A meadow near Patricia Sussman’s home in the Bijou neighborhood of South Lake Tahoe, Aug. 17, 2021.
A meadow near Patricia Sussman’s home in the Bijou neighborhood of South Lake Tahoe, Aug. 17, 2021.

As Caldor Fire looms, South Lake Tahoe Jewish community ‘sticks together’

As the Caldor Fire rips through El Dorado County and threatens South Lake Tahoe, much of the area’s Jewish community has evacuated from their homes, and synagogues in the region have stepped up to lend support.

The fires also have complicated High Holidays plans, which were already in flux because of the rise of the delta variant.

As of Monday morning, the entire city of South Lake Tahoe, population about 21,000, was under mandatory evacuation. The fire, which started on Aug. 14 and has burned more than 177,000 acres in California’s El Dorado County, was 14 percent contained Monday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. Air quality in the area was hovering at around 430 AQI, 39 times above the World Health Organization’s exposure recommendation. Live road cameras showed bumper-to-bumper traffic as residents escaped the area.

“Sometimes it just hits you,” said Patricia Sussman, an eight-year member of Temple Bat Yam, on Pioneer Trail not far from Heavenly Ski Resort’s California Lodge. “The groundlessness of it.”

Sussman, her husband and two young children evacuated their home in South Lake Tahoe’s Bijou neighborhood on Aug. 23, coming to the Bay Area to stay with relatives. Sussman’s husband was hoping to visit the house on Tuesday but won’t be able to because of evacuation restrictions. On Monday, Sussman was notified that her children’s first day of school was postponed until Sept. 13.

California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Services announced on Monday that two evacuation shelters had been established for evacuees, one in Gardnerville, Nevada, and the other in Truckee.

“There’s this shared sense of sadness,” Sussman said of her neighbors and the Jewish community. “Not knowing what to do day to day.”

Caldor isn’t the first fire to affect Sussman this year. Earlier in August, her parents, who live in Colfax in Placer County, had to evacuate due to the River Fire.

With a professional background in land use, conservation planning and environmental compliance, Sussman said she was expecting this fire season to be intense.

“I follow climate change,” she said. “[There were] lots of variables lining up for a big fire season. Millions of dead trees. It’s gonna burn up at some point. We’re watching the ecology of California change right in front of our eyes. We have front-row seats to that right now.”

Leaders at Sussman’s synagogue worked this week to contact everyone in the congregation under a mandatory evacuation order or an evacuation warning.

The Torah scrolls were taken out of the temple last week. “Those are protected,” said Lisa Sinizer, who became president of Temple Bat Yam in August and lives part time in San Jose.

Sinizer and her family had planned to be at their Tahoe-area home for a large part of August. While smoke from the fires and then the evacuation nixed that plan, Sinizer still went up on Aug. 26 to quickly collect some of her family’s personal belongings from their home in Meyers, along Highway 50 about 6 miles south of South Lake Tahoe.

“When you really start thinking about what to take, you realize how unimportant most things are,” said Sinizer, who took some pictures, a Kiddush cup and winter jackets. “The fire is literally miles from our home right now. It is a sit-and-wait situation.”

Sinizer, who described the Tahoe area as her “soul-enriching place to live,” said she is feeling “distraught” about the situation. “This house is my dream,” she said. “I’m watching the dream potentially disappear overnight. It’s like watching an impending death, [the] same foggy feeling.”

Bat Yam Rabbi Evon Yakar said that a large percentage of the 70-family congregation was either under mandatory evacuation orders or an evacuation warning, but that a “vast majority” already had left the region. Bat Yam’s High Holiday plans — including joining with North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation (which Yakar also leads) for outdoor, socially distanced services with an online option — are up in the air.

Rabbi Evon J. Yakar
Rabbi Evon Yakar

“We are hoping for the best,” said Yakar, who had to evacuate and is staying at a rental home in Santa Rosa.

North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation is located in Tahoe Vista, and Yakar said community members in safe areas were offering up their homes to Bat Yam congregants. In addition, members of Temple Or Rishon near Sacramento, which has partnered with Yakar’s two congregations during the pandemic, also were offering their homes to evacuees.

“We’re all part of the same Jewish community,” said Rabbi Alan Rabishaw of Or Rishon, located in Orangevale, near Folsom.

Rabishaw said he had been praying the fire would spare the Tahoe Basin, the southernmost point of the lake, but early reports on Monday afternoon indicated that fire had reached the area.

Other Jewish communities are also helping evacuees. Rabbi Mordechai Richler of Chabad at Lake Tahoe said that he first offered air purifiers to community members in the region, but his focus then changed to making sure people had access to transportation to get out of the area.

Rabbi Mordechai Richler
Rabbi Mordechai Richler

“We can all lend a hand to another person,” said Richler, whose Chabad is located on the lake side of Highway 50 near Ski Run Boulevard. “It’s as simple as calling someone up.”

Richler said his Chabad’s High Holiday plans also may change.

“Right now, we’re waiting and seeing,” he said. “We would likely be doing it in North Lake Tahoe, somewhere farther away where there isn’t danger at this time.”

Chaya, a Chabad at Lake Tahoe attendee who didn’t want to give her last name, took in a mother and son who evacuated on Sunday night. The two, also part of the Chabad community, traveled from their home on Ski Run Boulevard to Chaya’s house in Minden, Nevada. Chaya had lived in South Lake Tahoe until June and had been neighbors with the pair.

“When this [fire] happened, I said, ‘Just come to me,’” Chaya explained. “In a small community like Lake Tahoe, there are not a lot of Jews in the area. You find the Jewish community sticks together.”

Hebrew Free Loan of San Francisco is offering up to $3,000 in emergency disaster relief loans for those affected by the fires. Click here to learn more.
Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.