Fire aftermath

In this Oct. 13, 2017 file photo, a row of chimneys stand in a neighborhood devastated by a wildfire near Santa Rosa.

I opened my Facebook page and saw the startling words from a dear friend: “Yes, we’ve evacuated!”

Not knowing anything else, I began to search for information about an evacuation in Santa Rosa. It became clear in a matter of hours that parts of this community in Northern California were devastated beyond description.

This disaster was also personal because Santa Rosa is like a second home for me. I volunteer as a camp rabbi for two weeks every summer at the Reform movement’s residential summer camp called URJ Camp Newman, located along a beautiful rural stretch of roadway between Santa Rosa and Calistoga. Knowing that was the path of the fire, I waited anxiously for several hours to find out what happened.

By the end of the day my worst fears were confirmed: Camp Newman, my home away from home, was mostly gone.

As news spread, the tens of thousands of people touched by Camp Newman began to grieve. However, we also came together in extraordinary ways with a spirit of resolve and determination.

I was devastated for the loss of my “summer home,” a place filled with memories but no personal possessions. However, I was more devastated by the cataclysmic losses suffered by thousands of people in Santa Rosa whose primary homes were reduced to rubble and ash, and whose loved ones died in the fires.

Through the devastation I felt compelled to respond.

Efforts to help Camp Newman and Santa Rosa bring to mind a rabbinic commentary about Noah and the building of the Ark. The Book of Genesis describes Noah as a “righteous man in his generation.” He is righteous because he listened to God. What makes him mediocre, however, is that as he built the ark, he focused only on his own needs, not the needs of the entire community.

An early 19th century sage named Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk compares Noah to a man in a cold home. That man has two options to get warm: he can either heat his entire home or wear a fur garment.

When he heats the entire home, everyone in the home benefits; when he wears a fur garment, only he benefits. Noah is like the man who chooses to wear fur — only for his own benefit.

Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and who is considered to be righteous in all generations, is like the man who heats his entire home, casting warmth onto all, taking care of everyone. That is the model that Jews seek to emulate.

I was mindful of this text when I went to Santa Rosa last week to help provide assistance for a sister synagogue that has served as a shelter, community kitchen and a day camp. I was able to engage my community very quickly.

In less than 24 hours, about 100 of our families donated $2,500, which I turned into Target gift cards for those most directly affected by the fires. I could’ve focused our collection solely for Camp Newman. However, mindful of the commentary above, I knew that we had to be like Abraham and heat the entire house and take care of all.

I heard stories about local civic leaders, city managers, doctors, and first responders who lost their homes. Yet day after day they continue to care for the people in their community who are suffering, putting the needs of the larger community ahead of their own. These extraordinary residents are providing heat for all by caring for all who are in need, even when they themselves are in need.

Our nation has experienced an unusual amount of tragedy in recent weeks. The common thread woven through our collective grief is the extraordinary response from everyday citizens determined to make a difference.

Jewish tradition teaches, “One who saves a single life it is as if they saved the entire world.” Each sacred act of generosity and kindness can make all the difference in the world for a person who is suffering.

Let us do our part to bring healing to the broken hearted, to help rebuild all that is broken and destroyed, and make sure that when tragedy strikes, we respond, ready to heat the entire home.

Rabbi Charles Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro. He can be reached at

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