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Southern California Fires Ignite Giving Spirit Throughout Region

For most people, the beginning of December was a special time spent preparing delicious food and getting ready for the start of Chanukah. But for others, it was a time of panic and uncertainty as several fires broke out across southern California, threatening schools, homes and much more.

Throughout our Pacific Southwest Region kehilla (Jewish community), synagogues lent a helping hand to those in need who were in the direct path of these fires. Starting with the massive Thomas fire around Ventura County on December 4th—one of the largest in California’s history—and continuing with the Creek, Rye and Skirball fire in Los Angeles, many local residents relied on the help of their Jewish community to preserve what they could and stay out of harm’s way.

Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, accepted the sacred Sifre Torah from schools and congregations that were under direct threat of nearby fires, an action Rabbi Noah Farkas says was due to the incredible importance of the Torah. “For thousands of years, the Torah has been the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew,” says Rabbi Farkas, who adds, “It’s not just ink on parchment. For us, it’s sacred words in a sacred time and encapsulates God’s words on earth.”

Rabbi Farkas, who credits the many rabbis, administrators and leaders it took to preserve the Torah and help those in danger, says the community had tried its best to prepare itself for an emergency about two years ago by using Google Maps to chart where families of the congregation lived so that relief efforts could be made more efficiently in case of a natural disaster. “Because of this effort, we were able to find exactly who those families were that needed to be evacuated and were then able to deploy a phone calling, texting and e-mailing regime to see if everyone was okay and if they needed help,” he says. Luckily, most of the people they came across weren’t harmed, just a bit shaken.

To learn more about Valley Beth Shalom, click here.

At Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, CA, where many nearby homes, schools and businesses had been evacuated or closed due to the poor air quality, the temple kept in regular contact with many institutions that were affected to see how it could be of assistance. One of those institutions that reached out was American Jewish University. According to Temple Beth Am Executive Director Sheryl Goldman, the temple hosted one of the university’s classes when its facility was closed because of the Skirball fire. The temple also kept in constant touch with the staff at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA, which Goldman said is a second home for many of their students. “We shared many prayers as they battled flames close to the grounds,” says Sheryl.

To learn more about Temple Beth Am, click here.

Camp Ramah, located in an area under mandatory evacuation, was thankfully unharmed by the fires. However, the camp evacuated Torah to their Encino offices as a precaution. On January 7, Camp Ramah will hold a celebration of Hachnasat Sefrei Torah—the ritual celebration of bring Torah into a place of worship. To show appreciation for the brave efforts made by firefighters, members of the camp wrote heartfelt notes to each of the fire departments involved.

To learn more about Camp Ramah, click here.

Also offering prayers was Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Lecturer in Practical Rabbinics. In a Facebook post, after AJU was evacuated, she says:

“There are many ways to interpret the term birah doleket (this fiery palace). One definition is as ‘a palace in flames,’ representing world engulfed in chaos, pain and destruction.’ In this, the man (who they understand to be Abraham at the beginning of his journey) wonders if the world actually has a caretaker and/or who is responsible to repair the world.

God’s answer to Abraham’s query comes from within the inferno as the still, small voice of resilience that somehow provides for courage and hope in the face of tragedy and destruction.

In other words, despite feeling that the flames of destruction are pursuing him, Abraham finds reason to believe in God, the world and himself, looking towards the end of the raging flames and the ability to see anew a palace illuminated in light. Tonight, this is our story. This is our prayer!”

To read the full Facebook post from Rabbi Peretz, click here.


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