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October 22, 2007

Chabad mobilizes to help San Diego fire victims

Updated 11:04 p.m. October 23, 2007

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/chabad_mobilizes_to_help_san_diego_fire_victims_20071023

Rabbi Levi Cunin loads Torah scrolls into his car outside of Chabad of Malibu. Photo by Adam Wills

Rabbi Levi Cunin loads Torah scrolls into his car outside of Chabad of Malibu. Photo by Adam Wills


Fire video and prayers from Malibu
More than 20 Chabad centers in Southern California have been evacuated due to the raging fires around the region, said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, spokesman for the West Coast Chabad. West Coast Chabad has organized truckloads of food and clothing to be sent to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, site for many of the area evacuees.

Many efforts here and in the region are still underway, involving helping families evacuate, find shelter, food and clothing and relocate children to other Chabad schools.

Chabad's camp, Running Springs-CGI has been devoted as a base for the local fire efforts there in Big Bear, Rabbi Cunin said. For Angelenos who want to help, there are more volunteers down there than needed, said Rabbi Moishe Leder, of Chabad of University City in San Diego, which has not been evacuated.

"If you have any relatives in San Diego, call them and invite them," Leder said.

Rabbi Mendel Cohen of Chabad's Crisis Intervention Center is coordinating
Chabad's efforts, and if you would like to provide assistance or housing, please contact him at 310 770-9220.

Contributions for San Diego victims can be made to the Red Cross of San Diego, the Jewish Federation of San Diego, or to Chabad Fire Relief (Rancho Santa Fe), among other organizations. To donate to The (Los Angeles) Jewish Federation's Fire Emergency Relief Fund call 323 761-8200 or send a check to The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048, made payable to The Jewish Federation with the words "Fire Relief Fund" in the memo line. Donations will also be accepted online at www.jewishla.org.

-- Amy Klein
::::::::::::::::::::::: As fires ravage southern California, Jews dealing with fallout from fires

By Jacob Berkman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

NEW YORK (JTA) -- "I worked all my life for this house," Daniel Okonsky said in a call from his cell phone on Tuesday afternoon. "I was able to build it, to maintain it -- and now there is nothing."

Okonsky was speaking from the Downtown Sheraton in San Diego, where he has been staying with his family since they evacuated their home Sunday at 3:30 a.m. in the face of wildfires that have ravaged southern California. As of Tuesday afternoon the disaster had turned some 450 acres from San Diego to northern Los Angeles into a rumbling inferno, forcing 320,000 people to evacuate and destroying an estimated 1,300 homes, including Okonsky's.

As the region deals with the fires, the Jewish community of nearly three quarters of a million people in San Diego and Los Angeles counties is struggling to assess the damage in its own ranks.

San Diego County, with about 100,000 Jews, has been hardest hit, with 14 separate fires raging. About 300,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

It is unknown how many of the evacuees are Jewish, but communal leaders were scheduled to meet via teleconference at 2 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday to discuss how to react.

The Jewish Community Center has been evacuated and has incurred some smoke damage, according to Michael Sonduck, chief operating officer of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

Monday night, 125 residents of the Jewish Sea Crest retirement villages were evacuated. The rest of the residents will soon be evacuated, Sonduck said.

A number of the area's 40 synagogues are in fire zones, but it is still not known whether any of them have been damaged, according to Sonduck.

The federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Family Service of San Diego have set up a disaster fund to help assist with relief. "San Diego is our big concern," Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, told JTA.

Much of Diamond's job right now is making contact with the 290 rabbis from San Diego to San Luis Obispo who make up his board and trying to figure out how their synagogues can help each other. If congregants require housing or need to replenish Jewish supplies such as prayer books, the board of rabbis will step in, he said.

Even as they worry about their own synagogues, some Jews have reached out to the broader community.

When the Malibu Presbyterian Church burned down Monday, the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue offered to house the church's preschool for several months, Diamond said.

And in San Diego, Chabad-Lubavitch has been delivering blankets and food to the 10,000 evacuees staying at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Chabad is delivering kosher food to Jews and non-kosher food donated form local restaurants to non-Jews, said the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, Yisroel Goldstein.

"The wildfires know no bounds of geography or religious faith," Diamond said.

The area's largest Jewish community, in and around Los Angeles, where some 550,000 Jews live, seems relatively unscathed so far, according to officials at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The Jewish community in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, has also been relatively unharmed, according to Chelle Friedman, director of the planning and funding council for the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Though the Jewish Community Center in Orange County has cancelled all outdoor activities, the federation there has received no reports of damage to any of the area's 37 synagogues, three day schools, or other Jewish institututions.

"So far we have been very fortunate," Friedman told JTA.

But community officials are not resting comfortably, she said, because "the winds could shift at any moment."

