Carrying our Temple's Torah Scrolls to Safety
That photo is of me, carrying Congregation Or Ami's two Sifrei Torah on the Las Virgenes bridge over the 101 Freeway in Calabasas, CA. I had just carried the two scrolls from our synagogue building, away from smoky fire.
With me is my new friend Paul Kleinfinger, a nice Jewish boy who offered to shoulder the responsibility for protecting the Torah scrolls. I thank him for the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim (this act of lovingkindness) and for assisting someone (me) in need of help.
If you look closely behind us on the left, you see the hill that was part aflame and part smoldering. A hill swarming with fire fighters dressed in orange. A hill being battered by a bulldozer and a flock of super scooper planes and helicopters dropping tons of water on the flames. The flames and smoke were 200 yards from our Calabasas, CA synagogue. Locals will recognize from the pictures that the fire was on the hill behind the Las Virgenes Fire Station, and right near the onramp to the 101 West.
The burn area was wide, but the flames were small, and firefighters vigorously attacked the fire. Luckily, Las Virgenes Blvd. separated the flames from our area; it appeared unlikely that the fire could jump across the road. Clearly, the Fire Department's plan was to make a stand on that ridge. Still the smoke was heavy, flames were still burning, and we worried.
After receiving a series of texts, Facebook messages, and calls from congregants, Congregation Or Ami’s president Hedi Gross and I decided to meet at the synagogue to evacuate the Torah scrolls, computers, prayerbooks and more. Next to our children and our lives, a Sefer Torah is the holiest possession of the Jew. Jews will often risk their lives to save a Sefer Torah in case of fire. Fortunately, the immediate danger seemed low.
Living in California, we have been down this road before, so we are prepared. Previous fires have caused us to move our offsite High Holidays services to a different location and to quickly evacuate everything of significance from the synagogue. (I even got a Rosh HaShanah sermon out of it.) Now lists hang in the synagogue as to what needs to be evacuated if a fire threatens our sanctuary home.
Our president Hedi, her husband, Matt, and their daughter all drove toward the synagogue from different directions, only to be turned back at the freeway exit by the LA County Sheriffs. My car was also turned away, but after showing my identification, the officer allowed me to walk across the bridge and "do what I needed to do." So I walked across the bridge, turned down our road, and unlocked the front door. Wrapping our two scrolls in tallitot (prayer shawls), I carried them out of the synagogue and back down the road.
They were heavy. It was hot outside. But just like we tell the students who are nervous about carrying Torah during their b'nai mitzvah service, the Torah scrolls carried themselves across the bridge.
As I walked with the Torah scrolls, Hedi and Matt were finally allowed to pass through to the synagogue on the back road. Watching the helicopters fly overhead gave them an adrenaline rush to unhook our temple’s computers and carry them to their cars. As they evaluated how and if to remove other important items from the building, they received innumerable offers – by phone, Facebook, and text message – for help from congregants and friends.
Members of the nearby Conservative synagogue met me across the bridge to help with the Torah scrolls. I must have been really tired, and because of smoke inhalation (not really) I was probably was not thinking straight, because I, a religious Red Sox fan, even released one Torah scroll to this friend wearing a Yankees T-shirt!
We delivered the Torah scrolls for safekeeping overnight to congregants who carried them into their home and lovingly placed them on their dining room table. They were excited to be able to open and examine up close our sacred scrolls.
When all was said and done, the fire department’s fast contained the fire before it could spread. With the danger was diminishing, Hedi and Matt returned the computers back to their rightful places. Another lay leader reported that the news was announcing – and bird's eye video was confirming – that the threat had all but passed. Somewhere between 50-170 acres burned, but no homes were damaged.
Congregation Or Ami thanks all those who called, prayed, and offered to help. We believe our synagogue is safe and our precautions were prudent but unnecessary. And now, back to our regularly scheduled High Holy Day preparations.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He teaches Pastoral Counseling in the Rabbinical School and serves as a member of the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He serves as Rabbinic Dean at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and chair of the Revenue Enhancement Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.