By Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz
Southern California’s Woolsey and Hall fires were not the first, and assuredly won’t be the last disasters that synagogues face. But they were ours, coming on the heels of the devastating mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks’ Borderline country western dance bar. As the devastation grew, and more than 70% of our congregants evacuated, we quickly became aware of our responsibility as a communal organization to respond to the immediate needs of our community, our congregants, and our evacuated synagogue.
Here’s our Disaster To Do List, based on what we did, and the advice of colleagues who faced them before us. Of course, partnership with other synagogue and community professionals ensure the greatest success in meeting overwhelming needs. Our success in responding correlated directly with our ability to mobilize our staff and HUC-JIR interns (Elana Nemitoff, Meir Bargeron, Tammy Cohen, and Julie Bressler), to quickly set up a working office offsite, and to partner with others (especially Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Aliyah).
10 Community–Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires
When disaster is on the horizon, download a complete roster (with cell phones, email and kids names). Prepare ahead by putting your data and files safely online (we use Shulcloud). Because of this pre-planning we were able to set up a complete office in a remote location the very next morning.
1. Call: Call your congregants ASAP. Multiple times. To accomplish this, engage your own congregants, or invite trusted Facebook and Instagram friends to help call. Choose an offsite professional to organize, and share with them your synagogue contacts. Write a calling script, create a google form to collect info, and invite callers. Make sure to text people before calling them so they know the new call is coming on behalf of Rabbi XX. The collected information helps you triage which congregants most need your personal outreach. The warmth of calls from people all over the country inspires both the caller and recipient.
2. Organize Offers of Help: People will offer help. You won’t even know what you need. In a google doc – shareable and accessible from everywhere – compile a list of those offering help to return to as needs arise. And the needs will keep increasing even though it appears to the outside world that the crisis period has concluded. Don’t be shy about asking days or weeks after the initial offer.
3. Coordinate: Bring together the affected synagogues or religious organizations. Try to meet at a safe location or by conference call to pool resources and discover needs. Set up twice daily calls immediately (we met at 6am and 6pm) and then continue daily or less frequently later. Partner with Jewish Federation which can draw on national experience with disasters and bring other partners like Jewish Family Service and Jewish Free Loan Associations to the table. After discussing larger issues, spend time inviting each leader to check in personally – you will become each other’s support. End with a prayer led by a different participant.
5. Hire a Crisis Manager: Make your first order of business to engage an experienced crisis manager, someone trained to know how to help you lead your community through the crisis. You will come to value their expertise with communications (they drafted twice daily emails and phone calls), setting up offsite locations to get synagogues and organizations up and running (every synagogue was able to reconstitute and office and hold services that Shabbat), contacting insurance (never to early to call your insurance carrier), and engaging the professionals to evaluate the safety of your building. Most importantly, an experienced crisis manager will guide you to ask the questions you hadn’t considered.
6. Fundraise: Set up a fundraising link on your own website or gofundme. People want to help now so give them an option. Decide what you do not need or want. We decided to not be a distribution center and directed all material donations elsewhere, except for gift cards, tzedakah, and Judaica. Identify specific useful gift cards but clarify that cash gives maximum flexibility. Communal organizations will promise money but it may take them time – sometimes days or weeks – before funds are available to give to individuals. Inform National Jewish organizations of your needs and links so they can publicize (thanks, Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis). We succeeded in helping people within the first 24 hours because of this.
7. Network with Crisis Veterans: Call Rabbinic colleagues who have been through crises for advice. Again and again. (Thanks, Rabbi Stephanie Kramer from the Santa Rosa, CA fires, Rabbi Marci Bloch and Rabbi Melissa Stollman of the Parkland, FL shootings, and Rabbi Oren Hayon of the Houston, TX floods.) Their unique wisdom on all aspects of the communal trauma and response, and the way to endure the longer term change in our rabbinates, was invaluable. Ask them to check back in on you.
8. Open a Meeting Place: If you build it, they will come. Our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout (thanks, de Toledo High School in West Hills) became a meeting place for everyone, including leaders from other synagogues, Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and volunteer social workers. Initially the childcare held only a few children but as people returned from evacuation and schools were closed it became invaluable. Social workers showed up and approached adults to check in. Volunteers came by ostensibly to help but we quickly realized they needed pastoral counseling and support themselves. Publicize “come on by to give or get a hug.”
9. Communicate, Post, Connect: Become a hopeful presence during a scary time. Use all communication channels – email, social media, robbocalls, and live videos (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) – to spread the message that you are here, you are aware, and you care. Live stream Shabbat services and/or Havdala to offer inspiration and provide an anchor. Email twice daily. Joffe Emergency Services taught us that during a crisis, people need more communication, not less.
10. Face Your Trauma: Don’t underestimate the drain on the leaders’ inner strength. Make yourself an appointment with a therapist or trauma specialist within the first week. We each hit the wall by day 7, if not before. The pressure is overwhelming. The CCAR, our national rabbinic organization provided confidential crisis counseling, as did Jewish Family Service. We also held Zoom conference calls with my Rabbinic Coach to help the Rabbinic staff process and plan a way forward.
Finally, Eat well. Exercise. Face Mental Health and Wellness: Take care of yourself. Regarding your self-care, partner with a trusted friend/partner/spouse, or perhaps hand over the responsibility for it, ensuring your ability to go the distance. Meet regularly by phone or in person with a therapist, because the ripple effects of leading others through trauma are intense. And breathe…
We are not the first synagogue or community to experience a disaster, and assuredly we will not be the last. But we found these aforementioned steps, gleaned from the collective wisdom of others, allowed us quickly to be present and responsive to the needs of our community, to partner with other communal organizations, and provide a beacon of hope in the midst of the flames. It helped let the light and warmth of the synagogue and community envelop a community burned by the fires.
May you be blessed with the fortitude, courage, self-awareness and patience to rise up to the challenges ahead. And we are always here to listen and/or help.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California.
Rabbi Julia Weisz is Congregation Or Ami’s Director of Education.