This week’s power outages have wreaked havoc in much of the Bay Area, particularly in Sonoma and Napa counties, where lights started to go out around midnight Tuesday, just in time for Yom Kippur.
Synagogues in the hardest-hit areas made it through Kol Nidre services Tuesday evening without incident, but Wednesday was another story.
“The power went out in Napa around 1 a.m.,” said Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum of Chabad of Napa, which like many local Chabads holds High Holiday services in a local hotel, in this case SpringHill Suites. “The next morning we had to improvise. We moved services from the grand ballroom into the hallway. As it started to get dark, the hotel brought us lanterns and other things to help out.”
Most residents of the two counties were still without power on Thursday. The Tenenbaums’ home in downtown Napa kept its power, but he said that was not the case for most of their congregants.
The hardest part, Tenenbaum said, was that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the deadly wildfires that swept through the North Bay in 2017, leveling thousands of homes and businesses and leaving 44 people dead. Those fires broke out on Oct. 8, the first night of Sukkot. Now, again, it was a Jewish holiday, and fire was on everyone’s minds.
“Listening to the winds last night, listening to it howling and gusting, it was definitely triggering,” Tenenbaum said by phone today. “We are all really anxious. It’s very dry — anything could start a fire. A cigarette, a spark from a car. We’re all hoping and praying that nothing happens.”
There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the pattern of the power outages, said those interviewed. The PG&E maps purporting to show the boundaries of the affected areas have been constantly updated and the schedule for shut-offs a moving target.
Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and B’nai Israel in Vallejo were not affected. Neither was Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, situated in the heart of the 2017 fires.
Two miles away at Congregation Shomrei Torah, however, the lights went out at midnight Tuesday. “We knew they would,” said Rabbi Stephanie Kramer. “We scrambled all Tuesday afternoon to prepare.”
Congregant Drew Weissman is an electrician and managed to secure a generator in time for Wednesday’s services. That kept the lights on and the sound system working. His wife, Sarah, got dry ice to prevent the food for the break-fast from spoiling. Comcast was down, however, so the livestream of services didn’t work. That meant congregants who were sick or otherwise housebound could not participate, Kramer said.
The lack of air-conditioning meant the synagogue had to prop open its doors for a cross breeze, which added to security concerns. “But we had to keep the doors open, people were sweltering,” she said.
Like Tenenbaum, Kramer invoked the memory of the 2017 wildfires. Shomrei Torah was ground zero for Jewish relief efforts during and after that disaster, hosting children’s programs and family counseling and offering hot meals twice a day. This week’s events brought it all back for many.
Listening to the winds howling and gusting, it was definitely triggering.
“It was really hard for our community,” said Kramer, who lost power in her home (as did Shomrei’s Senior Rabbi George Gittleman). “So many people were triggered by the long lines at the gas stations, the wind, the fear.”
The congregation already had planned to incorporate special prayers into this year’s service, including an aliyah to the Torah for all those who lost homes and loved ones in 2017. “It was already on our minds, and this was just an added layer,” she said.
Also in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Chabad Jewish Center lost power soon after Kol Nidre services ended. It was the first High Holidays in a new building, said Altie Wolvovsky, who runs the center with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky.
“We knew it was coming, so we got battery-operated lanterns and extra candles,” she said. As Wednesday dragged on and darkness fell, the security guards brought more lanterns and fresh batteries.
“It turned out to be very special and meaningful,” she said. “In his sermon, the rabbi said, well, we can’t read very well in the dark, so we’ll have to pray from the heart.”
Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley also made it through Kol Nidre with power and had a generator ready for Wednesday after the power was cut around 4 a.m. More than 200 people, most of whom had no power in their homes, showed up for services.
“So we had lights, and the refrigerator stayed cold; we had everything for the break-fast. We had bagels and lox and tuna fish and egg salad, and the wine bar was set up,” said congregational president Ellyn Elson, who had all synagogue calls forwarded to her home phone.
They used paper plates and flatware, she said, because they didn’t think they’d be able to wash dishes. “But they were all compostable. We try to be sustainable.”
Altie Wolvovsky is hoping and praying the Chabad center’s meat for Sukkot will stay frozen. (The eight-day holiday starts Sunday evening.) “We’re preparing for the best,” she said.
Shomrei Torah planned to put up its sukkah this afternoon — with battery-operated tools, of course. “We have no idea when power will be restored, and we have a bat mitzvah Saturday,” Kramer said.
Beth Shalom plans to hold Friday evening services outside on the patio. Challah and wine will be served in place of a complete oneg, said Elson. And that’s OK. It could have been a lot worse.
“It’s very windy here, I’ll tell you,” she said. “I heard there were 70 mile-per-hour winds in the hills. We definitely could have had a fire.”