California synagogue a safe haven for 23 Torahs rescued from wildfire

Heroic American rabbis look to find the "holiness in the fire."

Fire (illustrative) (photo credit: GENE BLEVINS / REUTERS)
Fire (illustrative)
(photo credit: GENE BLEVINS / REUTERS)
(Tribute Content Agency) When Ken Chasen, senior rabbi at the Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, California, turned on his television early Wednesday morning, what he saw gave him the chills.
He watched in horror as large flames menacingly danced around the temple’s campus. The entire hillside overlooking the property was ablaze.
Ferocious winds whip up California fires, December 8, 2017 (Reuters)
At that moment, the only thing Chasen could think about, he said Friday, were the eight Torah scrolls that graced the synagogue, including one precious scroll from the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague that had survived the ravages of the Holocaust and World War II.
“As the temple’s rabbi, I just felt a deep sense of duty to preserve our community’s Torahs,” Chasen said. “They are our sacred connection to the past and future. Each Torah has a story. They’ve been there at bar mitzvahs, shabbats and special celebrations.”
So, at 5:30 Wednesday morning, Chasen drove to the temple on Sepulveda Boulevard and in 15 minutes grabbed the eight Torahs — handwritten versions of the Jewish holy book — from two buildings, covered them in prayer shawls, and stuffed them into his Chevy Volt, barely managing to fit them all in.
“When I got out of there, I didn’t know if I’d ever see those buildings again,” Chasen said.
At the invitation of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Chasen — along with his friend and rabbi Yoshi Zweiback of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, and Gary Weisserman, headmaster of Milken Community High School on Mulholland Drive — drove to Valley Beth Shalom to safely house 23 rescued Torahs out of harm’s way.
Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom watched Wednesday morning as a caravan of minivans and SUVs filled with Torahs made their way down the hillside to his temple. Recalling the scene, he described Chasen’s actions as “truly heroic.”
“It just shows you how much the Torah means to us,” Farkas said. “It’s not just ink and parchment. It’s our identity — a powerful, amazing, poetic ritual object. It binds us together as a people.”
As the fires raged around the hillsides in West Los Angeles, three congregations — two Reform and one Conservative — came together to protect what mattered most to them.
And on Friday evening, Rabbi Zweiback was preparing to host congregants of Leo Baeck Temple and his dear friend, Chasen, for Shabbat services. Zweiback and Chasen attended rabbinical school together and in the 1990s, formed a Jewish band called Ma Tovu, a prayer from the Book of Numbers in the Torah, meaning “how good it is.”
Chasen said his synagogue was saved by Los Angeles fire department crews. Other than a chapel and a storage room, which suffered minor damage, all other buildings are intact, he said.
Zweiback said his synagogue, Stephen Wise Temple, was not as threatened by the fire as Chasen’s, but he wasn’t taking any chances with the 13 Torah scrolls in the temple’s possession.
Stephen Wise’s Torahs are from 10 countries, including one rescued from the Holocaust in former Czechoslovakia, another from Morocco and one written specially for the synagogue a year ago.
On Wednesday morning, Zweiback brought an SUV and loaded up all 13 scrolls. He buckled up one in the front seat so it wouldn’t move. His message Friday night to two congregations gathered under one roof would be to “find holiness in the fire.”
“The holiness comes from people who are putting themselves at risk to save others, those who reach out to provide aid and those who allow themselves to be comforted,” Zweiback said.
Moving a Torah can be an intimidating experience because to move the scrolls, there has to be a real threat, said Weisserman, who transported two Torahs to Valley Beth Shalom.
“The 405 Freeway looked like the road to Mordor,” he said, referring to the fictional volcano in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “Yes, it was a real threat.”
Watching 23 Torahs being placed in one room at Valley Beth Shalom was quite a sight, he said.
“It looked like they were having a slumber party,” Weisserman said, with a laugh. “But, seriously, it bears testament to the spectacular cooperation and unity we have as a community. It’s comforting to know that we can rely on each other’s help and support.”
By Friday afternoon, Zweiback said he had brought the Torahs back to Stephen Wise in time for the “Unity Service” with the two congregations.
“The scrolls,” he said, “are back home.”

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