Left: "The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867. Right: US Navy photo by Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl.
Left: "The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867. Right: US Navy photo by Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl.

I lost my family home in a fire. Tisha B’Av is a chance to mourn many losses.

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A version of this piece first appeared on the Wexner Foundation blog.

September 23, 2016, began like most Fridays, with my girls, then ages 5 and 8, happily off to school and me hanging back to feed my 10-month-old baby before heading out to teach my class at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

As I leaned down to sneak one last bite of eggs into my son’s mouth, a frantic knocking sounded at my door.

There on the landing was a young man in construction boots.

“Your house is on fire! Get out!” he said urgently, in Spanish.

“What?” I stuttered. I was so confused. There had been no smoke, no flames, no smoke detector siren. Nothing. 

“Come look!” he said, motioning me outside. 

I stepped out and turned back to see a plume of thick, black smoke pouring from the corner where our home butted up against our neighbor’s. Many older homes in San Francisco are built this way — one right next to, even connected to, another. A tinderbox of 120-year-old homes connected by shared walls, built entirely of wood.

If one catches fire, it’s a pretty nail-biting experience for everyone. Despite the fact that dozens of firefighters arrived within minutes, we spent the next few hours standing on the sidewalk, watching the fire destroy almost all our material possessions. 

When you go through a public trauma, it feels like the world is watching to see how you’ll react. Will you break, will you rise? Will you rupture, will you shine? Everyone hopes that our best selves will emerge in crisis. But in truth, nobody really knows how they’ll react until it happens. I’m relieved to say after the initial shock, my first response was gratitude. 

When you go through a public trauma, it feels like the world is watching to see how you’ll react.

That night I posted online, “Tonight I am grateful. So grateful. And I feel lucky. So lucky. That’s not what I would expect to be feeling after watching my home of the past 15 years, the home where all 3 of my kids were born, the home where I became an adult, go up in flames. But it’s amazing how quickly your priorities come clear when you are forced to choose, in a second, what is most important to you.”

As word of our fire got out, Michael Lezak, our friend and rabbi, showed up on the doorstep, collected us all in a big hug and gave us a hands-on blessing. As we stood there, huddled together in our soot-covered clothing, smelling of smoke, I suddenly and deeply knew that we would be OK. 

More than Michael’s reassuring presence, it was the dawning realization that none of our material stuff really matters. Even without all our belongings, we still had one another, a temporary roof over our heads and a vast community standing by to help. As Michael was leaving, he looked me in the eyes and whispered, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Being in community with others is not just a “giving” act because, in order for there to be giving, someone needs to receive. No one wants to be the person who needs help, but being willing to receive help is crucial because it creates the space for others to give. 

Giving and receiving are different sides of the same equation and being able to do both is an important part of being in an engaged community. Having an engaged community, in turn, is what allows for both individual and communal resilience. 

The solemn fast day Tisha B’Av, which begins at sunset Wednesday, is, as the American Jewish World Service puts it, the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when Jewish people mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the persecution suffered through two millennia of diaspora.” That is a lot of loss to commemorate.

That said, as I learned from our fire, it’s important to remember that loss is a part of every life, and learning how to accept and cope with loss, how to grieve and move through grief, integrate it and, dare I say, even grow from it — that is the very essence of resilience. Even if you are a very prepared, very organized person, loss will find you, and it won’t be the loss you’re expecting. (Believe me, I was super prepared for an earthquake, and then my earthquake kit burned up.)

a smiling white woman in a purple top looks up from a digital movie camera
Samantha Grant is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and educator who lives in San Francisco.

When loss happens, we have a choice: We can open up and feel it and accept the help we need, or we can shut down, deny it, and shoulder on alone. But experience shows that if we do anything other than face our loss and integrate it, the weight of our grief will eventually come out sideways, one way or another. With grief, there’s simply no way out but through. 

Marking Tisha B’Av every year allows for a personal and communal recognition of the intense loss the Jewish people suffered when the temples were destroyed. The loss of both temples, the relentless persecutions that came afterward, and even those that continue to this day — those losses are so profound that we’re reminded to set aside a day each year to recognize, sit with and process the grief. And while we allow time each year to mark the loss, it’s also important to remember that out of that destruction, out of that grief, eventually came rabbinic Judaism. 

When it was clear that the challenge to the temples would be ongoing, the rabbis got together and decided to pivot. Together, we moved past the loss and into a future where Judaism could survive beyond the walls of the temples. We tapped into our resilience. We evolved.

My family marks the fire annually by delivering a meal to the firehouse where many of the firefighters who fought our fire were stationed. Most of them have moved on, but we take comfort doing this one small act to help those who spend every day helping so many others.

In addition, in the year after our fire, my two young daughters asked me to help them start The Fire Journal Project, which delivers free journals to kids, families and communities who have lost their homes to fire to help them integrate this traumatic experience of loss. 

Both of these projects are small efforts that allow us to acknowledge, process and ultimately transform our loss into something more positive and lasting.

Looking back now, I understand the experience of surviving our fire ultimately brought our family closer together. We were tested, and we survived. It’s been messy and difficult, and we’ve all certainly shed a lot of tears, but now we know how strong we are. Now we know how much we love one another. Now we know we can keep one another safe even when it feels like the world is falling apart. Now we know our community will rush in to help us when we are in need. Now we know, and that alone is a huge comfort. 

Drawing on stories of resilience — whether they are personal stories, family stories, tribal stories or global stories — is an important part of recovering from any kind of major loss. Although I would never have chosen to go through something like this, I can say that I am grateful to have the chance to reflect deeply on what both my Jewish community and my broader community mean for my life and my family’s life as we all keep moving forward, growing and evolving.

Samantha Grant (Photo/Sarah Deragon)
Samantha Grant

Samantha Grant is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and educator who lives in San Francisco. She joined the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California in 2023.