In early November, the wind driven flames of the Woolsey Fire tore through the passages and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains consuming 96,949 acres, destroying 1500 structures, damaging 341 others, injuring three firefighters and taking three lives.
When the smoke cleared, a lone Menorah stood unscathed on the top of a smoldering Malibu hillside. It belonged to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps which were ravaged by the fire.
The majority of the Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp buildings were destroyed. But the menorah, a symbol of the camp community, survived.
Palos Verdes resident Julie Brown loved those camps.
When she was a child living in the San Fernando Valley, she spent her summers there. As a teenager, she was one of their camp counselors. “My summers at camp were the best,” she said, her voice soft and reflective. “Probably one of the most life-defining experiences I had.”
Brown's camp counselor experience set her on the road to involvement in other unique areas and causes.
When her two sons were young, she volunteered at their schools, was an active member of the PTA, and became a founding member of Mother’s Advocating Prevention, an organization dedicated to the prevention of abuse, abduction and exploitation. She served on the board and was an educator for more than ten years.
In addition to raising a family and her volunteer work, Brown is a writer. Her articles have been featured in the publications such as the Daily Breeze, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and Parenting Magazine. For a few years, she was a freelance grant writer.
“However,” she said, “my true love is storytelling.”
She started writing fiction when her sons became teenagers. First, she wrote short stories and then attempted a novel. She published her first novel, "Long Dance Home," in 2017.
A year and a half ago, shortly before the book was released, Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It forced me to evaluate everything in life,” she said, taking a deep breath, “particularly why I write. It occurred to me that I write for many reasons – mostly because I love it. But also, I write to give something of myself to others. I want to give readers a great story, one that captivates and entertains. I want to share my experiences, to show compassion, to connect with others and help them feel less alone. I also realized that by writing, I could find new ways to give back, or in some cases, to pay it forward.”
Last December while a patient at the City of Hope, Brown launched a “Write to Give” project using her novel to connect with other women who were dealing with cancer. Brown rolled a suitcase full of books through the Women’s Center at City of Hope and handed them out.
“I sat and talked with one woman for a long time. Several wrote me thank you notes, and it was wonderful to know that in a small way I’d made a difference, even if only for just a moment. After that, I decided I’d have a giving project every holiday season.”
And after her beloved camps were destroyed, Brown’s mission was clear.
“One hundred percent of my December royalties from Long Dance Home will be donated to rebuilding the camps," said Brown. "The more books that sell, the more money we raise for camp, the place where I learned the true meaning of Tikkun Olam.”
Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness one performs to perfect or repair the world. “It sounds like an overwhelming task, but it’s not,” says Brown. “A smile, a kind word, a call to someone in need. In my view, even the simplest actions have meaning and purpose. Of course,” she said with a knowing smile, “the big ones do, too.”
When asked what’s ahead, Brown thought for a moment. “To keep writing, of course. I’m publishing a novella later this month, "Christmas in Clearwater," and in 2019, the next book in my Clearwater series will be released.”
And of course, she’ll continue to give back.
“I’m a lucky woman. I have a wonderful family and the best friends a girl could ask for. And, thanks to my doctors, I have my health. These are all blessings, and blessings are meant to be shared. As Anne Frank said, ‘how wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.’”