The devastating wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties this week have caused death, injuries and destruction for miles around — but they have also brought out the best in people wanting to lend a hand. Synagogues, Jewish agencies and scores of individual volunteers have lined up to assist families evacuated from the danger zones, some of whom have lost their homes to the flames.
Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah has emerged as a hub for that Jewish aid. Since Oct. 9 the Reform synagogue has served as a command post, trauma center, soup kitchen, overnight shelter and kids’ day camp for displaced community members. Safely distant from the fire lines, the synagogue has welcomed Jewish community professionals, therapists and volunteers eager to help their affected North Bay neighbors, including those whose homes are gone.
“Monday night we had 20 people sleeping in the synagogue,” said Shomrei Torah Associate Rabbi Stephanie Kramer. “A lot of people still don’t know if their homes are standing or not. Twenty-five [congregants] have lost their homes already. Our town’s on fire and it’s absolutely devastating.”
Among the agencies responding to the crisis are Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Jewish Federations in San Francisco and the East Bay, and IsraAid, the Israeli international aid organization that just opened a Bay Area office last fall.
JFCS, which had closed its Sonoma branch in the first few days of the firestorm, has reopened, along with an ad hoc office at Shomrei Torah, helping fire victims obtain emergency loans and handing out food vouchers.
“We are getting help from all our regional [offices],” said JFCS Sonoma branch director Diana Klein. “We have lots of resources behind us. The county is still in crisis mode, so we’re still assessing need. People are still getting evacuated, still not knowing what’s going on. We are finding the community has been fabulous in offering up temporary housing for people who lost their homes.”
Rabbi Kramer, too, has been busy connecting congregants in need of shelter with those willing to open their doors. Some have been evacuated; others lost their homes to the fires.
“Right now, I’ve been able to house everybody,” she said, “matching congregants with other congregants for the most part.”
Congregations from throughout the area are taking turns bringing food and supplies to Shomrei Torah. On Oct. 10, Rabbi Stacy Friedman of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom led a caravan of volunteers north to Santa Rosa to provide a hot lunch for families, professionals and volunteers camped out at the synagogue. On the menu: turkey chili, roasted potatoes and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“When news of the fires came out, I connected with my rabbi colleagues in the North Bay,” Friedman recalled. “I talked to Rabbi Kramer and asked what can we do. We mobilized a group, went shopping on Tuesday, got people cooking, and we were in our cars by 11 a.m. driving up.”
At Shomrei Torah, Friedman found several dozen kids playing in the social hall, their parents talking quietly in the corners, a volunteer giving neck-and-shoulder massages and a cadre of Jewish community professionals mapping out emergency aid plans. Before heading home, Friedman scheduled other Bay Area synagogues to help with meal prep for the rest of the week. Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar came up on Wednesday; San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El is set for Friday.
“People want to help,” Friedman said. “This is uncharted territory, and this is a time when everyone is stepping up. I felt so proud of our community for wanting to be there.”
Also on hand was Yotam Polizer, IsraAid’s Tel Aviv-based co-CEO, who happened to be in the Bay Area when the fires broke out. He immediately dropped plans to fly to Mexico to oversee his organization’s earthquake assistance there to focus on the North Bay fire disaster.
Polizer joined his Bay Area-based IsraAid team — a team he said was made possible thanks to funding from the Koret Foundation — in Santa Rosa to lend assistance, which included helping local agencies design effective disaster response strategies and providing victims what he called “psychological first aid.”
“The devastation here is on different levels,” he said. “For congregants who lost their homes, it’s really devastating. Another big concern is the anxiety and stress for people not sure what’s going on with their houses. This uncertainty might take a couple of days more. These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”
Having been on the scene of multiple disasters around the world, Polizer says victims need to know what they’re feeling is normal.
“My role is just to reassure people that they are doing the right thing,” he added. “How do you respond to someone who lost everything? It’s hard to give them answers, but you can tell them you’re here for them and will be here for the long-term recovery process.”
Short term, many people fled their homes with little more than the clothes on their back. In some cases, in their pajamas. JFCS has supplied donated cots, while IsraAid provided hygiene kits, and a Jewish-run charity called Undies for Everybody is sending 20,000 pairs of new underwear to Santa Rosa.
The Bay Area’s Taube Philanthropies on Wednesday granted $250,000 to JFCS to support its on-the-ground emergency assistance for fire victims.
“Members of our community will be grappling with the aftermath of this disaster for many years to come,” said Anita Friedman, JFCS executive director, who called the grant an “immediate and extraordinarily generous response.”
“I just got off the phone with a man who lost his wife to breast cancer a few weeks ago, leaving him with two young children,” she said. “Now his home has burned down with everything in it. He works but has limited means and not much family, so he needs help to get back on his feet. Fortunately, he and other families who have lost everything have JFCS and its supporters.”
JFCS’ Klein knows what these survivors will face in the coming days. “At this point, the people who lost their homes are traumatized,” she said. “Making any decisions is traumatic for them. We have staff trained in trauma, who are prepared to come up when the needs are identified. That could be a week to 10 days. It’s challenging.”
On Wednesday morning, with ash raining from the sky, Rabbi Chai Levy of Kol Shofar, along with a few of her congregants, drove to Shomrei Torah with plenty of kid-friendly food for the children in the synagogue’s day camp program: mac ’n cheese and french fries. They found more than 100 hungry people awaiting them. “People were very appreciative, maybe a little anxious,” she said. “They know it’s not over yet.”
Levy was glad she could help out in some way. “It’s too huge to process it at this point,” she said of the wildfires. “We all feel so helpless, so being able to offer something small, like cook one meal, at least we can do something.”