As firefighters gain control of the blazes that have charred Northern California for the past two weeks, recovery and rebuilding is already underway for evacuees and those who lost homes in the wildfires.
But the process of psychological healing, which could take months or years, is only just beginning.
“It’s a very traumatic event, with uncertainty, stress, flashbacks,” said Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAid, the Israeli relief organization that has helped lead the recovery effort for the Jewish community. “There’s also survivor guilt, it’s a very Jewish thing. The house next door was burned to the ground and their house was OK. So they feel a big sense of relief, but also guilt.”
At Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, which has become a hub for evacuees, Los Altos Hills psychotherapist Hagit Zeev quietly moved from table to table, chatting with children and adult volunteers earlier this week as they played board games and worked on art projects. She asked them about the fires, about being unable to go home.
Zeev also talked with Shomrei Torah Rabbis George Gittleman and Stephanie Kramer, who have been counseling evacuees for the past two weeks while being unable to go home themselves.
One of the biggest roles for IsraAid volunteers such as Zeev is to treat rabbis, firefighters, volunteers and others who have spent the past two weeks helping others — and now need help themselves as they deal with burnout, emotional exhaustion, guilt at their relatively good fortune and a sense of helplessness at not being able to do more.
“I’m one of those people,” said Gittleman, who was evacuated three times from his Santa Rosa home. “We’re all kind of traumatized. If we didn’t lose our home, we can’t get back to our hone. And there’s also the trauma of having friends and family who lost their homes.
“We may seem fine, but we’re all still in shock, we’re not back to our normal lives. The first thing we need is some normalcy.”
For families who lost loved ones, pets or their homes, such normalcy is not going to happen any time soon. For the children who were evacuated and whose schools have not yet reopened, that normalcy also awaits.
That’s why one of Polizer’s first responses was setting up a day camp at Shomrei Torah — open to the entire community, not just congregation members or Jewish families — where children can play, talk and just be kids.
“I talk to the kids and see what they need and whether they’re in trauma,” Zeev said. “And if there’s trauma, they need to process it. They need to talk about it.”
Jillian Navarro, who does volunteer human resources work for Shomrei Torah, said she was still trying to understand why she feels so uncomfortable.
“I just have that pervasive helpless feeling,” she said. “I don’t know what I feel yet, to be honest.”
Polizer, who diverted from a trip to the site of a deadly Mexican earthquake to oversee IsraAid’s response to the North Bay fires, said research has shown that emotional recovery is more difficult in some ways in an affluent area — where victims have home insurance, and relatives with whom to stay — than in a Third World country.
“Sometimes it’s even harder for people in places like Santa Rosa, as opposed to poor areas hit by a tsunami,” he said. “We’re privileged, we’re not hungry. People in refugee camps have been struggling all their lives, in some ways it makes them more resilient.”
Long after the rebuilding of burned houses has begun, Polizer said, the psychological trauma of the past two weeks will linger. IsraAid focuses in its relief efforts around the world on long-term emotional support for victims by training therapists, teachers and community leaders in affected communities on how to treat stress and trauma months or years after a natural disaster.
Art, music and drama therapy, as well as traditional counseling, often helps victims deal with such stress. Polizer emphasized that it’s not just people who fled their homes in the middle of the night who will experience stress — it’s also the firefighters and other first responders, and even kids far from the fire zone who are planning to attend Camp Newman next summer for the first time and are now filled with doubts because most of the buildings at the camp were destroyed by fire.
Kramer, the assistant rabbi at Shomrei Torah, said one volunteer offered to come in and do henna tattoos, but then said she also wanted to sit down with a therapist. A congregant asked why her house had survived when most of her neighbors’ houses had burned.
“I think we’re all scared, I think we all have a little bit of PTSD,” Kramer said. “The alarms that keep going off on our phones, and the evacuations in our areas, and the sounds of sirens and aircraft, and the smoke in the air is taxing. Driving into Santa Rosa, I was thinking it’s so gray in so many ways.”
For many people affected by this tragedy, just getting together and sharing their stories helps ease the pain. That’s why the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation hosted a free Shabbat dinner at Shomrei Torah on Oct. 13.
“We asked ourselves, what would be more impactful?” said CEO Danny Grossman. “It emerged that hosting a community Shabbat dinner would be helpful and healing.” They expected 100 guests, Grossman said, but more than 250 showed up.
“Obviously the need to come together as a community was high,” he said.
The Chabads in Sonoma County and Napa Valley are holding free Shabbat dinners at local hotels this Friday, Oct. 10. And Shomrei Torah plans to continue such free dinners on its own “as long as necessary to process together what’s happened,” said Gittleman.
“Just imagine you’re comfortably asleep in your house and you get a knock on the door that you have to leave. You go outside and you look up and you can see the fire, and you just have a few minutes to get out,” said Gittleman, who opened Shomrei Torah up at 2 a.m. on Oct. 9 as the evacuations began.
“The recovery and healing from this is going to be years,” he added. “That’s going to be the synagogue’s number one priority. We want to heal as a community together.”