As pillars of smoke blotted the twilit skies, teary-eyed congregants packed a Saturday night healing service at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa. And with seven member families having lost their homes to the ongoing wildfires, there was much healing to be done.
The Oct. 14 service gave Beth Ami congregants an opportunity to embrace one another, cry together and catch up after a hellish week in the fire zone.
Standing on the bimah and speaking in a trembling voice, Henry Cohn, president of the 74-year-old Conservative congregation, offered a prayer of thanks to first responders, and told the nearly 100 people gathered that no community suffered more death and destruction than Santa Rosa.
“I am not thankful or grateful that my home was spared,” said Cohn, who lives in Petaluma. “No one will leave this service completely healed.”
But that didn’t keep Cohn, Rabbi Mordechai Miller and several other speakers from trying. During the service, local guitarist Lisa Iskin led the congregation in songs that spanned an emotional spectrum, from “Ufros Aleinu” to the Beatles’ “In My life.” The lyrics of the former say, “Spread your canopy of peace over us. And repair us with good council before you. And rescue us,” while the latter includes, “Though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things that went before, I know I’ll often stop and think about them …”
“We are so grateful to have this building still,” Miller said before leading a moment of silence in memory of fire victims.
Mieneke Drake, co-chair of the synagogue’s welcoming committee, was one of the Beth Ami members to lose a home to the flames. Born in Nazi-occupied Holland near the end of World War II, she later moved to Israel only to live through the Six-Day War.
She’d been through hard times, so when the winds kicked up in her neighborhood of Fountaingrove the night of Oct. 8, blowing down her backyard sukkah, she had a bad feeling. Drake stayed up that night, which was a lucky break. When a neighbor knocked on her door frantically in the middle of the night, telling her and her husband, Arnold, to flee for their lives, Mieneke was awake to answer.
Now staying with her daughter in San Rafael, Mieneke and Arnold, the synagogue’s budget and finance chair, have lost everything, including her most precious possession: decades worth of letters she exchanged with her late mother.
“It comes in waves,” Mieneke said, referring to the shock of the loss caused by the Tubbs Fire. “Something comes up and then all of a sudden I start crying. We went to services, opened the ark and I started crying. You realize you don’t have the basics anymore. There is a sense of displacement, but also thankfulness that we survived.”
The Bay Area Jewish community mobilized quickly to help families like the Drakes.
Miller introduced several local leaders who informed congregants about available assistance, including Carol Appel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Jewish concierge of Sonoma County. Appel said she has been constantly on the go, meeting with local rabbis and community members to see how the fire impacted them, and figuring out how she could help. “It’s been emotional,” she said. “Everybody has a story.”
Diana Klein, who heads the Sonoma County office of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, also spoke. She lives in Bennett Valley, an unincorporated area just outside of southeast Santa Rosa, and has had a suitcase packed in case officials order her to evacuate. Though conceding she had never seen this level of destruction — the fires have killed more than 40 people and burned almost 6,000 homes and businesses — she said her agency is standing by to help, with expertise in everything from trauma management to guidance for dealing with insurance companies.
“We have resources that will be deployed here as needed,” Klein said. “I heard from people who lost their jobs because employment has shut down. They have houses, but lost their jobs. It means they won’t have paychecks coming in. If we don’t help them, there will be more people losing their housing.”
Ellen Blustein, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based JCC of Sonoma County, said her institution would run a weeklong open house next week, serving hot lunches and providing therapists for those who needed the help.
As the evening moved on, Miller recited Psalm 27 (“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”) and even the Prayer of Saint Francis, which reads in part, “Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. Where there is despair, let me bring hope.” There was also a moving Havdalah service, marking the end to an emotional Shabbat.
At the oneg afterward, Miller recalled the frightful past week. As the scope of the disaster became clear, he and Cohn launched a comprehensive email outreach and phone bank, seeking to make sure every congregant was safe. The congregation’s website says there are 180 member families.
“We closed the synagogue” from Oct. 9 through 13, he said. “The first thing we tried to do [was] reach out to every single congregant, and we pretty much did. My concern was, there are people I knew living in threatened areas, people who lost homes. I tried to make sure I could reach out to them.”
Cohn said a healing service was very much needed. “We have so many people scattered around the Bay Area now,” he said. “People need to talk and share and get their feelings out, and then we can take the next step. Healing is a journey.”
Embarking on that journey is Beth Ami congregant Mark Rosen, co-chair of the welcoming committee with Mieneke Drake. Like the Drakes, Rosen, too, lost his home. When the fires approached his Santa Rosa home on the windy night of Oct. 8, he and his adult son grabbed their cat and dogs, and headed out, thinking they’d be back in the morning. Instead, the Tubbs Fire consumed the Rosen home right down to the foundation. He is now staying with a nephew in Santa Rosa.
Grateful that his synagogue community held the healing service, Rosen is not dwelling on his own loss.
“I feel bad for all my friends who lost homes,” he said. “For myself, it’s just as well. The house was bigger than I wanted and cost too much in taxes. We were ready to downsize anyway. We just won’t have to pack.”
Dry humor aside, Rosen added, “Thank God, after everything, we’re not injured, not dead. The animals are alive. What’s to complain?”