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In Midst of Catastrophic Fires, a ‘Sacred Responsibility to Reach Out’

In Midst of Catastrophic Fires, a ‘Sacred Responsibility to Reach Out’

Southern California rabbis provide food, clothing and essentials to evacuees

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Nearly 100,000 acres have burned across Ventura County and 20,000 more in Los Angeles County as firefighters continue to grapple with volatile winds that are literally fanning the fires. More than 100,000 people have been displaced, either voluntarily or due to mandatory evacuations as part of a first-ever “purple alert.” (Photo: Ventura County Fire Department)
Nearly 100,000 acres have burned across Ventura County and 20,000 more in Los Angeles County as firefighters continue to grapple with volatile winds that are literally fanning the fires. More than 100,000 people have been displaced, either voluntarily or due to mandatory evacuations as part of a first-ever “purple alert.” (Photo: Ventura County Fire Department)

As firefighters in Southern California continue to battle the volatile winds and flames that have burned more than 100,000 acres in Ventura County and decimated some 20,000 in Los Angeles County, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries sprang into action to see what they could do to help—finding places for people to stay, and offering distributions of food, clothing and other supplies, even as some of their colleagues were evacuated.

Rabbi Mordechai and Rochel Nemtzov, co-directors of Chabad of Ojai Valley, Calif., and their five children—who range in age from 2 to 9—left their home in Ojai, some 80 miles north of Los Angeles, on Tuesday after watching the “Thomas Fire” (as is common, the separate fires—at least six major ones are currently raging there—have individual names) come ever closer to their own home and after learning that several friends had already lost theirs.

Before leaving town, the rabbi went to visit some neighbors to urge them to leave and even arranged to take an elderly woman from the community with his family as they left for Santa Barbara.

“She’s at a hotel now and is being well-cared-for,” reports Nemtzov, adding that his own family is ensconced in the guest wing at Chabad of Santa Barbara, about 40 miles due west on the coast.

Nemtzov has remained in close contact with community members who stayed behind in Ojai, making visits on Wednesday afternoon. He brought with him a cache of face masks to help relieve people from the smoke-laden and ash-ridden air.

Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov, co-director of Chabad of Ojai Valley, delivers face masks to residents who run one of the many horse ranches in the area.
Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov, co-director of Chabad of Ojai Valley, delivers face masks to residents who run one of the many horse ranches in the area.

He also put up mezuzahs on the homes of some congregants and wrapped tefillin with others.

“Ojai proper is a grid-like city, but a lot of it is on the outskirts, which include both densely populated manufactured housing and large horse ranches. It requires a lot of work to keep the people and animals there safe,” he explains. “Things there are bad; the fire is encircling the area.”

Further south, in the Los Angeles residential enclave of Bel Air, Rabbi Chaim Mentz was checking his phone just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday as evacuations were being ordered by emergency officials nearby when he noticed a text from a 12-year-old girl who used to attend Chabad of Bel Air’s Hebrew school.

It read simply: “Rabbi, could you make a prayer for our house, please, it would make me very happy.”

The rabbi’s response was swift: “Yes,” followed by an invitation for the girl and her family to come to the Chabad House, where they could have food and stay safe.

The rabbi affixes a mezuzah to the doorpost of a Jewish home.
The rabbi affixes a mezuzah to the doorpost of a Jewish home.
Nemtzov wraps tefillin with a local Jewish man.
Nemtzov wraps tefillin with a local Jewish man.

‘Terrible Dust and Ash’

“All of the Chabad Houses are connected through WhatsApp, sharing inspiration and ideas to get clothes, food and supplies to people in Ventura and other affected areas,” said Mentz, co-director of Chabad of Bel Air with his wife, Charna. Their home sits 2.5 miles from mandatory evacuation areas in Bel Air.

“You can definitely see the smoke from here,” he says. “It’s actually a sunny day, but all you see is big plume of smoke, and when you go out it smells like things are burning. Everywhere you look there’s terrible dust and ash, and people are walking around wheezing.”

As of Friday morning, at least 400 structures, including 150 homes, along the catastrophic fires’ path—have been destroyed, and more than 200,000 people have been displaced, fleeing their homes as the conflagration continues, at times barely, if at all, contained.

While many hope to return quickly, mandatory evacuations remain in effect for a number of areas as officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, fear that the worst is yet to come. High winds were forecasted for into Friday and over the weekend. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the threat is so severe that for the first time ever, government officials have issued a “purple alert,” warning that upon ignition, fires can have extreme growth and burn very intensely, and even become uncontrollable.

