In the Aftermath of the California Wildfires:
What We Are Learning About our Community and Ourselves?
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
This past week alone, California experienced 9 wild fires, with more than 25,000 acres burned, 138 structures destroyed, and thousands of families and individuals displaced.
As these fires raced across California, we witnessed a different communal paradigm. Disasters bring individuals and institutions into alignment! This pattern of collective action can be documented. Few conditions, outside of such threats, create the level and depth of collaboration and institutional engagement.
Inward and Outward Bound:
In such conditions, one finds synagogues reaching out to their members, while at the same moment partnering with one another. Camps, schools, and religious organizations offering assistance to the broader community, just as they come together to share resources and space, expertise and their collective wisdom and clout.
Providing class space, housing Torahs, and offering home hospitality to those in need of temporary shelter reflect the best of communal behavior. Similarly, one finds Israeli-based organizations, including IsraAID and KKL-JNF, contributing their resources and expertise.
Federations and their allied agencies, both within the state and beyond, have been proactive and engaged in providing leadership, social services, and financial support. Even well beyond the Jewish community, it is possible to identify an array of civic, governmental, and charitable organizations committed to assisting the victims of these wildfires and the institutions most directly impacted.
The best of the human spirit emerges at these difficult and challenging moments. One sees a conscious focus on connectivity, wellbeing, and inclusion. This is clearly reflected in the personal behaviors and institutional expressions that we have witnessed over these past years in the aftermath of these California wildfires and other forms of natural disaster wherever they occur.
Psychology Today offers us some insights into our own behaviors and reactions when experiencing natural disasters. While drawn from the experiences of facing hurricanes, the lessons remain the same in this scenario:
- Managing my anxiety: “Calm and anxiety will always ebb and flow; it’s part of being human. My calm is not necessarily better than my anxiety… The kinder I am to my anxiety, the calmer I usually become. The kinder others are to my anxiety, the calmer I become as well. The same is true for how we treat others.”
- Teaching me to stay “with what is happening in the moment and also staying with what is uncomfortable.”
- Refocusing me to break with the negative. Our tendency is to “get sucked in – to social media, to friends’ anxieties, to negative self-talk, to the relentless swirl of bad news.”
- Reminding me that too often “we operate from a sense of scarcity – worrying that whatever we do won’t be enough.”
- Seeing the abundance of connection that I have created. “The people who care about me and check in – for which I feel loved… At many moments, the sheer number of texts, calls, emails and instant messages overwhelmed me and as I tried to reassure dear friends across the country, I wondered how to reassure myself about the decisions we were making here.
- Teaching me that there is but so much we can control and that there is also value in learning to let go. “I recited a mantra of ‘people over stuff.’”
- Understanding the economic impact: Supplies and evacuations are costly. “The poorest among us are the most vulnerable.”
- Facing disasters: “Further reminds me of the nerve-rackingly, frighteningly tense sociopolitical time we’re in now. Our experience of the physical landscape is affected and shaped by our relationships, and how we relate to each other affects our land.”
- Remembering the significance of community: Neighbors show up!
When as a community we experience such disasters, there is much to learn as such events serve as:
“… Laboratories for understanding the physical and social factors governing them. Valuable information gathered during the hours, days, months, and years following a disaster can lead to policies and practices that reduce the risk of loss of life, property, and natural resources. This information can be used to enhance the effectiveness of hazard and risk assessments, awareness and education, preparedness, prediction and warning, and mitigation.”
Indeed, we are reminded that one of the key outcomes points to the fact that several of the wildfires, covering the past number of years, resulted from the failed policies and practices of California’s electrical power and energy companies. A major debate lies ahead over how this state will manage for now and into the future its power grid.
The responses, identified above, affirm the best of humanity and of community. “What you believe shapes how you act. How you act results in life or death, for yourself or others, like everyday life, only more so.”  This pattern may certainly be true for many of us but for the first responders, this has become their mantra and focus!
In this age of climate disruption, we have witnessed these extraordinary expressions of communal practice. Such individual and collective behaviors must now become the social norm.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com