I spent Wednesday in Santa Rosa helping the Jewish community there and learning from first responders about the situation. I wanted to share a few observations:
1. Kol Emeth is an amazing community. Rabbi Graff, who organized the day, sent out a call for food and supplies. We were quickly oversubscribed. Dozens made food for 300+ people and nine of us gave of our entire day. I am honored to be part of a community that responds so quickly and emphatically to need.
2. One person can make a difference. Shomrei Torah, a congregation in Santa Rosa, decided to open their doors to children in need of a place. Schools have been closed there for nearly two weeks. Parents are trying to work and put their lives back together. The camp, for Jews and non-Jews, has grown each day. All this happened because of the initiative of Rabbi Stephanie Kramer in partnership with IsraAID. Their combined social hall / Sanctuary was taken over by the camp. They helped staff it and found the volunteers to run the camp and care for the children. It has grown each day as the word has gotten out, so they don’t even know exactly what to prepare for. It was a tremendous effort and offering to the whole Santa Rosa Community. Our task was to bring up and serve the lunch to the 130 or so students + the staff and to help a bit with the campers.
3. The Jewish community has resilience in crisis. One of the members of Shomrei Torah died in the fires. In addition to lunch for the camp, we fed about 150 people dinner after the memorial service. I was moved to see the community gather in such numbers. People wanted to be together. The Federation was helping with the camp; IsraAID was providing organizational help; we were there with dinner and lunch. That is the power of community.
4. Gratitude emerges amid loss. People there were so grateful. In addition to being thanked for our efforts, people were grateful to have homes. Thirty or so members of that congregation lost their homes. They were grateful to be alive, relieved that it was only belongings they had lost. Some were mourning pets who died in the fires even as they were grateful to have insurance and support and places to go and funds to rebuild.
5. First responders are truly amazing. We spoke to a fire fighter who had arrived about 12 hours into the fires and been on site since. He had not seen his children in 12 days. He spoke about his strike team of five engines that goes to trouble spots to help contain the fire. His courage and willingness to face life threatening danger to keep others safe inspired our whole group. We spoke to National Guard troops there to keep order. These young men and women were called up as reservists and honored to serve.
6. Courage comes in small ways too. Many had to evacuate their homes at 2am Saturday morning, including one of the Rabbis. He officiated at a Bat Mitzvah a few hours later in his jeans and a t-shirt because that was all he had available. I spoke with the Bat Mitzvah girl. She and her family had an incredible day in which they simply celebrated the blessings of life and family and Judaism. I guarantee you they will never forget it.
7. Finally, socio-economic divides matter. We saw a shelter for people who had lost their housing. It was clear for them it will take much longer to return to normalcy. They may lack insurance, or were insecure in their housing to begin with. We saw only a hint of the challenges yet to be faced by those more economically insecure. So what can we do? At this point, I have two tangible suggestions. First IsraAID continues to impress me more and more. Their work as first responders to crisis anywhere in the world is amazing. They are active in Houston, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and here. I urge you to support their incredible work: www.classy.org/campaign/kol-emeth/c145203
Second, housing is going to be an issue in Santa Rosa. People are dislocated and want to stay close to home and work and school. We offered some options down in Palo Alto, but that wasn’t what people wanted. If you or someone you know has a second home in the Santa Rosa area, consider renting for the next 12-24 months as people rebuild. There is insurance money for rentals, but a lack of available inventory to rent. If you have a place and can rent it, it would make an amazing difference in people’s lives. Please let me know and I will put you in touch with Rabbi Kramer.
I feel blessed to be among those providing help, and grateful that for a few hours we could offer some compassion and aid to those affected by these terrible fires. May God strengthen everyone as they navigate the time ahead.
I am also attaching a prayer I wrote for First Responders:
O God and God of our ancestors:
Bless and protect the first responders to the fires. May God protect and guide them as they make difficult choices and intentionally place themselves in dangers to protect the lives and property of others. May they be held safe in Your sheltering Sukkah even as they open themselves to danger. And may those who bring with them healing and care be offered a share of Your great power to heal.
May God offer strength and comfort to all those dislocated, and help them restore and find order and peace.
Rabbi David Booth
Please note I am off to Israel on Sunday and gone for almost two weeks. I’ll look forward to being in touch upon my return.