A house just outside St. Helena, Napa County, burns in the Glass Fire, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo/Napa County Sheriff)
A house just outside St. Helena, Napa County, burns in the Glass Fire, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo/Napa County Sheriff)

In North Bay, fire and smoke disrupt an already unusual Yom Kippur

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Rabbi Stephanie Kramer and her family were at home when they got the call to evacuate, just as Kol Nidre was ending on Sunday evening.

“A very loud alert went off on all our phones,” said Kramer, senior associate rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, which had prerecorded the opening Yom Kippur service.

Kramer said Rabbi George Gittleman and cantorial soloist Erica Wisner also had to evacuate, along with a number of Shomrei Torah congregants.

“Many of those people are just unsure of their home status right now,” she said. Some 80,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate from affected areas.

Kramer’s family jumped in the car and headed for the freeway. She said it was so packed that it took 45 minutes to go a half mile. As of Tuesday, they were sheltering with friends in Petaluma.

“The same place I sought refuge in 2017,” she said. “So it’s very surreal.”

It’s a sadly familiar experience for Kramer, her congregation — and everyone else.

In 2017, a week after Yom Kippur, the Tubbs Fire started its assault on Santa Rosa, eventually killing 22, destroying 5,600 structures and wiping out URJ Camp Newman. Shomrei Torah became a hub for Jewish community aid, serving as a shelter, soup kitchen and command center for volunteers eager to help the community. Now the Glass Fire is hitting many neighborhoods that weren’t affected by Tubbs.

“This is really burning in the areas that didn’t burn in 2017,” she said.

Kramer is keeping in touch with her congregants, but she isn’t expecting an end to the situation soon.

“Nothing is contained right now,” she said. “I know from experience, from 2017, that this is the calm before the storm.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Glass Fire was burning over 42,000 acres from the east side of Santa Rosa to the towns of Calistoga and St. Helena. It began on Sept. 27 as a small fire but quickly ballooned to threaten over 10,000 structures, according to Cal Fire. Zero percent was contained, and 80 homes had been destroyed in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky of  Sonoma County Chabad Jewish Center reported on Wednesday that the Santa Rosa home and pottery studio of artists Caryn Fried and Wayne Reynolds had been consumed by the fire. The couple, who moved to the area in the late 1980s, had 4 acres with teaching studios for community classes and a gallery where visitors could buy Fried’s sculptural pieces or Reynold’s paintings — or even a menorah

Wolvovsky said the mandatory evacuation line in the eastern part of Santa Rosa stopped right across the street from the Chabad center. Despite being so close to the evacuation zone, he said he didn’t anticipate having to leave. Instead he was concentrating on providing food and shelter for people who had been displaced, while still keeping an eye on fire news.

“The ash keeps raining and the smoke is still thick,” he told J. on Tuesday afternoon. 

Ellen Blustein, executive director of the JCC of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, also lives across the street from an evacuation line. She went to her daughter’s place in Petaluma after a sleepless night but is already back at home and working — for now.

“It’s not over at all,” she said. “It’s a respite.”

She said there was special concern about the fires in the northeastern part of the city.

“That is where the largest Jewish population in the county resides, and a lot of seniors,” she said. “So we’ll be making calls.”

She said the JCC would do outreach to make sure seniors who needed help were getting it, but she emphasized that the danger was far from over.

“We’re reeling,” Blustein said. “We’re just reeling.”

Nearly all congregants and staff at Congregation Beth Ami were evacuated from their homes as a precaution. Among them was Rabbi Mordecai Miller, who conducted Yom Kippur services via Zoom while ensconced in his daughter’s Los Altos residence.

“It looks like everyone is evacuated,” Miller said. “There are a few who remained in the warning zone; they will wait until it’s mandatory evacuation.”

Miller said he has spent much of his time since the start of the Glass Fire making check-in calls to congregants. The synagogue itself is fine, though it has been essentially shut down since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Beth Ami, like all other North Bay Jewish institutions, has become a veteran of coping with wildfire emergencies. Several congregants lost homes in the Tubbs Fire.

Congregation Ner Shalom, located in Cotati, about halfway between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, had not yet been directly threatened by the Glass Fire as of Tuesday afternoon. But Reb Irwin Keller, spiritual leader of the synagogue, said some of his congregants live in the fire zone and have been forced to evacuate.

Some did so right in the middle of Yom Kippur services.

“One of the unexpected benefits of holding High Holidays on Zoom is that people who were evacuating continued to be [supported] in ways they wouldn’t otherwise,” Keller said. “If this was any other year, they would have had to abandon Yom Kippur. Instead, they moved, went to a safe place and came back to the Zoom room.”

Keller said he had urged congregants enduring the stress of evacuation to forgo fasting. “It felt to me that we needed all our wits about us,” he said. “Nobody needed to get an evacuation order while not physically ready.”

This makes four years straight Keller and his fellow Sonoma County residents have had to cope with catastrophic wildfires. He says by now everyone has a plan for what to do when fire threatens. However, the coronavirus has thrown some of the playbook out the window.

When the Tubbs Fire devastated the same region, recalled Keller, “We had 40 people that first night sheltering in the synagogue. Now you can’t have 40 people in the synagogue. And at the same time the countywide preparedness is so much better. I don’t think we’ll be overwhelmed because people have had years to make their contingency plans.”

Even counties outside the danger zones were affected. In Marin County, Marc Dollinger was all set to host the fifth outdoor service of the High Holiday season on Monday in his San Rafael backyard. The professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, with his wife, Marci, had used the space to host The Kitchen’s Rosh Hashanah eve service, both days of Rosh Hashanah, and Kol Nidre.

But when Dollinger, one of the co-founders of the indie congregation in San Francisco, stepped outside on Yom Kippur morning, he knew he’d have to change plans.

“As people were driving here, I walked outside and smelled smoke,” he said in a phone call Tuesday. Smoke had wafted into the county from nearby wildfires, creating unhealthy air conditions.

Marc Dollinger's living room all set up for the leaders of The Kitchen's Yom Kippur services. (Photo/Courtesy Dollinger)
Marc Dollinger’s living room all set up for the leaders of The Kitchen’s Yom Kippur services. (Photo/Courtesy Dollinger)

So Dollinger improvised in a season that has required more improvisation than any before. He invited the leaders and hosts of the service — including Kitchen Rabbis Noa Kushner and Jessica Kate Meyer — into his living room, where the Yom Kippur service went on, broadcast to more than 400 households via livestream.

Each participant from The Kitchen had been tested for coronavirus prior to the service. The team moved furniture out of the sunny, hardwood-floored living space, replacing it with instruments, PA equipment and a Torah ark.

Dollinger called the service “extraordinary.”

“We are living the liturgy” this year, he added. “Who shall live and who shall die.”

Thankfully Dollinger and his wife, Marci, had hosted services in their living room before; Rodef Sholom’s “Shabbat Unplugged” used to bring up to 50 people to “sing Hebrew songs until late,” Dollinger said.

He said Rabbis Kushner and Meyer captured the “searingness” and the intensity of the moment.

“For me it was my most spiritual, meaningful Yom Kippur ever,” he said, something he attributed to the unprecedented circumstances and to “what The Kitchen delivered.”

“And the fact that I got a front-row seat,” he added.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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