Emergency response

Maui’s Jewish community ‘overwhelmed’ as island burns, but ‘inspired’ by outpouring of support

Local synagogues fielding calls as people try to make contact with friends, relatives on the island, helping coordinate donation drives

With deadly wildfires still blazing across the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday, the two rabbis on the island stepped up relief efforts for the 11,000 residents — including some of their own congregants — who have been evacuated from their homes.

“We’re looking for supplies for all residents of Maui, not just Jewish ones because the Jewish value of helping all during time of emergency,” Rabbi Raanan Mallek, who leads The Jewish Congregation of Maui, told eJewishPhilanthropy in a phone conversation Thursday afternoon from Maui. 

Several members of Mallek’s congregation have lost their homes to the inferno, brought on by strong winds from Hurricane Dora. A congregation board member’s restaurant, The Kula Lodge, has been severely scorched, Mallek told eJP.

Maui officials urged visitors to leave Lahaina, a historic port town that has been nearly entirely flattened by the fires. The island organized a “mass bus evacuation” Wednesday afternoon to take people directly to the airport, according to county officials. At least 55 people have been killed in the fires as of Thursday night, with officials saying that 80% of the fires have been contained. 

Essential items including non-perishable foods, clothing, first-aid kits and diapers dropped off at The Jewish Congregation will be donated to the Maui War Memorial Center for those in need. “Pretty much anything that a family that is now without a home would need during this challenging time,” Mallek said.

The synagogue is in the Kihei area, on the opposite side of a north-south highway from the fire, and therefore not subject to evacuation orders.

There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Jewish residents on Maui.

The Jewish Congregation of Maui, which is non-denominational, has about 100 members, according to Mallek, many of whom are part-year residents, known as “snow birds.” 

Also on Hawaii’s second-largest island is Chabad of Maui, led by Rabbi Mendy Krasnjansky. The Chabad center was in the evacuation zone, about two miles from the fire line. Volunteers have been told to be ready to rescue the building’s Torahs if necessary.  

“Obviously, it’s a very trying time for the community,” Krasnjansky wrote in an email to eJP on Thursday afternoon. “We have been fielding calls nonstop since the crisis started, attempting to locate residents and visitors, people reaching out concerned about their loved ones. Assisting with finding places for people to shelter. There is tremendous devastation, loss of homes and businesses, people have lost everything. Trying our utmost to support and strengthen.”

The Jewish Federations of North America launched a Hawaii Wildfire Fund on Thursday night to support affected communities in Maui by providing resources for response and recovery, such as “toiletries, first-aid kits, non-perishable foods, baby supplies and more,” the organization said. The fund will also help people fleeing to Honolulu where Jewish communal organizations there will be working to support those in need. A JFNA spokesperson said most of the fundraising will be done “on a local level by the individual federations.”

The Israel-based disaster relief organization SmartAid said it has dispatched a team to the island to “provide immediate assistance to affected communities and first responders.”

The group said this included distributing aid, providing solar-power generators to emergency shelters to ensure electricity supply and deploying mobile communication hotspots.

Krasnjansky called the outpouring of people reaching out from across the globe to contribute “overwhelming and inspiring.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed reporting.