Chabad of Sonoma's Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky has been out visiting shelters, bringing food, comfort and other necessities. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky)
Chabad of Sonoma's Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky has been out visiting shelters, bringing food, comfort and other necessities. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky)

Bay Area Jews come together as families are displaced and fires rage

Updated Oct. 11 at 11am to reflect new information about Congregation Beth Ami:

As wildfires continue to rip through the North Bay, the Jewish community is reaching out to help those most affected by the devastation — including Jewish families who have been evacuated, some of whom have lost their homes.

Multiple fires are actively burning through Wine Country. So far, there are 11 confirmed deaths, dozens of injuries and more than 1,500 homes destroyed, SF Gate reports.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky of Chabad of Sonoma has been fielding calls from members of his community and, with his wife Altie, has been visiting those affected, and making the rounds of nearby shelters that are housing people displaced by the blaze, handing out home-cooked meals.

“There are people in our community who have lost their homes, who have lost everything they have,” he told J. “We have been visiting with them, comforting them, seeing what they need, making sure everyone has proper housing.”

“A lot of Jews live in the Fountaingrove neighborhood,” he said, referring to an area of Santa Rosa that has been heavily damaged.

SF Hillel students Benjamin Gaster (left) and Jake Scheinberg collecting donations in front of their campus sukkah. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)
SF Hillel students Benjamin Gaster (left) and Jake Scheinberg collecting donations in front of their campus sukkah. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)

Several Sonoma and Napa congregations are holding special services this week, opportunities for shaken communities to come together and comfort each other.

Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa is canceling its holiday services for the rest of the week, and received notice Oct. 10 that the building must be evacuated. At least four member families have lost their homes in the fires, according to an email sent out to the community on Oct. 9.

A fireplane flying over Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami. The building is under evacuation orders. (Photo/Norm Levin)
A fireplane flying over Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami. The building is under evacuation orders. (Photo/Norm Levin)

The B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma is holding a joint Simchat Torah celebration tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m. together with Congregation Ner Shalom of Cotati. In an email sent out to the general community, Rabbi Ted Feldman of B’nai Israel noted that several Ner Shalom families have taken shelter in their synagogue, not knowing whether their homes are still standing.

“This is a good time to bring our communities together to celebrate Simchat Torah and express our yearnings for healing in these difficult moments,” he wrote. “Even if Simchat Torah has not been on your agenda, I would propose your participation as an opportunity to help find each other’s strength as our community members struggle.”

The Jewish institution most affected so far by the wildfires was the Reform movement’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where most of the buildings were reported destroyed on Monday afternoon. Today the staff tried again to reach the property and assess the damage, but couldn’t get near enough to tell.

“We couldn’t get within five miles of the property,” said communications director Alaina Yoakum this afternoon. “The fires are still very active, and the roads are blocked.”

On Monday night, at the suggestion of a longtime camper, Newman staff held a “siyyum,” singing the Hashkivenu and Shema prayers, as they do at the end of each day at camp. They did it live on Facebook and Instagram, Yoakum reports, and as of this afternoon have received more than 560 comments on the Facebook video of the ceremony.

This Friday night, a number of congregations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles will be holding what they’re calling Camp Newman Pop-Up Shabbat services. Local participants include Temple Israel in Alameda, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame and Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, as well as Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where Camp Newman director Ruben Arquilevich is a member.

“We told the clergy we reached out to that it can be whatever they want it to be,” Yoakum said. “Many will sing Hashkivenu, which is about spreading a shelter of peace over us. I think that’s so beautiful, a temporary shelter of peace over the community.”

“It’s a testament to the love in our community, their willingness to come together to support and help one another. I’m sure camp music will be playing this Friday in all corners of the Bay Area.”

Updated Oct. 10 at 4 p.m.:

Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum, director of Chabad of Napa Valley, was awakened late Sunday night by high winds that blew down his sukkah. “That’s how we found out there was a fire,” he told J. on Oct. 10, noting that he and his wife watched the flames from their bedroom window before running to neighbors to alert them to the fire. “We watched it move. It spread so quickly. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The Tenenbaums watched wildfires from the bedroom window of their Napa home late on Oct. 8, 2017. (Photo Courtesy Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum)
The Tenenbaums watched wildfires from the bedroom window of their Napa home late on Oct. 8, 2017. (Photo/ Courtesy Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum)

Tenenbaum has relocated his family temporarily to Oakland — their Napa home hasn’t been touched so far—and he is heading back to Napa County tonight to check up on his congregation.

“There’s no electricity or phone service,” he said, explaining why he has to go in person to make sure people are all right. “I’m also trying to help people get out of Napa. The smoke and ash are in all the houses. It’s not good for people to stay in that.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.