California Jews pull together as wildfires ravage homes

Four Chabad centers were designated shelters, offering food and lodging, but two have been evacuated.

October 22, 2007 13:19
4 minute read.
California Jews pull together as wildfires ravage homes

cali fires 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

Daniel Okonsky, an Israeli living in San Diego who has been through a few fires already, saw the wind picking up on Sunday night and escorted his wife and youngest son to his parents' house a few kilometers away as a precaution, returning home at around midnight. Lying in bed with his clothes on, Okonsky was notified of a mandatory evacuation. As he went to wake up his two older sons, a blackout left the stairway to the second floor pitch-black. Okonsky - one of over 300,000 people forced to evacuate because of more than a dozen wildfires that raged for a third straight day in Southern California - grabbed a few family photos off the walls on his way out the door and took his sons to his parents' house. On Monday morning, their house was also evacuated, and the Okonsky family - kids, parents and grandparents - checked themselves into a hotel in downtown San Diego, away from the fires. When their house appeared on the news that day, it was already too late. "I saw our house was burning on the news," said Okonsky, who built the house in 1991. Later Monday, he drove back to his neighborhood, but all that remained were ashes. "We spoke to the fire department, but they were exhausted after working all night," said Okonsky. "Fighting mother nature is not something you can predict. ... We have to go on with life -everybody is upset, but there is nobody to blame." But his youngest son, 11, still hasn't registered that there is no home to return to. "He asks me when we can go home," said Okonsky, who left Israel in 1969. "Maybe it's time to go back to Israel," he joked. "It was very calm when we left," said Miron Okonsky, the eldest son. "We said we'd come back later with no sense that the house would burn down. We could see the flames over the hill, but you don't realize how fast fire moves." On his way out the door, Miron grabbed his signed Brett Favre jersey and a few Jewish books. "I didn't take my tefillin, but I needed new ones anyway," he said. Meanwhile, Miron, who is studying urban planning and sustainable development at the University of California, San Diego, has convinced the family to rebuild their house as a "green" house. "The next house will be LEED gold," said Miron, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings. "Everyone in the family is safe; the rest is stuff that can be replaced," said Miron, who was in the process of making a list of everything he lost. "But it sucks because I have a lot of good memories there, and now it's gone." Meanwhile, many others have been glued to the news, waiting to hear whether they can return to their homes. Monday night at around 11 p.m., Ezekiel Nacach, a Mexican Jew, left his home in southern San Diego's Chula Vista to move with his wife to his father-in-law's house on the ocean. "When we left, we saw the mountains all around us on fire," said Nacach. On Tuesday, Nacach was still waiting to hear how his home had fared. "We don't know because we can't go back," he said. "There is no way to find out, because there is fire in the area where we live." Hot winds made the flames impossible to control, and they were expected to continue throughout Tuesday and possibly longer. On Tuesday morning, rabbis and Jewish leaders joined in a conference call to determine how to address the needs of the 100,000 Jews in the San Diego area, many of whom were affected by the fires. Meanwhile, Chabad centers were working day and night to service the community. Four centers were designated shelters, offering food and lodging, but two have since been evacuated. As Santa Ana winds swept through the area on Monday, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway went door-to-door, checking in on members of his community, many of whom are elderly. Goldstein, who is also a chaplain with the sheriff's department, spent Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium, where thousands of evacuees had fled to escape the fires, making sure there was kosher food and that people were provided for. "I've been working 48 hours straight," said Goldstein. "I went from house to house reporting to families whether their houses had survived. Those homes that are lost know they have Chabad and we will help them rebuild." Rabbi Levi Raskin, representative to Chabad of Rancho Santa Fe, removed all the Torah scrolls and computer files from the Chabad center before they had to evacuate, and called people in his community early Monday morning to warn them of evacuations. "We didn't expect this to come our way, but everyone is doing what they can," said Raskin.

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