A woman triumphantly gestures at a very large pile of coats
Ellen Blustein, executive director of Sonoma County JCC, with piles of donated coats (Photo/Sonya Garzouzi)

Hundreds of fire survivors line up for free coats at Chico synagogue

A handful of Butte County fire survivors lined up in front of Congregation Beth Israel in Chico, two hours before volunteers were scheduled to begin distributing gift cards and winter coats.

By the time the doors opened, the line had grown to about 400 people and stretched around the block.

Though only four of the congregation’s 75 families lost their homes in the November wildfire that destroyed nearby Paradise and torched other small towns in the area, Beth Israel has become a center for the fire relief effort. It hosted the coat distribution on Dec. 13.

“[We] really wanted the town to know the Jewish community cares about the greater community. We’re not just about ourselves — we‘re about humanity,” said Rabbi Sara Abrams, who has been at Beth Israel since August 2016.

The synagogue is located about a mile from the Red Cross refugee shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, where as of last week some 700 people were still spending their days and nights on cots, in tents and in campers.

The fire that swept through the Paradise area on the morning of Nov. 8 killed at least 86 people and incinerated 14,000 homes in the Sierra Nevada foothills, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Insurance claims are already at about $7 billion, and officials estimate that it will cost at least $3 billion just to clear the charred debris.

Even most congregants were not directly affected by the fire, Abrams said that resources and emotions have been stretched to the limit in Chico, at 93,000 the most populous city in Butte County.

“I think there’s a lot of stress and trauma and grief, and there’s exhaustion for everyone here who’s been acting as support and trying to help people who don’t have very much,” she said. “This is a challenge that is here to stay for a while.”

Chico’s a small town without very many resources.

The coats and gift cards followed on the heels of 11 Judaica baskets, and all of it came from outside the region. The baskets — filled with menorahs, candlesticks, mezuzahs, challah covers and other Jewish ritual items — were given to those who lost homes in the fire and came from the Sonoma County JCC, which still had a few of the donated Judaica baskets it received following last year’s fires in the Santa Rosa area.

When the JCC asked what else it could do to help, it was told that winter coats were a priority for survivors who had lost everything. So JCC board member Lynne Belmont helped organize a coat drive, and within days about 1,300 had been collected and sent to Beth Israel and the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Chico State University. FedEx covered the cost of delivering them to Chico. Jewish Family and Children’s Services donated $10,000, which Beth Israel volunteers handed out in the form of $100 gift cards at the coat distribution event. Other donations have arrived from Jewish organizations around the country.

“It’s been a little crazy here. We’ve been, like so many organizations in Chico, inundated with calls from around the country,” Abrams said. “Chico’s a small town without very many resources, so we really appreciate the donations that are coming in from places that have more resources or that are more affluent.”

Beth Israel doesn’t have the space to host people who have lost their homes, and its kitchen is too small to provide meals for survivors, but in addition to becoming a distribution center, it has acted as a base for organizations such as the Israeli relief group IsraAid.

Congregants have also volunteered at churches and other relief organizations, and some have hosted fire survivors in their homes.

Abrams said that homelessness was already a big problem in the Chico area and that finding rental housing for those displaced by the fire is a big problem. The increased housing shortage has led to price gouging by some landlords, she added.

But the public response has been overwhelmingly positive, Abrams said, and she wishes Beth Israel had the resources to do more.

“This brought out the best in people in many ways in terms of generosity and all the love that flooded into Butte County, all the compassion and material goods that came here,” the rabbi said.

“We have a tiny little kitchen and basically a social hall/sanctuary. There wouldn’t have been any room to have anyone stay,” she said. “We do what we can. We’re very small, but people have been very willing to step up to the plate.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.