Australian Jews Flee for Lives as Wildfires Rage

Charred Mezuzahs as Unchecked Blazes Destroy Homes

Deadly Blaze: Firefighters work to battle wildfires that have ravaged parts of Australia, forcing members of the Jewish community to flee.
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Deadly Blaze: Firefighters work to battle wildfires that have ravaged parts of Australia, forcing members of the Jewish community to flee.

By JTA

Published October 24, 2013.
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The wild bushfires ravaging Australia forced members of the Jewish community to evacuate their homes.

David Lake, a traditional Sephardic Jew, lost his home in the blaze at the Blue Mountains, one hour’s drive west of Sydney. He fled his home on Monday.

The fires began on Oct. 16, reportedly sparked by explosives training on army land in the area. More than 200 homes have burned down from the approximately 30 wild fires, fueled by the hot, dry summer weather. Lake managed to save a Kiddush cup and a mezuzah.

“All my possessions were incinerated,” Lake said. “It’s difficult and emotionally traumatizing.

“The Kiddush cup was completely blackened but I managed to restore it – it’s still useable,” he said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

He said the mezuzah on the archway in front of his door was “still intact.” But others lying in the ashes were totally destroyed.

Lake has been living since Tuesday at a Chabad house in Sydney, which has 40 rooms available, along with a handful of other Jewish evacuees, thanks to the relief efforts of Rabbi Yossi Schapiro, a representative of Chabad of RARA, or Rural and Regional Australia.

“He’s going to be here for a while and we’ll host him for as long as he needs,” the rabbi said. “He is devastated; any person would be devastated.”

Other Jewish groups rallied to help the victims this week.

Our Big Kitchen, a Chabad-run community kitchen in Bondi, staged a cook-a-thon on Tuesday, preparing more than 1,000 meals for distribution to victims and firefighters.

“We pray that G-d Almighty has mercy and brings a swift end to this terrible catastrophe, comforts the bereaved and heals the wounded,” said Pinchus Feldman, the chief rabbi of Chabad in Sydney.

The Jewish House, a crisis center, is offering psychological help, as well as shelter for those with pets.

“We’re in touch with 25 families,” said the center’s CEO, Rabbi Mendel Kastel. “Most are all packed up and ready to run if they need to.”

Jewish Aid Australia launched an appeal this week. “Like all Australians, the Jewish community is deeply concerned by the devastation left in the fires’ wake,” said Jewish Aid Australia CEO Gary Samowitz.

Bush fires are akin to Australia’s frontline war. In 2009, bushfires killed more than 170 people and destroyed 150 homes in Victoria, the worst blaze in Australian history.


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