Jewish Journal

From the San Diego fires—a burning question

by Jessica Levine Kupferberg

Posted on Nov. 1, 2007 at 8:00 pm

What would you do if you had 10 minutes to get out of your home, not knowing whether it will still be there tomorrow? What would you take? What would you leave? What is truly indispensable?

These are the questions that too many of my fellow San Diegans have faced in the last few days as fires ravage homes all over San Diego County. Members of our shul, families from our day school, my husband's colleagues -- many have been displaced, forced to grab their loved ones, pets and the few things they can't bear to live without. This is not a case of the media making the situation sound worse than it is; it's bad and it's close to home.

We live in La Jolla, which means "The Jewel." Our community is little more than a stone's throw from one of the prettiest pieces of coastline in the entire county and boasts the best weather, too. We have a lovely shul with more than 280 families, a spa-like mikvah and an eruv on the way. This past Shabbat, as we do every week, we enjoyed our shul kiddush al fresco, socializing around the towering Torrey pine tree that defines our shul's courtyard. We could not have predicted that such a short time later, our blue skies would turn toxic, the crisp ocean breezes replaced with menacing winds and our Torrey pine and its courtyard laden with ash.

Thankfully, our normally idyllic coastal enclave seems to be out the path of the fire -- at least for now. But as the communities immediately to the north and to the east of us were steadily evacuated, my husband and I were increasingly concerned: What if we were next? What if a call comes in the middle of the night asking us -- telling us -- to leave? We had to take stock of our things. I was surprised that the closets of clothes did not seem that important, nor the plasma TV, and not the kitchen appliances that I use faithfully each week preparing for Shabbat. We packed one bag for our family of six, with pajamas and a change of clothes and basic toiletries. I put on the jewelry I cared about the most, not for their monetary value but because they were gifts from my husband and my late Papa, the grandfather who died in the spring.

Suddenly, I remembered the box in the attic that I call my "archives," a collection of writings from childhood through college. That box holds treasures like rhyming Mother's Day poems, the essay my tough high school English teacher blessed with the "much-coveted but rarely bestowed" A-plus and the clipping from my college Jewish newspaper that proudly wore my byline. For the first time ever, I needed to pull my ketubah out of its safe place. We would need the kids' special blankets and a few toys. My husband began to upload all of our pictures, grateful that our children's adventures are digitally preserved and easy to transport. Laptop, yes; book collection, no. Wedding album, yes. But what about yearbooks? Take the tefilin, the tallit. Hurry up and wait. We are lucky to have this be merely an exercise for now; not like the friend who spent the night with us after being evacuated. I cannot imagine doing all of this with fire in my backyard.

There are good things about going through this. You read the e-mail from the old high school classmate from St. Louis who remembered you lived in San Diego. You catch up with the friends who moved to Florida last year. You reassure your family in Canada, New York, Los Angeles. You hug your husband and children tighter and know that they really are what matters. You pray.

You see amazing things from your community. Our rabbi's oldest daughter is getting married in two days. With 600 people expected for an outdoor chuppah, I started to panic for the rabbi's family. But the rabbi and rebbetzin, and even the bride, are amazingly calm. They are filled with faith that the skies will clear, the guests will arrive, and everything will be OK, so I am filled with confidence that the simcha will be truly that -- a joyful occasion.

With school cancelled and outdoor play outlawed, the parents of the community and educators are banding together to keep the children from going stir-crazy. On Monday, almost a dozen families spent the day at the shul, where we played musical chairs and learned about the parsha and fire safety. Today, the school's gym teacher came to the shul to run indoor games. We will spend tomorrow doing activities at the day school, and on Thursday a local movie theater will open early so we can screen a DVD for the kids in a safe, air-conditioned place. There is a feeling of achdut, or togetherness, that sweetens the otherwise stifling air.

Donations from all over the county are pouring in to help our fellow San Diegans. So many Jewish families, from the observant to the secular, have opened their homes to displaced friends. Our shul, like so many others, has collected diapers, food and bedding to help. Like the story of Abraham's tent in the Torah Portion Lech Lecha, so many have displayed lovingkindness, selflessness and a warmly welcoming attitude. To illustrate the point, one report speculated there were more volunteers than evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium, the largest of the evacuation centers for the more than 500,000 displaced San Diegans. That's a lot of volunteers.

Watching the footage of uncontained fires blazing just 10 miles or so from our home, I was struck that the parsha details the destruction of Sodom, a city divinely destroyed because of its denizens' petty cruelty and refusal to be welcoming to guests. Like Sodom, our beautiful city is facing a raging enemy that refuses to go without exacting a heavy toll.

But unlike Sodom, the extraordinary actions of hundreds of thousands of San Diegans who reached out to help have surely proved that this amazing city is worth saving. We pray that the winds will change -- both literally and figuratively -- and we look forward to dancing at the rabbi's daughter's wedding, our bags unpacked again.

Jessica Levine Kupferberg was born and raised in Los Angeles. A recovering lawyer, she resides in La Jolla with her husband and their four children.

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