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After Evacuation, Chabad Aids Survivors of Deadly California Wildfires

After Evacuation, Chabad Aids Survivors of Deadly California Wildfires

Devastation everywhere, with at least 15 dead and thousands left homeless

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An estimated 1,500 buildings have been destroyed and more than 75,000 acres have burned in eight counties as a result of the fires that started on Sunday night in Northern California. At the same time, a brushfire in Anaheim, in Southern California, has been making its way towards homes and buildings, necessitating more than 1,000 firefighters to battle the flames. (Photo: ABC11)
An estimated 1,500 buildings have been destroyed and more than 75,000 acres have burned in eight counties as a result of the fires that started on Sunday night in Northern California. At the same time, a brushfire in Anaheim, in Southern California, has been making its way towards homes and buildings, necessitating more than 1,000 firefighters to battle the flames. (Photo: ABC11)

The phone rang in the middle of the night. A friend who had been evacuated due to California’s raging wildfires called Rabbi Mendel and Altie Wolvovsky, co-directors of Chabad of Sonoma County, to check in.

It was almost 3 a.m. on Monday, after a busy day of celebration during the holiday of Sukkot. They hit the phones immediately, calling community members, especially in the mandatory evacuation zones, to see what people needed and to make sure those in the path of destruction were awake and on the move.

“All we had to do was go outside of our house and look to one side, and we could see where it was,” says the rabbi. “You could see the flames; you could see them spreading.”

They started hearing back from people, and two hours later, at 5 a.m., they themselves prepared to leave. They loaded up their eight children and headed west to Sebastopol, a city some 50 miles north of San Francisco. “Even from there, on some of the roads when we pulled off, we were able to see the flames continuing to expand,” he says. “There was just this frightening type of red in the sky in many, many areas where we would look.”

At least 15 people have died so far, an estimated 1,500 buildings have been destroyed and more than 75,000 acres have burned in eight counties as a result of the fires that started Sunday night in Northern California, according to news reports. The biggest ones have been in Sonoma County and Napa wine country—where Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency—with more than 20,000 people evacuated from the most dangerous areas, some literally running for their lives. Two hospitals evacuated patients in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the region

At the same time, a brushfire in Anaheim, in Southern California, has burned thousands of acres of land and is leaving a huge swath of acrid smoke as it makes its way towards homes and buildings, necessitating more than 1,000 firefighters to battle the flames.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky, co-director of Chabad of Sonoma County in Northern California, hands snacks to a police officer working to keep residents safe amid raging wildfires.
Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky, co-director of Chabad of Sonoma County in Northern California, hands snacks to a police officer working to keep residents safe amid raging wildfires.

‘Comfort and Support Each Other’

Just after noon, the Wolvovskys made their way back to their neighborhood. The rabbi picked up snacks and drinks for police officers from around the state who had traveled to help keep nearby roads clear for emergency vehicles, and then headed to a shelter at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, where he saw some familiar faces and sat with people to comfort them.

Flames and heavy smoke could be seen spreading far and wide.
Flames and heavy smoke could be seen spreading far and wide.

Throughout the day, the Wolvovskys spoke to people in the community who had lost their homes. “We were grateful to hear they were alive, but it has been very emotional for them and for us to hear. People ran literally with the shirts on their backs, and they turned around and didn’t think they’d see their houses again.”

Between Facebook, texting, email and Chabad’s website, they have checked in with a few hundred people, but still haven’t heard from everyone. “Many in the community have taken a lot of losses, but thankfully, only materially,” reports the rabbi.

Chabad’s doors will be open, serving hot meals and providing assistance to those in need in the days ahead. With Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah and Shabbat approaching, the Wolvovskys want to give people an opportunity to find joy amid the challenges.

“We want to make sure people know that these meals are open for everybody,” he says. “No strings attached; just come. We want to be there to comfort and support each other.”

People get treated for smoke inhalation at a shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif.
People get treated for smoke inhalation at a shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif.

‘Safety Our Priority’

Rabbi Elchonon and Chanie Tenenbaum, co-directors of the Napa Valley Chabad Jewish Center, left home on Monday with their children after a day-and-a-half without electricity. “Even if you’re not affected by the fire itself, there’s a lot of smoke, so it’s not a good situation all around,” says the rabbi, adding that there’s no landline or cell-phone service in the area. “The fire is not under control; it’s spreading. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better anytime soon.”

In addition to using social media and texting those who are reachable, Tenenbaum says he will be heading back to check on people and see what they need. (The couple, who has been there since 2006, serves about 300 families in Napa, in addition to area tourists.) The rabbi notes that they’ve never seen anything like this.

On Sunday night, he says, “our sukkah blew down and looking out, we saw on the ridge that a fire had started.”

Fire glows on a nearby ridge, as seen on Sunday night by Rabbi Elchonon and Chanie Tenenbaum, co-directors of the Napa Valley Chabad Jewish Center.
Fire glows on a nearby ridge, as seen on Sunday night by Rabbi Elchonon and Chanie Tenenbaum, co-directors of the Napa Valley Chabad Jewish Center.

They had planned a Simchat Torah celebration this week, but as things stand, that’s not going to be possible, he says. “This is a matter of life and death, so that takes precedence. [Simchat Torah] is definitely the time of our joy, so we have to be as positive and happy as things permit, and G‑d willing, we’ll have many other celebrations and good things to rejoice in together. But safety is our first priority right now.”

More than ever, emphasizes Rabbi Wolvovsky, these holidays are about togetherness.

“The message will be continuing to remind us all that the most important thing is people, not possessions,” he says. “One of the beautiful things we saw right away was everybody’s concern for each other, and that will continue. We’ll make sure to look out for each other and see what we can do to help our neighbors, so together we can all get back on our feet and recover.”

To support those who suffering losses in the fires, click here.

Offering support and comfort, and assuring people that Chabad is there to help.
Offering support and comfort, and assuring people that Chabad is there to help.


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