U.S. Air Force firefighters from Edwards Air Force Base, seen here extinguishing a fire in Vacaville Aug. 21, have been deployed across the North Bay to help contain the wildfires. (Photo/U.S. Air Force-Nicholas Pilch)
U.S. Air Force firefighters from Edwards Air Force Base, seen here extinguishing a fire in Vacaville Aug. 21, have been deployed across the North Bay to help contain the wildfires. (Photo/U.S. Air Force-Nicholas Pilch)

Bay Area Jewish community shaken as three major wildfires encroach

J. is following the Bay Area wildfires and reporting their impact on the Jewish community. Readers are encouraged to share any Jewish-related wildfire tips or news with [email protected], and to check back often for updates.

LNU Lightning Complex

Of the three major lightning-sparked fires burning in the Bay Area, the LNU Lightning Complex in the North Bay has been the most devastating, destroying close to 1,000 structures, damaging hundreds more and leading to five deaths.

On Tuesday the fire cluster was still burning across more than 350,000 acres and was 27 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. Among the thousands displaced were scores of people from the Jewish community; many lost their homes as the fires destroyed hundreds of properties on their tear through Napa and Sonoma counties before spreading to Solano, Yolo and Lake counties.

Vacaville resident Stephen Silberstein, 83, and his wife were awoken at 2 a.m. on Aug 19 by lights on the road and police with bullhorns. Startled from sleep, they were given minutes to evacuate their home. They were completely unprepared.

“We literally left with the clothes on our back, and the dogs,” Silberstein told J. on Aug. 24. “And a cat.”

They returned to find only ashes at their 5-acre home in the Vacaville hills where they’d lived for 20 years.

“That was it,” he said. “We left, and we came back and there was nothing.”

They lost not only their home but also a carefully curated collection of beautiful objects, from fine handmade rugs to the barrels of slivovitz Silberstein had made himself from fruit in his orchards. They also lost “all of our family heirlooms and photographic history, collection of rare wines and phonographic records, vinyl records,” he said.

A fire in Napa County as seen from Middletown in Lake County, Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo/Jade May)
A fire in Napa County as seen from Middletown in Lake County, Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo/Jade May)

But Silberstein was calm. Speaking to J. from a friend’s house, Silberstein said he was doing fine, although the dogs seemed shaken.

“I thought I’d be pretty sad to have my dream house and its contents evaporate,” he said. And yet, “I actually felt lighter, and free of responsibility, and kind of excited.”

Another Vacaville local, Rabbi Chaim Zaklos of Chabad of Solano County, also had to evacuate his family of nine — though he’d been given warning and had personal items and Torahs packed.

“They knocked on our door and said the fires were just a couple blocks away,” he said.

The Zaklos family headed over to the shelter at the Ulatis Cultural Center, where they brought food and drinks to hand out to fellow evacuees. Within 48 hours they were back in their home, but Zaklos said he knows around a half-dozen community members who have lost houses.

“Some of them haven’t been home because there is no home to go back to,” he said.

CZU Lightning Complex

The CZU Lightning Complex fires, sparked on Aug. 16, destroyed 330 structures in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and led to one death, according to Cal Fire. As of Aug. 25 the blazes had burned more than 78,000 acres and forced evacuations for about 77,000 people, including the entire UC Santa Cruz campus.

A few miles south in Aptos, Temple Beth El, whose motto is “Reform Judaism, Santa Cruz style,” sprang into action soon after evacuation orders came down. Rabbi Paula Marcus estimated that more than 100 of her congregants, many of whom live in the San Lorenzo valley north of Santa Cruz, were evacuated.

A week later they remained displaced, with no return to normalcy in sight. Some went to stay at hotels, others with family members outside of the fire zone.

One synagogue staff member’s house was destroyed, Marcus said. Many didn’t know whether their homes were still standing. Those who had security systems installed were checking them constantly on phones and computers.

“It’s a roller coaster,” Marcus said. “The president of the congregation currently doesn’t know if his house is standing or not.”

RELATED: Local Jewish agencies ready to provide fire relief

The shul started daily Zoom calls the week the fire began to organize relief efforts. Scott Roseman, founder of the popular New Leaf grocery chain and a synagogue member, offered to match donations, and as of Tuesday the shul had raised close to $15,000.

Administrators set up an online bulletin board where people could post offers of places to stay, or to foster pets. The synagogue also has become a mail-sorting hub for displaced congregants who arranged for their mail to be forwarded to the shul.

The evacuations are “so disruptive, especially with kids,” Marcus said, particularly those who need reliable internet access to begin school.

The synagogue’s preschool, which was operating outdoors due to the pandemic, had to close temporarily because of the poor air quality.

Chai Bryce of Kolaynu, an independent, lay-led congregation in Santa Cruz spared the bulk of the devastation, said the wildfires on top of a pandemic have been traumatizing, and congregants are reaching out to each other for emotional support. The CZU Complex was only 17 percent contained as of Aug. 25.

“We’re just hoping Santa Cruz doesn’t go up in flames,” Bryce said.

Rabbi Yigal Rosenberg of Chabad of Santa Clara said he had connected people evacuated from the fires with temporary housing in the San Jose area, and that he was keeping an eye on his community.

“We are praying,” he said.

SCU Lightning Complex

The SCU Lightning Complex, though massive — burning over 360,000 acres across several East Bay counties — has been burning mostly in rural areas and had destroyed 18 structures as of Aug. 25, according to Cal Fire.

Administrator Jill Ziman of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont said that some congregants live in evacuation warning zones, but none were in mandatory evacuation zones as of Aug. 24.

“As far as I know, nobody in our congregation has had to be evacuated,” Ziman said. “Not yet.

The fire cluster was 15 percent contained as of Aug. 25.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.