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At. L.a. Synagogue, Congregants Struggle with Effects of Wildfires

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By phone, e-mail and word-of-mouth, the bad news kept piling up at Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino, Calif.

The homes of six member families had been burned to the ground in the devastating wildfires sweeping across Southern California. Another 30-40 families from the congregation had been forced to evacuate their homes, and no one knew the whereabouts of eight other families.

Rabbi Douglas Kohn, spiritual leader at the Reform congregation, was at the point of utter exhaustion.

“I haven’t slept more than 10 hours since Shabbat,” he said Monday evening.

“I can see the tall flames from my study,” he said. “Embers, soot and ashes are falling on the synagogue and we can’t use the air conditioning. We have evacuated our Torah scrolls and original Marc Chagall paintings. One of our members, an officer in the fire department, is on the fireline, and our Jewish police chief is also in action.”

“Everyone of our 420 families is out helping others. Everyone is concerned about everyone else,” Kohn said.

Emanu El is the only synagogue in San Bernardino, a city of 185,000 people some 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The shul also is believed to be the oldest in California, in continuous operation since 1851.

As of Tuesday, at least 17 people had been killed by the region’s 10 major wildfires. So far, San Bernardino and its surroundings have been hardest hit, accounting for almost half of the 1,100 homes destroyed early in the week.

But it seemed that losses and suffering were almost everywhere in Southern California.

To the south, in San Diego County, the 20 classroom trailers of the Chabad Hebrew Academy of San Diego were totally destroyed by the fire. An adjacent, brand-new $25 million building, almost completed and surrounded by flames, was spared, according to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

Also in San Diego, another synagogue called Temple Emanu El closed its pre-school and transferred its Torah scrolls, Rabbi Martin Lawson said. Tifereth Israel Synagogue also took its Torah scrolls to safety after nearby residents were ordered to evacuate their homes.

In Simi Valley, the Mount Sinai Memorial Park cemetery reported minor damage to buildings and more extensive burning of trees and park areas. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish retreat center also in Simi Valley, was untouched by the fire.

In the San Gabriel Valley, four employees of the local Jewish federation reported that their homes had been entirely or partially destroyed.

Meanwhile, Jewish communities across the southern part of the state rallied to aid the homeless and other victims of the fires.

Some 11 Chabad centers in Southern California turned themselves into relief and counseling centers, providing clothing, furniture and food.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California called on all member congregations to provide assistance, the board’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Diamond, said.

There are several ways to contribute to fire relief assistance.

Hard-hit Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino has established a Fire Tzedakah Fund. Checks can be made out to Emanu El and sent to 3512 North E St., San Bernardino, Calif., 92405.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up a Fire Emergency Relief Fund. For information and contributions, phone 323 761-8200, or mail checks to Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif., 90048, and write “Fire Relief Fund” on the memo line.

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