The real horror remains south, where the past few days have been harrowing, say those still in the fire.

"It is like a war zone," said Okonsky, who lost the 6,500-sq.-ft .home he built 16 years ago on 3.25 acres overlooking a canyon and bird sanctuary. A member of Chabad of Poway, Okonsky was woken by authorities at 3:30 a.m. with word that he had to evacuate. Several minutes later, a blackout followed. Scrambling in the dark, he was able to grab only a couple of family photos off the walls as he rushed his three sons out of their home. They took refuge at his parents' place in Rancho Bernardo, just north, and had to evacuate there at 6 a.m.

The region's 14 Chabad houses have acted as something of a telephone line of shelters, said Goldstein. One Chabad will open a shelter, offering food and refuge, and as soon as that house is told to evacuate, another Chabad in a safe area opens its doors.

"We had 200 people in our shul early Sunday morning" before they had to evacuate, he said.

But the real work will start when people who have lost everything, like Okonsky, start to rebuild.

When he returned to his home Monday, there was nothing left, just flames shooting from a gas line in the house's foundation that fire fighters had not shut down.

He has notified his insurance company of the loss, but is not sure what will happen next. "I have never lived through something like this," he said. "I have no procedure to follow. It's not something you expect every day. You have a house where you raise a family and now there is nothing left."


::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Torah scrolls evacuated as fire threatens Chabad of Malibu A wildfire fueled by 50 mph Santa Ana winds and rising temperatures burned about 1,000 acres in the Malibu Hills area on Sunday, claiming several area businesses and landmarks, including Castle Kashan and Malibu Presbyterian Church, as well as threatening Pepperdine University.

Area homeowners were under mandatory evacuation, and Chabad of Malibu at 22933 Pacific Coast Highway removed its four Torah scrolls as shifting winds caused the fast-moving fire to crisscross a ridgeline above the synagogue in Sweetwater Canyon.

Fire officials put the start of the Canyon Fire started at 4:55 a.m., but several residents say they smelled smoke a few hours earlier. Three homes, the church and three business at Malibu Colony Shopping Center were destroyed, according to Los Angeles Fire Department officials.

Other areas reporting fires Sunday include Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Santa Rosa Valley, Placerita Canyon, Castaic and Fontana. The National Weather Service has issued red-flag warnings for Los Angeles and Ventura counties until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The fire in the canyon above Chabad of Malibu had yet to be contained as of Sunday afternoon. Strong winds destroyed a Chabad of Malibu sign, but no other harm had come to the synagogue or its adjacent kosher restaurant, recently renamed B.B.C. By the Sea (at left in photo.)

Rabbi Levi Cunin, spiritual leader of Chabad of Malibu, said he smelled smoke and called the fire department shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday.

"The first thing I did was get my wife and kids out," said Cunin, 36. "A lot of our people who come to Chabad -- many of them live in the area -- and they had to evacuate."

In addition to assisting congregants and neighbors, Cunin also ensured that Chabad of Malibu's four Torahs were safe; each was strapped into the backseat of his sedan.

"Living here in Malibu, knowing how quickly fires [can spread], it's better to be safe than sorry," he said. "We took out the Torah, the chumashim, the siddurs, we took them all out."

Just north of Pepperdine, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue was empty save for a few residents watching the fire from the shul's parking lot.

Dawn Cunnion, who has lived at Malibu Country Estates for about 10 years, was evacuated at 6:30 a.m. Her home was visible from the parking lot.

"We're keeping an eye on it. We found a shady place ... where we could get out quickly. From this vantage point at least we've got a perspective as to what's going on," she said.

Cunnion said she's been through several fires, but this is her first mandatory evacuation.

"The one across the street ... was pretty scary too," she said, referring to a fire in January that destroyed four homes, including one that belonged to Suzanne Somers. "We had winds, but not these kinds of winds."

Residents have been evacuated to Zuma Beach and Agoura Hills High School.

As at Malibu Jewish Center was Michael Brown, 46, who found himself trapped in Malibu when MTA cancelled Line 534, which serves Pacific Coast Highway. The Los Angeles resident had spent the weekend at a campground across the street from the Reconstructionist congregation adjacent to the Pepperdine campus.

"They shut down the buses, and I needed some water ... so I seen the synagogue. I thought, well I'll get some water, charge up my laptop and be stranded at the beach," said Brown, who took shelter from the wind outside the locked sanctuary as he used an outlet for his computer.

About 15 miles north of Pepperdine at Camp JCA Shalom, religious educator Casey Krebs said there are no plans to evacuate.

"They said if we want, we could get things ready," she said. "We're just waiting and seeing what's happening. We smelled the smoke a lot last night, but we don't really smell it today." -- Adam Wills


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