So That’s What Rabbis Do: A Rabbinic Student Reflects on a Synagogue’s Fire Response
By Elana Nemitoff
I dialed the phone number, not knowing exactly what I would say. They answered and I started talking: “Hello, my name is Elana Nemitoff, and I am one of the rabbinic interns at Congregation Or Ami. I am calling to see how you doing.”
I could guess how she was doing, given that she had just lost her house to the fires raging through Southern California. She probably was in something akin to shock, anger, frustration, confusion, denial, or some combination of these stages of grief. Still, I sat on my end of the phone and just listened.
After all, I was on a mission: I had to help convince this congregant to accept tzedakah, a gift of help from her synagogue and the rabbis who care about them. By the end of the conversation, she had opened up to the community’s chesed and ahavah and I had made sure an electronic Target gift card was on the way to her email inbox. After five more of these conversations, my own heart hurt and simultaneously felt very full. Having spoken to five individuals in varying stages of grief, I realized I was actively providing rabbinic pastoral care as I interacted with each of them.
Creating a Kids Camp and Adult Hangout
My week began as any other. I was preparing to teach religious school classes, plan retreat programs, and help mentor our teens through mental health and wellness exercises. By week’s end, I had spent many days in a row, morning to night, answering the call from Congregation Or Ami’s rabbis to help craft a compassionate, effective response to the fires raging through our part of Southern California. As the world seemed to be falling apart for so many in our community, and as the synagogue building itself was threatened with destruction, we pushed forward.
It began with a quiet comment. “There is a voluntary evacuation nearby,” I heard one parent tell another. Knowing the fires were less than twenty miles away, Rabbi Paul Kipnes conferred with Rabbi Julia Weisz and me. They decided, to evacuate both of the Torah scrolls from the building, as well as the computer server and other valuables. As their rabbinic intern, I watched, listened, and tried to offer another set of eyes and ears to ensure we had thought of everything. I asked questions, noticing what was occurring and wondering aloud to the rabbis: Had the tutoring students for later that night been called? What was our plan for tomorrow: did we have a place to set up a temporary office and a way to reach out to community members affected by these fires?
Once the synagogue was evacuated, instead of returning to my Los Angeles apartment, I spent the evening (and eventually the night) at the home of Rabbi Julia Weisz. It occurred to me: What about all these young people who won’t have a place to go because of school closures? Maybe we should set up a kids camp for them? Rabbi Kipnes began working his contacts to gain space at de Toledo High School in West Hills, while Rabbi Weisz and I began visioning what would become our community Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Once we were clear on our mission, I spent the night planning, finding volunteers to staff the camp, making lists of supplies, and partnering with these amazing mentors.
Consulting with Colleagues
Over the next days, as the fires raged through our congregation’s backyard, I found myself growing into the rabbi and Jewish educator I hoped to become. Three years ago, I would have jumped immediately into action. Due to my training in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I slowed down and assessed the situation. I asked questions based on what I noticed. I became more aware of my surroundings and the needs of those around me. I stepped into my role as a soon-to-be rabbi and Jewish educator, fully embodied.
We consulted with rabbis and educators from synagogues which experienced major disasters – fires in Santa Rosa, CA, floods in Houston, TX, and the mass shooting in Parkland, FL – to gain insights into what we might do and what we might expect. But to be honest, often we were making it up as the hours rushed by, combining gut instinct with necessary triaging of needs. I was amazed at the stamina of Rabbis Weisz and Kipnes, and learned how to value other staff members by their open embrace of my questions, suggestions and assistance.
Connecting with Federation Leaders
One afternoon, Rabbi Kipnes called me over and said: “Please walk these two leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles through our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Show them what we are doing.” Easy, I thought: just show them around. But as we walked and began to talk, I started to narrate our tour. I pointed out the snacks we had out and shared the process of finding volunteers to provide them. In the gym I narrated the experience of the kids: where they were from, who was supervising them, and where all the different toys had come from. Returning to de Toledo High School’s lobby, our guests turned to me and promised that they would gather as many resources as possible so that we could continue our camp. They assured me that they would ensure that those people received the best resources for their needs. I took a deep breath; we were changing lives by responding quickly. I was changing lives.
The “to do” list for our makeshift office kept growing exponentially. I asked Rabbi Weisz what I could do to take something off of her plate. “Kesher (Wednesday religious school) and Menschify (Sunday family program) need to be solidified,” she responded. It became clear to me that she was not inviting collaboration or consultation; rather Rabbi Weisz was trusting me to handle it. Since our synagogue was in the fire zone, we had to create pop up programs in donated space at the High School. With another intern, I went right to work, determining what staff were needed and how the programs were going to work. We developed the framework and organized volunteers to collect or purchase supplies. Given the intensely emotional nature of these gatherings in the midst of the fire evacuation, we wrote out both the educational session plan and the words to articulate the framing of what to say to each group of students.
Light Emanating from a Pop Up Chuppah
As Shabbat was departing, Rabbi Kipnes and I departed deToledo High School and drove to the Shutters Restaurant in Santa Monica for a wedding of two excited brides, whose ceremony and celebration had been relocated in less than twenty four hours from its intended Malibu location. As we sat in the lobby of the hotel, I listened in on a conversation with Federation leadership about how to coordinate support for the eight plus synagogues impacted by the fires. Then, we drafted an email to the outside world about how they can help (after being inundated with offers of assistance, we decided to detail just how people could help). We posted the information to our social media channels and shared it with our national Reform Movement offices.
Right before the ceremony, we went outside and at Rabbi Kipnes’ invitation, I joined him to walk down the aisle to the chuppah. Standing at his side, I watched him officiate. I marveled at the fact that this wedding was a small tikkun, a small fixing of the brokenness in our world at the moment. For Jews, the chuppah, open on the four side, represents our homes and our community. This couple, unsure at that moment whether or not their apartment and all their possessions still stood or were destroyed by the raging fires in Malibu, nonetheless were welcoming all of us to witness their marriage. With their love, they brought positive light into the world and shined it onto all of us as we surrounded them. Their chuppah transformed into a vessel to both hold in their light and shine it out, demonstrating that even when their world is unsteady, the light and love permeating the world still exist and still shine forth.
So That’s What Rabbis Do
I learned many eye-opening lessons in the weeks immediately following the Woolsey and Hall fires. I gained first hand insight into the process of successfully helping others in the midst of a crisis. I discovered anew the power of rabbinic networks, of partnering with staff and community leaders, and of the utilizing our resources, both in the Federation and in the greater rabbinic community, to forge a path forward. I witnessed resilience in the face of fire, demonstrating the fortitude of community, love, and engagement. More than anything, I developed my own sense of groundedness in this new role – rabbi, and look forward to formally embarking on the journey with Ordination in May.
Elana Nemitoff is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, and a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.