They have also urged people to stay indoors because of the poor air quality, particularly if they have medical or breathing issues.

Rabbi Yakov Latowicz, center, director of Chabad of Ventura, with Red Cross volunteer Larry Swerdlin
Rabbi Yakov Latowicz, center, director of Chabad of Ventura, with Red Cross volunteer Larry Swerdlin

Supplies to Red Cross Shelter

Through emails and phone calls to neighbors and friends, Rabbi Yakov Latowicz, director of Chabad of Ventura, urged anyone who needed help to be in touch. He also arranged for home hospitality for some families and worked with Chabad of the Valley to deliver supplies to a Red Cross shelter in Oxnard.

All the while, Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin, the West Coast director of Chabad, has been checking in with local Chabad Houses.

“Our idyllic city, beautiful Ventura, has been devastated by the ‘Thomas Fire,’ ” Latowicz wrote to residents on Wednesday. “Last night, my wife [Sarah] and I watched from our home, in shock, as the Ventura Hills exploded in flames. We awoke to the terrible reality that 150 homes were lost. Thank G‑d, there has been no loss of life; however, the loss of so many homes is a humanitarian crisis, and our hearts grieve for all the families that are affected.

“As human beings and Jews, we can’t simply remain bystanders,” continued the rabbi. “We all have a sacred responsibility to reach out and help all people in need.”

Latowicz, center, with others organizing supplies for residents who fled from the fires.
Latowicz, center, with others organizing supplies for residents who fled from the fires.

In addition to organizing the truck of supplies to be delivered to the Red Cross shelter, Latowicz is working to get more kosher food, including cases of chicken, to his Chabad center so they can prepare meals for distribution. The couple is opening their home for Shabbat dinner, inviting anyone in need to join them in the hopes, says the rabbi, “of bringing them some comfort.”

In fact, the rabbi notes that one of the Red Cross volunteers in Oxnard happened to be a Jewish man visiting from Maryland who needed a place to say Kaddish while in town.

“We invited him to our home for Friday-night dinner and to Chanukah at the Pacific View Mall, where we have a menorah-lighting on the second night and an annual minyan for anyone who has a yahrzeit,” he says.

Mentz, Nemtzov and their colleagues also reached out right away to other local Jewish leaders and synagogue officials, offering help in any way, including the removal of Torah scrolls, if needed.

“Camp Ramah in Ojai is right up against the fire,” says Nemtzov. “They got the Torahs out and also most of the Chumashim [Bibles]. Unfortunately, they are watching the fires on security cameras as the flames get closer to the camp site.”

The rabbi is holding out hope that firefighters will gain the upper hand and people can return home for the weekend before Chanukah starts on Tuesday night, Dec. 12.

Bottled water, juice, food and other supplies being packed and sent to those in need.
Bottled water, juice, food and other supplies being packed and sent to those in need.

“We have a Chanukah program for kids planned for Sunday, and we haven’t canceled,” he says optimistically. “Hopefully, everyone will be back, especially the kids, and whoever is there can join us.”

Chabad of North Hollywood is also making menorahs available for distribution to anyone who is displaced during the holiday.

Meanwhile, a communitywide Chanukah celebration was planned for Sunday, Dec. 17, and that’s also set to go on as scheduled. “It will be a good reason to get together,” emphasizes Nemtzov, “and an opportunity for unity—to show how the flames of holiness should help us after we’ve experienced the flames of destruction.”

To help fire victims, go to jewishojai.com/donate. The rabbi says: “If you put ‘fire victims’ in the memo, you can be assured that 100 percent of the funds will go to victims.”

On the way to deliver items; the darkening skies from the fires can be seen ahead.
On the way to deliver items; the darkening skies from the fires can be seen ahead.


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Adrian Australia December 8, 2017

As I am a Firefighter/Officer in the QFES, I have a very good understanding of the situation in regards to the fires in the US at this present time, along with the shear devastation to life and property. Every few years we go through something like this somewhere in Australia.
It is equally important for each and everyone of us to assist in practical ways as best as one can as an individual and/or as part of a team effort.
To my brother's and sister's in the US that are assisting in whatever way, I offer my prayers to HaShem on behalf of all that are involved in this effort no-matter what your role is. Reply

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