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How One Congregation Responded to the California Fires with a Huge Shabbat Dinner

How One Congregation Responded to the California Fires with a Huge Shabbat Dinner

Two braided Shabbat challot on a tray beneath a white and gold embroidered challah cover

As friends Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller and Rabbi Paul Kipnes spoke about how Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, could support the Temple Beth Torah community in Ventura, CA, as the latter faced continuing and devastating wildfires, they hatched a plan.

Or Ami congregant Debra Gurin reflects...

Receiving a random call from my rabbi is always an interesting experience. A million thoughts ran through my mind as the phone rang and his name popped up on the screen. The timing of Rabbi Kipnes’ phone call was challenging because I was sitting at my son’s doctor’s appointment, and I didn’t know what to expect when I answered the phone. But the nature of the call was perfect.

Rabbi Paul asked if I would help organize a Shabbat dinner at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura County for 120 people who'd been affected by the Thomas Fire, the fifth-largest fire in California history. He said we had less than 24 hours to work out the details - oh, and he was on the other side of the country at the URJ Biennial Convention in Boston. Of course, I said yes!

I coordinated with a member of the Ventura temple’s board, making sure to meet their needs. Luckily I have an iPhone, good multitasking skills, and two children who can be self-sufficient when asked, so I immediately went to work. I was able to pull together a delicious dinner in just a couple of hours.

The plan was to meet Or Ami congregants Blythe Williams and her husband at Presto Pasta restaurant in Ventura to pick up the food and deliver it to Temple Beth Torah. We looked forward to serving the dinner. Unfortunately, because of medical issues  with my lungs, I could not be close to the fires and thick smoke. I worried I was letting my rabbis down, but Blythe told me she had the next part covered. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard how well it went.

I was honored to have been asked by my rabbis to help people in need. I love that our synagogue is always giving back to our community. This chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) is the true meaning of being Jewish.

Or Ami congregant Blythe Williams continues...

We have friends who live in Ventura. We know people who have been evacuated, and we live right on the border of Ventura County, so when Rabbi Paul called, we knew we had to help.

After Debra took care of the ordering, our family assumed responsibility for picking up, delivering, and setting up of the Shabbat dinner.

Driving from Westlake to Ventura was creepy. The orange glow from the sunset hugged us in a haze so thick we were sure it had to be fog from the ocean. It was not. From the freeway, we could see the huge cloud of white smoke overhead; soon, we were enveloped inside the cloud. We drove in silence as our thoughts and hearts began to feel heavy with the weight of entering this unhealthy, thickly smoky place, a place that thousands nonetheless called home.

The smoke was a reminder of the loss so many were experiencing. Ten families from the temple lost their homes, one more from Congregation Or Ami, and countless others whose homes were still standing lived with the fear that theirs could be next. We felt saddened to realize that as the lucky ones, we could quickly escape back home to the clean air.

We ran from the car to the restaurant to get the food. Every time the door opened, a wave of smoke drifted in; there was no escaping it. We hadn't brought masks with us, so used our shirts to cover our noses and mouths. As we rushed our kids from the restaurant back into the car, we instructed them to hold their breath.

We learned that all of the drinking water in the area was contaminated because of the fire, so we brought tons of water bottles with us as well. They were all gone by the end of the dinner.

Our car was filled with the aromas of breadsticks and pasta, and we were relieved for a moment to smell Shabbat dinner instead of smoke. Driving up the road to the temple’s driveway, the smoke got thicker, the streets got quieter, and the space around us got blacker. We realized that Temple Beth Torah was the last structure on a street that, further on, was blockaded as a Red Zone by the National Guard. The headlights from their massive army trucks were the only lights illuminating the street; their glow almost surreal. The National Guard was helping to keep everyone safe and evacuated from their homes, but they were also a sign of emergency.

We realized that many families could not ever go back to their homes that once stood beyond. There was a curfew in place to further keep the area safe, but also because every hand was desperately needed on deck: police, firefighters, and National Guard.

I once again rushed my children inside the temple as members came out to help bring dinner inside.

The Shabbat dinner was lovely and sad, loud and quiet, all at the same time. Everyone seemed glad to be with others and to offer support to those families who lost their homes. People were so appreciative of us, of Congregation Or Ami, and of our clergy, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler, and Rabbi Julia Weisz.

We discovered sweet connections: Temple Beth Torah’s second Rabbi Jaclyn Fromer is sister to Or Ami’s faculty member Andrew Fromer, and our grandmother-in-law Stephanie Levine is a member of Temple Beth Torah who was under mandatory evacuation but able to get back into her home that Friday afternoon. We were so blessed to be able to spend Shabbat dinner with her, and to give her many needed hugs.

Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller began singing the song "Angels Blessing." She spoke so highly of our Rabbi Paul Kipnes, calling him, our congregation, and my family “angels.” I have never been called an angel before, and I do not have words to express how wonderful I felt at that moment. Rabbi Lisa also called my family up to the bimah for the honor of lighting and blessing the Shabbat candles. This was another family first for us, but we were almost embarrassed to be up there. We were not looking for this much attention, although it was incredibly touching. But no thanks were needed; we were only bringing dinner.

There is so much more that all of us can do to help repair this broken world. It was a privilege just to be there and to perform an act so small, but one that showed the Temple Beth Torah community that we are thinking and praying for them, and that they are not alone. Grief is so heavy and lonely, so I am so honored to be a part of Congregation Or Ami, a sanctuary of kindness.

You Can Help, Too

To help Temple Beth Torah and the surrounding communities, visit their fire relief fund information site. You can also send gift cards to congregants in need.

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