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Northridge Renewal

Five years after the deadly quake, the north Valley 'seems to have stabilized -- physically, spiritually and perhaps even seismologically'

by Wendy J. Madnick

January 14, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Over at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, they've planted a small garden. It's just a few flowers now. Adjacent is a patio that will one day hold benches, a place where Hebrew-school students can come study or where people can take a break from services and sit in the sun.

Rabbi Steven Tucker calls it the "victory garden." It's the temple's symbol of rebirth, and the one reminder of that day in January five years ago when the earth violently shook.



Rumbling through the north San Fernando Valley at 4:10 a.m., the Jan. 17 temblor left 57 people dead, hundreds injured, thousands without their homes, and most Southern Californians without a sense of security.

The Jewish community was hit hard, too. Costs of property damage to communal institutions (as reported in The Jewish Journal just days after the earthquake) were estimated at between $15 million and $20 million by John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Educational institutions in particular suffered substantial losses. At the University of Judaism, costs to repair collapsed walkways and major interior damage soared to $1 million. Damage at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley was so severe, repairs weren't completed until 1997.

While Ramat Zion, nearby Ahavat Shalom and Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, the three Jewish institutions nearest the epicenter, were spared significant structural damage, the quake nevertheless exacted a heavy toll.

"We didn't have that much physical damage, just some plate-glass windows and some chandeliers. Still, if the chandeliers had come down when our seniors were to meet just a few hours later, I hate to think of what would have happened," Tucker said.

"The biggest hit we took was in membership -- people who had to move out of the area after the earthquake. Combined with the recession taking place at that time, we probably lost over a quarter of our membership."

Currently, Ramat Zion has 450 member families -- a precipitous drop from the temple's heyday in the mid-1970s, when there were more than 700. Still, Tucker is confident that the congregation will grow into the next decade.

"Conventional wisdom said we wouldn't see young people moving into this area. But we have a burgeoning Hebrew school, a growing preschool, and I'm doing baby namings all of the time. So they have to be coming from somewhere," Tucker said, adding that many young families have taken advantage of the depreciated values of homes in the area. "The area seems to have stabilized -- physically, spiritually and perhaps even seismologically.

"It's kind of like this house down the block from ours," said Tucker, who lives just a few blocks from the temple. "For years after the earthquake, it sat there, still taped off, with the chimney in pieces on the ground. I found the sight of it really depressing.

"Finally, somebody bought it and started fixing it up. When I saw that chimney cleared away, that was the symbol, like the flowers growing in the temple garden. That was how I knew we were recovered."

Meanwhile, Ahavat Shalom, has also managed to recover from the disaster, which took the lives of two elderly congregants, David and Cecilia Pressman, who lived in the Northridge Meadows Apartments and left more than 60 of its families with red-tagged homes.

"We've affected the necessary repairs through our insurance and the generosity of the Jewish Federation, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [the umbrella organization of the Reform movement] and the continued support of our members," said Rabbi Jerald Brown, the congregation's spiritual leader. "It's been a tough go, but we're finally at a point where the financial uncertainties the earthquake created have been resolved."

Brown said that the congregation has managed to remain stable and even grow modestly, from 675 families at the time of the earthquake to a current membership of 700.

"If anything, the earthquake reordered the priorities of a great many people for whom it was a wake-up call to the importance of Jewish community and worship," he said. "I needn't remind you that many people here suffered their own damages, yet they were willing to put that aside to keep the temple going."

Among the ways the congregation pulled together: Support groups led by trained facilitators were created to help members "work through" the trauma; one member, an insurance broker, held a workshop on dealing with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); and those not hard-hit in the disaster set up special education funds so that members hurt financially by the earthquake could continue to send their children to Hebrew school.

"While there will always be some who react to the loss of material things in proportion to the investment they've made in those things, there are many others who look around and say, 'Well, we're here and our loved ones are, so let's see what we can do to help.'" Brown said.

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