The scene in Chico this week, the sky filled with smoke (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)
The scene in Chico this week, the sky filled with smoke (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)

Jewish camps, institutions suffer damage in state wildfires

Fires racing through Southern California in the past week have virtually destroyed three Jewish camps and heavily damaged several Jewish institutions. Meanwhile, the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California is being called the most destructive fire in state history.

In Butte County, some 200 miles northeast of the Bay Area, residents in the college town of Chico remained on high alert after the deadly Camp Fire devastated surrounding areas and killed at least 48 people. Many more are missing.

“Some members have been affected,” said David Halimi, co-president of Chico’s Congregation Beth Israel, a small independent synagogue with roots stretching back more than 100 years. “They are staying with others. The synagogue itself is not in danger.”

At least one synagogue family lost their home.

The Camp Fire, now some 35 percent contained, had scorched more than 135,000 acres as of midweek, including the near-total destruction of Paradise, located a few miles east of Chico in the Sierra Foothills. Many of the dead were found trapped in their cars as they attempted to flee the flames. Thousands of structures also were destroyed.

Collection center set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico. (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)
Collection center set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico. (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)

Rebbetzin Chana Zweibel of the Chabad Jewish Center of Chico, which mainly serves students at Chico State University, said most of the students had left town. “We’re staying put to be here for anyone. Thank God everyone we’ve touched base with is safe. Spirits are high.”

Halimi said the Jewish community stands ready to help its neighbors.

“Everybody is doing their best and hoping for the best,” he told J. “There’s a great deal of support community-wise for all those affected by the fire, whether Jews or not.”

Chico Hillel director Kristy Collins said the 100 Chico State students she serves are safe and accounted for; most have left the area until the smoke clears. The campus and the city of Chico are out of danger due to the direction of the fire. But other dangers remain.

“Others in the Forest Ranch area are being threatened,” Collins said. “Faculty and some Jewish residents have houses there.”

Meanwhile, in Southern California, more than a quarter-million people have been evacuated in the face of the devastating Woolsey and Hill fires.

Tens of thousands of Jewish youth, spanning three generations, have spent summers at Camp Hess Kramer and its smaller sister camp, Gindling Hilltop. Late Saturday evening on Nov. 10, with the Malibu hills near the campgrounds aflame, more than 200 current and former campers, together with their families, gathered for an impromptu Havdalah service to mark the end of the Sabbath.

a giant menorah on a hillside stands surrounded by blackened trees and barren ground
A view of Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, Calif., shows how devastating the wildfires have been (Photo/Camp Hess Kramer-Facebook)

“Even though we didn’t know the extent of the damage, we knew we had been affected — and we knew the community was in need of some healing,” said Ari Kaplan, the assistant director of the camps, both of which are affiliated with the Reform Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

At the service, held at the Temple’s West Los Angeles campus and watched via live stream by some 13,000 people, “it was mostly singing, people holding each other — we passed around a box of tissues,” Kaplan said. “People wanted to share what camp meant to them.”

By midweek, the extent of the damage was clear: It was catastrophic. The fire burned roughly 90 percent of the campgrounds, destroying all but two cabins there, Kaplan said. Rebuilding is likely to be a years-long process, but the camp is already scouting temporary locations for next summer.

So, too, is the Shalom Institute, a popular Jewish retreat center and home to the 67-year-old JCA Shalom summer camp. The grounds were all but razed in the fire.

“We’re moving fast, and hope to make some announcement [about a venue] before Thanksgiving,” said Rabbi Bill Kaplan, the institute’s executive director. In the meantime, the institute has set up shop in office space provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The federation has been hosting daily calls with affected Jewish organizations and arranging support services from trauma counseling to legal assistance.

Ruben Arquilevich understands what these institutions are going through. He is executive director of URJ Camp Newman, which was destroyed last year in the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa. He sent a Facebook note to his L.A. counterparts, saying, “Sending love towards our Camp Hess Kramer/Gindling Hilltop communities & Camp JCA Shalom/Shalom Institute (where I spent many years as a camper, camp director and met my wife Vivien – And where Vivien and I were married). Praying for limited damage from the fires. And whatever damage there is, we all know the essence of Camp is sacred community and THAT cannot be extinguished as long as we care for each other and build a joyful loving inclusive vision of Jewish life and humanity.”

Southern California Jewish institutions turned to their social media pages to distribute information and offer support. Many held Havdalah services at other nearby sites and most livestreamed on their social media pages, providing support and healing for their members.

At the Ilan Ramon Day School in Agoura Hills, fire destroyed the school’s computer lab, administration building and a bathroom.

“Our school, at its core, has never been about the physical space or the buildings in which the children learn. Our school is a sacred and special community,” the head of school, Yuri Hronsky, wrote in a Facebook post. “Our school is about heart and soul, not about brick and mortar.”

burned rubble of a building next to a charred tree
Ilan Ramon Day School in Agoura Hills in L.A. County suffered major damage. (Photo/Courtesy Yuri Hronsky)

The school last week launched a GoFundMe page titled “Help Rebuild Ilan Ramon Day School,” with a goal of $250,000.

The rabbi and president of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Thousand Oaks just three miles from the Borderline Bar and Grill, site of a deadly shooting two days before, managed to enter the synagogue and remove its four Torah scrolls as mandatory evacuations were underway.

Cantor David Shukiar posted on Facebook that the grounds of the synagogue had burned but that “the temple is in great shape.” He noted that homes in the area were “burnt to the ground.”

Some 175 families who make up the congregation of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue were evacuated from their homes, as was the synagogue. On Nov. 10, a post on its Facebook page reported that the building was unharmed. The Torah scrolls had been removed a day earlier as a precaution.

How you can help

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation website has a comprehensive list of ways to help.

The Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region has opened a fund to help victims of the Camp Fire in Butte County.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has created the L.A. Wildfire Relief Fund for those hurt by the fires.


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.