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Chabad mobilizes to help San Diego fire victims

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

October 22, 2007 | 8:00 pm

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.

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