Stephanie Levin, director of programs at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah with Judaica Gift Baskets for fire victims, Dec. 2017 (Photo/Caroline Poland)
Stephanie Levin, director of programs at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah with Judaica Gift Baskets for fire victims, Dec. 2017 (Photo/Caroline Poland)

Baskets of Judaica brighten Hanukkah for fire-affected families

Caroline Poland remembers walking along the streets of San Francisco, seeing the red sky and breathing in the nearly week-old smoke from the fires that had ravaged Sonoma County. Then the phone rang.

“She was overwhelmed,” recalled the program officer for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The “she” was Rabbi Stephanie Kramer, associate rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, and the sound of her voice on the other end of the line was far from calm, cool and collected.

The fallout from the fires “was all so personal for her,” Poland said. “She told me congregants were crying over the loss of treasures that had been passed from generation to generation.”

Kramer was referring, in part, to all of the Judaica that was destroyed in the homes consumed by the October wildfires.

As soon as the flames hit, Kramer reached out to colleagues to inquire about best practices during a natural disaster. Rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sinai in Oakland, told her how his synagogue had donated sets of candlesticks to families impacted by the Oakland firestorm in 1991.

“I was moved to tears,” Kramer said. “You really need it all. If the Jewish community wants to do something, it would be great to give these families a Jewish start-up kit.”

And with that, the Judaica Baskets Community Project was born.

Wasting no time, Poland started seeking donations from Bay Area Jewish organizations, Jewish day schools and high schools, synagogue preschools, Judaica stores, affinity groups and individuals. Requested items included Shabbat candlesticks, Kiddush cups, mezuzahs, seder plates, Havdalah sets and especially — with Hanukkah right around the corner — menorahs, candles and dreidels.

Judaica items donated to North Bay fire victims
Judaica items donated to North Bay fire victims

Among those that immediately stepped up, offering to donate multiple baskets toward the 52 needed for known Jewish families who had lost their homes, was the Jewish Women’s Fund of the S.F.-based Federation. Soon after member Julie Levine sent an email to the group’s 22 women, 10 menorahs showed up on her doorstep, followed by 15 boxes of Hanukkah gelt and a check to purchase Amazon gift cards for kids.

“We all jumped at this opportunity to help,” Levine said, noting that the mission of the Women’s Fund is to help women and girls in the Jewish community. “We are all women and mothers. We all run a home. We’re trying to raise good kids, Jewish kids, so this hit a nerve.”

Included in some of the baskets were mezuzah cases made by metal worker and Judaica artist Aimee Golant, who lives and works in San Francisco.

“When I contacted Aimee, she immediately understood the depth of the project,” said Nell Mahgel-Friedman, co-owner of Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley. “She fast-tracked the production of 10 brand new ‘Shine’ mezuzahs in less than one week so they could be part of the baskets. The face of the mezuzah depicts a letter shin, resembling a flame.”

Carol Appel, the Federation’s community concierge for Sonoma County, attributed the positive response to people wanting to come together.

“Being together is comforting,” she said. “As much as we can gather and have experiences that give us solace and comfort religiously — or just by talking about things, or not talking, because many people can’t talk about it — we should.”

Nancy and Andy Fleming lost their Santa Rosa home in the fire and have since lived what they call an “itinerant lifestyle.” Currently they are staying in Florida; however, the family had received Hanukkah and Shabbat Judaica as part of the project, as well as invitations from many fellow Beth Ami Congregation members for meals and other occasions.

The Conservative synagogue in Santa Rosa “hosted a wonderful Shabbat dinner for families and the whole community,” Andy said. “It got across to us that the community is a very important part of our lives. It’s hard to receive that kind of attention. We have a deep connection to Beth Ami and everyone has been very sensitive to us.”

Beth Ami congregants Michelle and Paul Zygielbaum also received a bag of Hanukkah items plus candlesticks, candles and a tablecloth for Shabbat. Their havurah, with which they’ve been involved for nine years, “rallied around us,” Michelle said.

It’s like losing a family member. Your house is alive and then suddenly it’s dead.

“We knew pretty quickly that we were going through a grief process,” Paul said about the loss of their home. “It’s like losing a family member. Your house is alive and then suddenly it’s dead. What you thought you would pass on to your family is not there.”

Poland, who has worked at Federation for more than six years, said what is occurring now is a long-term effort that “goes beyond clicking a donation button.” It is meant to engage the community — including the unaffiliated who have been equally impacted — in all of its diversity, she said.

Added Levine of the Jewish Women’s Fund: “We want [families] to know that they are supported by the community. We’re all in this together.”

Additional events that will bring the community together include a Sunday, Dec. 10 multi-activity Hanukkah gathering for families with young children at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. And in January, Appel and Reb Irwin Keller of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati have planned “Perfect Pairing: Healing and Jewish Wisdom (And a Delicious Glass of Wine),” one in a series of events pairing wine tasting and Jewish conversation. And those two event are only a small sampling among many others.

“Meaningful conversations help us to endure, recover, transform and strengthen our community,” Appel said. “A delicious glass of wine certainly helps the conversation.”

With a goal of 60 baskets, the Judaica Baskets Community Project will extend beyond Hanukkah, and the Federation and area synagogues are accepting donations through all of December. Baskets will be available at Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa in early 2018.

“Our entire congregation has been affected, either by being evacuated or by taking in evacuees,” Kramer said. “Many of them lost their homes, their jobs. However, even with the emotional distress, they still want to give. It’s a very Jewish lesson.”

That the baskets project is happening right around Hanukkah time is especially poignant.

“The message of Hanukkah is shining light into dark places,” said Kramer, who has been at Shomrei Torah since 2011. “The situation in Santa Rosa is still dark. When people ask how you’re doing, we say kids are going back to school, but what they see from the playground is complete devastation. How can we, as Jewish people, in an atmosphere in December that is filled with glittery, shiny Christmas, have some light brought in?”

Appel noted that the cycles of the Jewish and secular calendars, and associated holidays and simchas, can help the community stay grounded and move forward.

“Rabbis would say our traditions and ceremonies and teachings help us plow forward in spite of” disasters like the fires, she said. “The Jewish people — we are wired to survive.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.