Eyeing the empty seats before services began, Rabbi Ted Feldman was a little worried.
It was the evening of Oct. 11, and just two hours earlier he’d alerted members of B’nai Israel Jewish Center that the Petaluma Police Department had issued an advisory: Prepare to evacuate. Winds were expected to intensify and shift direction, and the raging wildfires to the north could easily turn on Petaluma.
For a while he wondered if his message “might have scared some people” from coming. But then, slowly and steadily, worshippers trickled in. Young and old, singles and couples, people from his independent congregation and from Ner Shalom, a Reconstructionist shul 12 miles north in Cotati, filled nearly all of the 50 seats.
They came to celebrate Simchat Torah, which began at sunset — to hold the cherished scrolls, to sing, dance and pray — but they also came to seek solace. Every person there was touched in some way by the horrendous inferno still raging uncontrolled in Santa Rosa, Napa and the surrounding areas.
One woman feared that she’d lost her job because her employer was burned out. Another was safe in west Petaluma, but had taken in her friend’s six llamas and flock of chickens. Several people already had begun packing their possessions in case they had to evacuate.
Ner Shalom’s Reb Irwin Keller, who co-led services with Feldman, himself had evacuated from his home. His synagogue sheltered nine suddenly homeless families on Oct. 8, the first night of the fire, and continued to provide refuge for those fleeing the relentless flames.
“People have brought mattresses, pillows, food,” Keller said. They were sleeping in the sanctuary and in classrooms. Given the latest “red flag” fire alert, he added, “We might leave our Torahs in the car tonight.” Just in case.
Though originally planned to celebrate Simchat Torah, marking the annual completion of the Torah reading, the service also became a source of comfort and healing.
We are not the first generation of Jews who have observed Simchat Torah in a time of danger.
As he opened the evening, Feldman said, “This is a different kind of chag sameach, of course, with what’s happening in the world around us. It’s strange coming together at Simchat Torah like this, with our world in turmoil.”
Keller reminded the crowd, “We are not the first generation of Jews who have observed Simchat Torah in a time of danger.” Our ancestors also faced grave situations, he said, “and still they came together” to sing and dance.
The service began on a subdued note, as Keller led worshippers in singing Shiviti (Psalm 16:8), translated on a handout sheet as “I am equanimous. Yah is before me always.”
In other words, Keller said, “Let yourself be calm.”
Then, picking up his guitar, and with musicians from Ner Shalom playing quietly in the background, Keller led the singing of other prayerful songs, such as “Brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3-4; Numbers 12:13) and Ana B’Choach, which begins “Source of Mercy, With loving strength, untie our tangles … Lord, keep us safe …”
Afterward, Keller asked people to rise as three Torahs were sent around the room, telling everyone, “Take whatever time you need to be with the Torah.”
He added: “We’re all in need of healing — in body and in spirit. In the days ahead, if you have to take shelter in the world, may you also take shelter … in the wings of God. We as Jews have the privilege this evening to celebrate Torah — the gift of it.”
And ever so quickly, the mood changed. Musicians picked up their instruments for a rousing rendition of “Hava Nagila,” people jumped to their feet and the dancing began.
Amid the joyous singing, dancing and clapping, spirits lifted and fire worries receded — at least for a while.