Chabad Aids Survivors of Deadly California Wildfires

From by Karen Schwartz:

The phone started ringing in the middle of the night. A friend who had been evacuated amid California’s raging wildfires called Rabbi Mendel and Altie Wolvovsky, co-directors of the Chabad of Sonoma County, to check in.

It was almost 3 a.m. on Monday, after a busy day of celebration during the holiday of Sukkot. They hit the phones immediately, calling community members, especially in the mandatory evacuation zones, to see what people needed and to make sure those in the path of destruction were awake and on the move.

“All we had to do was go outside of our house and look to one side, and we could see where it was,” says the rabbi. “You could see the flames, and you could see it spreading.”

They started hearing back from people, and two hours later, at about 5 a.m., they themselves prepared to leave. They loaded up their eight children and headed west to Sebastopol, a city some 50 miles north of San Francisco. “Even from there, on some of the roads when we pulled off, we were able to see the flames continuing to expand,” he says. “There was just this frightening type of red in the sky in many, many areas where we would look.”

At least eleven people have died so far, an estimated 1,500 buildings have been destroyed and more than 75,000 acres have burned in eight counties as a result of the fires that started Sunday night in Northern California, according to news reports. The biggest ones have been in Sonoma County and Napa wine country—where Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency—with more than 20,000 people evacuated from the most dangerous areas, some literally running for their lives. Two hospitals evacuated patients in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the region.

At the same time, a brush fire in Anaheim, in Southern California, has burned thousands of acres of land and is leaving a band of acrid smoke as it makes its way towards homes and buildings, necessitating more than 1,000 fire fighters to battle the flames.

‘Comfort and Support Each Other’

Just after noon, the Wolvovskys made their way back to their neighborhood. The rabbi picked up snacks and drinks for officers from around the state who had traveled to help keep nearby roads clear for emergency vehicles, and then headed to a shelter at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, where he saw some familiar faces and sat with people to comfort them.

Throughout the day, the Wolvovskys spoke to people in the community who had lost their homes. “We were grateful to hear they were alive, but it has been very emotional for them and for us to hear. People ran literally with the shirts on their backs, and they turned around and didn’t think they’d see their houses again.”

Between Facebook, texts, emails and the Chabad’s website, they’ve checked in with a few hundred people, but still haven’t heard from everyone. “Many in the community have taken a lot of losses, but thankfully, only materially,” reports the rabbi.

Chabad’s doors will be open, serving hot meals and providing assistance to those in need in the days ahead. With Shemini AtzeretSimchat Torah and Shabbat approaching, the Wolvovskys want to give people an opportunity to find joy amid the challenges.

“We want to make sure people know that these meals are open for everybody,” he says. “No strings attached; just come. We want to be there to comfort and support each other.”

More than ever, these holidays are about togetherness, emphasizes the rabbi.

“The message will be continuing to remind us all that the most important thing is people, not possessions,” he says. “One of the beautiful things we saw right away was everybody’s concern for each other, and that will continue. We’ll make sure to look out for each other and see what we can do to help our neighbors, so together we can all get back on our feet and recover.”

To support those who have suffered losses in the wildfires, click here.

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