El Nio runs wild — Jewish Home, books hit

Four eucalyptus trees crashed onto Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents, damaging the porch and roof overhang.

Waters rushed into a Stanford University library, soaking about 2,000 Hebrew and Yiddish books.

And muck swamped the Palo Alto homes of about a half-dozen families that belong to a nearby synagogue, prompting other congregants to volunteer with the cleanup.

The rainstorms that have fiercely pounded Northern California over the past two weeks — destroying homes and closing highways — certainly did not sidestep the Jewish community. In addition to the problems in Oakland and Palo Alto, an informal survey showed that El Niño's relentless rains and high winds created other hassles as well.

The Peninsula Jewish Community Center prevented flooding last week by calling in a city backhoe. Other institutions canceled activities, dealt with reduced staffs, hauled out sandbags, suffered power outages and faced leaky roofs.

Though Alameda County wasn't the worst-hit spot in the Bay Area, the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland sits about 20 feet from a creek studded with 100-foot-plus eucalyptus trees. The continual rains and the creek's eroding bed apparently weakened the shallow roots of the eucalyptuses.

Two of those trees fell onto the property Tuesday of last week.

Then about 3 a.m. Friday of last week, four more trees plunged onto the nursing home itself. Apparently, one giant tree fell and brought down the others. The big one topped 150 feet in height and measured about 6 feet in diameter at its base.

"It must weigh tons and tons," Deborah Ralston, the nursing home's administrator, said Monday.

The crashing trees didn't tear holes in the building or threaten any of the 100 or so residents. But the trees tore off a portion of the roof's overhang and ripped off part of the metal railing on the home's 500 square-foot back porch.

The home had no cost estimate for the damage early this week but Ralston expects that insurance will cover the repairs.

To prevent further problems, the home hired a tree service. Over the weekend, workers removed the downed trees, sawed off other heavy treetops, and cut down a few weakened trees.

"They're a real hazard," Ralston said.

Meanwhile, a treasure of about 2,000 Jewish books in the South Bay is potentially ruined.

Early Tuesday of last week, rains overwhelmed a storm-drain system on Stanford's campus. The water overflowed and burst through a wall of Green Library, according to the Stanford News Service.

The water poured onto boxes of books that were waiting to be catalogued before heading to the shelves. The water then filled up the basement, washing over books on the lowest shelves.

About 150 students and staff members worked through the night to rescue books. According to Stanford, 120,000 books were hauled out of the basement.

Nearly 1,000 books of Hebrew literature from the Israel Cohen collection sat in the area hardest hit by the initial rush of water. Those books, still in boxes, were waiting to be processed.

"These are the books that were severely damaged," said Roger Kohn, the Reinhard Family curator of Judaica and Hebraica collections at Stanford University libraries. "They were really soaked."

More than 1,000 others were assorted books of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. They were deluged by rising water as they sat on library shelves.

It's too early to know the overall damage or how many books are destroyed, Kohn said. The impact on Stanford's Jewish studies program also is unknown for now.

The Hebrew and Yiddish works were sent along with tens of thousands of other books to the freezers of a cold-storage firm in Union City.

Freezing prevents the books from growing mold. Over the next several weeks, the books will be sent to another company for freeze-drying. That process turns the ice crystals into vapor and removes the moisture.

If the process works, Kohn said, the books won't be in pristine condition but will be usable.

The books that are part of the Israel Cohen collection arrived at Stanford in 1994. The soaked books from the 12,000- volume collection were mostly Hebrew literature from the early 1920s to the 1970s. Others were in German or Russian.

Kohn doesn't believe any of the damaged books was one-of-a-kind.

The other books, already out on the shelves, were mostly Hebrew and Yiddish literature from the 1890s to the present.

If the Yiddish books are ruined, they will be the most difficult to replace. Stanford might have the only known copy of some Yiddish books, Kohn said.

He also was concerned about many of the older Hebrew books, which were printed on a poorer quality paper that has become brittle. It's possible the pages will just turn to mush.

Still, Kohn said, the initial quick response of Stanford staff and students meant that theoretically the books got into the freezers in time to save them. And he has faith in the freeze-drying process, which "does wonders" for wet books.

Fearing its own flooding problem, Stanford's Hillel House removed books from its shelves last week. Hillel stacked the books on a table in the middle of its library, where they remain.

Nearby, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills suffered a power outage that kept children out of religious school one afternoon last week.

Not all of its congregants were as lucky. About a half-dozen Jewish families in northeastern Palo Alto suffered flood damage to their homes last week.

On Sunday, about 15 to 20 Beth Am congregants — mostly youth group members — aided congregants whose homes were severely flooded.

The volunteers helped out at the homes of four or five congregants, as well as a few neighbors. They scooped out mud, wiped down salvageable furniture, hauled out ruined mattresses and threw away hundreds of books.

"It was pretty heartbreaking," said Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, the synagogue's youth programs coordinator.

Some Jewish institutions were able to prevent problems.

Early last week, staff at the Peninsula JCC in Belmont noticed the creek alongside the building had reached its banks.

The creek allows overflow water from nearby Waterdog Lake to pour into the city's sewer system. But silt, tree branches and other debris had clogged the drain. Monday of last week, the water began threatening to flood the parking lot — for starters.

"It was in danger of overflowing," said Judy Edelson, the PJCC's executive director.

The PJCC called Belmont City Hall, and shortly after, crews arrived with a backhoe to clear out the drain.

"We haven't had a problem since they did that," Edelson said.

Workers also dug trenches around the PJCC's lawn and filled them with gravel to soak up any overflow. And the city supplied the institution with an emergency evacuation plan.

Farther south, Temple Beth El in Santa Cruz County's city of Aptos heaped sandbags against a back door last week to prevent hillside runoff from rushing inside. In Salinas in Monterey County, Temple Beth El postponed a park cleanup as part of a Mitzvah Day.

On Friday of last week, as floods covered U.S. 101 in Marin County, Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar functioned with half its usual staff of about 10. A Friday night Shabbat service, called the Neshama Minyan, was canceled.

Out of safety concerns, the Marin JCC in San Rafael canceled a weekend ski trip for teens to the Lake Tahoe area.