel 2 reported.

Only two suspects have been indicted, and one claims he was just burning garbage. And though no one doubts there was some arson involved, motives remain unclear.

“It’s still too early to rule nationalistic motives,” police officials told Channel 10 on Tuesday. “Yes, there were incidents of arson, but nationalistic motives are far from being definitively concluded.”

In the absence of proof, some have criticized the rush to judgment.

“The habit of inflaming the atmosphere by politicians is playing into the hands of the terrorists,” Yoram Schweitzer, a former Israeli intelligence official and the head of terrorist research at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told JTA. “A basic principle of fighting terrorism is to differentiate between the community who is allegedly or potentially supportive of such acts and the terrorists themselves.

“This is the first principle that was breached,” he added.

On Monday, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab political parties, said he would seek to have Netanyahu investigated for incitement for seeming to accuse Arab Israelis of deliberately setting fires. Odeh said he would formally request a probe by the attorney general.

“Everyone knows that there wasn’t a wave of terrorism, there wasn’t a ‘fire intifada,'” he said, using a term some Israeli media outlets had put in their headlines.

Police officials have said they suspect arson in 29 of the 39 major fires, and in about one-third of the 90 total fires they investigated. There are no suspects in the large fires in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov, nor clear proof of arson.

One Arab Israeli who was arrested and held for three days on suspicion of inciting arson was released after police admitted they had mistranslated his sarcastic Facebook post. The tweet was meant to condemn those supporting arson on social media and ended with the hashtag “Sarcastic, not serious.”

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive fire in Haifa on Nov. 25. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90

Orit Perlov, who researches Arab social media at the Institute for National Security Studies, said self-critical humor became the dominant tone on Arab social media as the fires in Israel raged. Initially, she said, there was widespread rejoicing and talk of divine punishment under the Arabic hashtag “Israel is burning.”

But especially after the Palestinian Authority sent firefighting help and some Arabs publicly condemned the arsonists, people began asking questions like, “If it’s coming from God, what did we do wrong to explain what’s happening in our states?” she said.

Schweitzer, the terrorism researcher, said it was noteworthy that the arson had flamed out despite the incendiary comments by Israeli politicians. Among other things, he said, that was because Arab Israelis are “part of the victims and part of Israeli society.”

“Instead of calming the population, which is the task of leaders, Israeli politicians did the reverse and claimed an ‘arson intifada,'” he said. “That’s just not wise, to put it very mildly.”

Firefighters gain ground over devastating California blaze

Firefighters in the foothills of central California have made significant gains against a blaze that has killed at least two people and destroyed scores of homes in a devastating start to the state's wildfire season, authorities said on Monday.

By Sunday night, crews had carved containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter, up from 10 percent earlier in the day, and evacuation orders were lifted on Monday for two communities previously threatened.

But officials reported a higher toll of property losses on Monday, with about 250 structures reduced to rubble, 50 more than estimated the previous day, and 75 buildings damaged.

As of Monday morning, the so-called Erskine Fire has blackened more than 45,000 acres of drought-parched brush and grass on the fringes of Lake Isabella in Kern County, California, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon and spread quickly through several communities south of the lake, driven by high winds, as it roared largely unchecked for two days and forced hundreds of residents from their homes.

At the fire's peak, some 2,500 homes were threatened by flames.

On Friday, at least two people were confirmed to have been killed in the blaze, and Kern County fire authorities warned that the death toll could rise as investigators comb through the rubble of homes that went up in flames.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

More than 2,000 personnel have been assigned to the blaze, the biggest and most destructive of nine large wildfires burning up and down the state, from the Klamath National Forest near Oregon to desert scrubland close to the Mexico border. Most of those were at least 60 percent contained as of Monday.

A blistering heat wave that has baked much of California in abnormally high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the triple digits has been a major factor contributing to the conflagrations.

While California's wildfire season officially began in May, the rash of blazes since last week signaled the state's first widespread outbreak of intense, deadly fire activity this year.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the state has already experienced some 2,400 wildfires, small and large, since January. They burned a total of 99,000 acres (400 square kms).

Winter and spring rainfalls helped ease drought conditions but also helped spur growth of grasses and brush that have since dried out, providing more potential fuel for wildfires, he said.

Israeli official claims country has fewest fire fatalities in world

Despite some high-profile cases of arson in the past year, Israel is the world’s safest country when it comes to fire-related deaths, its fire commissioner said.

In remarks to a Knesset committee Tuesday, Israeli Fire and Rescue Services Commissioner Shahar Ayalon reported that the number of fire fatalities has been steadily declining since 2010, when over 70 Israelis were killed in fires, the Times of Israel reported.

Ayalon said there were nine deaths from fire in 2015.

“We are today the safest country in the world in terms of casualties from fire,” he said, crediting the hundreds of millions of dollars Israel has invested in firefighting services in the aftermath of the 2010 Carmel Forest fire.

“Our [average] response time was 14 minutes in 2010, and it went down to six minutes in 2015,” he said, according to the Times of Israel.

According to, a website that uses World Health Organization data to rank death rates by country, Israel’s fire fatality rate in 2014 was 0.38 per 100,000 people, placing it 153rd out of 172 countries (the higher the rank number, the lower the rate of fire fatalities), or in the best 20. According to that ranking, the five countries with the best fire safety records are Luxembourg (0.1 per 100,000), Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

The five countries with the worst fire safety records were Nigeria (21.13), Burundi, Uganda, Mozambique and Somalia.

With a rate of 0.75 fire deaths per 100,000, the United States ranked considerably behind Israel, in 133rd.

Hess Kramer campers evacuated due to fire concerns

Ventura County Star is reporting tonight at 10:18 p.m.: Roadrunner Shuttle donated two charter buses to pick up the 165 poeple at Camp Hess Kramer on Yerba Buena Road.

Other reports say campers are being transported to Malibu High School as part of a mandatory precautionary evacuation related to the possible spread of the Ventura County Springs Fire.

We felt so safe there

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with


Tzedakah With Toys

When 5-year-old Ariela Weintraub learned about the recent Southern California fires during a family dinner discussion, she was worried. The Santa Monica resident asked her mother, Susan Weintraub, "Mommy, do you think the children who lived in those burning houses lost their toys?"

Her mother told her yes, and the youngster ran to her room and returned with a big white teddy bear. To her parents’ surprise and delight, Ariela announced that she wanted to donate her cherished stuffed animal to a child who lost his or her own toys in the fires.

When Susan Weintraub told her daughter’s story to Rabbi Karmi Gross, the principal of Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles, which is attended by Ariela and her older sister, the 5-year-old’s generosity inspired a school toy drive for local children affected by the fires.

"When we think communitywide, we usually think of the Jewish community," Gross said. "This seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a point to our students that we have to sometimes look past our family. The needs of the general community have to be a genuine concern to us."

On Nov. 12, the American Red Cross stopped by Maimonides and picked up the boxes of treasured stuffed animals, lunch boxes, art activities and board games. The toys will be distributed to local homeless shelters and specifically given to children who lost their possessions in the tragedy.

"I just thought they might’ve lost their favorite toys in the fire," Ariela said. "I think they’ll be happy when they get new ones."

To donate to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, visit or call (800) 435-7669.