May 8, 2009
Santa Barbara Fire Forces Synagogue Evacuation
One Santa Barbara synagogue has been evacuated and another is facing possible evacuation as crews continued to battle the Jesusita Fire on Friday afternoon.
The fire, which started May 5, has damaged or destroyed 75 homes and 30,500 people are under mandatory evacuation orders. More than 3,500 acres have been burned, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and as of Friday afternoon the fire remained at 10 percent containment.
Congregation B’nai B’rith, in the Santa Barbara foothills west of Highway 154, is part of a mandatory evacuation order for the area that went into effect Thursday at 10 p.m.
“It’s a tough time,” said Rabbi Steve Cohen of the Reform B’nai B’rith. “There’s been a tremendous impact on the whole community.”
The synagogue hosted a dinner on Thursday to discuss evacuations, during which the synagogue’s executive director, Deborah Naish, came to the temple to let the rabbi know the fire had shifted toward B’nai B’rith.
“We all went outside and saw how close it had come,” he said.
The synagogue’s Torahs were moved to staff members’ homes Thursday night.
As of Friday, the fire had crossed to the west side of Highway 154 and was burning in the hills above the synagogue, Cohen said.
“What everyone is dreading are the sundowners tonight,” he said, referring to Santa Ana-like evening winds that can make firefighting difficult.
Cohen said he was not aware of any congregants losing a home to the blaze, but he said at least 200 to 250 of B’nai B’rith’s 670 families have been evacuated from the fire area.
Nearby in Golita, Chabad of Santa Barbara’s Rabbi Yosef Loshack has opened his house to at least two displaced families. His home, which is used for religious services, is one block away from the evacuation area.
“I’m getting more phone calls as the day progresses, so I don’t know how many people we’ll end up getting,” he said.
Loshack said if the call to evacuate comes, his family plans to relocate to the Chabad at UC Santa Barbara.
“If we’re evacuated, we’ll put the sefer Torahs in the car along with my wife’s candlesticks and we go off,” he said.
Nathan Roller, librarian and development intern at UC Santa Barbara Hillel, said the streets surrounding the campus are filled with smoke.
Apart from two students who are staying with Roller, he said he wasn’t aware of Jewish students turning to Hillel for evacuation assistance.
Currently UCSB is serving as a shelter for more than 600 evacuated Santa Barbara residents. And the Hillel building, which features a handicapped-accessible elevator and shower, may be called upon to shelter displaced residents with special needs.
“We are an evacuation site, but [Red Cross] hasn’t asked us to do anything yet,” Roller said.
On Saturday morning, UCSB Hillel’s home, the Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center, will be a shelter of a different kind. B’nai B’rith congregants will join Isla Vista Minyan, an egalitarian minyan, at the center for Shabbat morning services.
“It’s far out of the line of fire,” Cohen said. “Tonight, we’re just not able to do a service.”