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As Fires Ravage Southern California, Jews Assess Damage and Offer Help


“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. All told, 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.”

Information about the San Diego relief fund can be found at

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