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How Does A Rabbi Comfort His Congregants After California’s Wildfires?

I was confused as I lit the Chanukah candles this year. How could it be that I recently watched thousands of firefighters in Southern California douse out life threatening flames, while my job as a Jew on the holiday was to ignite a spark, and spread that flame throughout the world? How could it be that last month I smelled the smoke of the Woolsey fire in my driveway, prompting the cancellation of a communal outdoor havdalah, but this month, I sniffed the aroma of burning menorahs in my living room crafted by my young children?

As a rabbi at Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, I was a mere twenty miles away from the fires. Too far to see with my bare eyes. Yet, previously I served for five years as a Rabbi at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, in West Hills, the epicenter of the Woolsey fire. The reports were surreal: synagogue members removing the Torah scrolls from the ark and storing them in private homes. The entire community was evacuated, and regularly scheduled simchas were housed in other local synagogues.

As the Chanukah candles have now melted away, I continue to feel the meaning of those lights. I see stories of families who have lost everything, but I also see stories of people who can express that they truly have everything; the eternal gift of love.

One such family watched their entire home burn to the ground. After speaking to them just hours after they stood at the pile of rubble, I gently inquired of how our community could assist in their grief and recovery. The parents told me they had a place to stay. Food and clothing donations poured in without end. Their 15 year old son expressed how distraught he was. Each Sunday, he volunteers for the local special needs Little League, Champions. He had called the director in tears, crying that he could not volunteer without his T-shirt that was burned in the fire. This child, instead of focusing on his own real struggles, a child who literally lost everything, was most concerned that he could not help others.

When I asked his mother if she had time to take any precious belongings with her, she answered, “Rabbi, I took our ketubah and the glass we broke at our wedding.” Two things a fire could not destroy — symbols of love that are eternal.

Mike Garson and his family also lost every material possession they owned. Mike Garson is known as David Bowie’s pianist. Beyond being a master composer and musician, he is a master mensch. I had met Mike several years ago. He had heard the story of my brother Eyal, a quadriplegic for 32 years before passing away at age 36. Mike himself has a special needs grandson. We had spent many hours schmoozing about the healing power of music. I had sat in his custom made studio and watched him play his custom made pianos. Yet, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone. His pianos literally melted to the ground, and he lost much of his music which was to be his legacy on this earth.

Shortly after this horrific event, when I asked Mike how we could help, he told me exactly what to do. “Rabbi, you can give me a challah and a Shabbos dinner, or you can give me an Amazon or Target gift card. But I know what matters more than a house or material goods is our safety, our family, love and music. I’m so grateful to have all of this. Many of you have asked what you can do to help. Here’s my one request: Transmit the outpouring of love you’ve given us and don’t wait for moments like this to show others how much you love and care. Your support will remain with me forever and my music, as always, will continue. “

The next day, Mike called me again. He told me that when his housekeeper went to his ruined home, she found a two things that were left completely untouched and unburned. A mezuzah in the shape of a piano, and two stones with the words, “Hopes and dreams.”

That Shabbat, Mike attended services at Sinai Temple, and he brought the mezuzah with him. At the conclusion of the service, Mike composed an improvised piece of music, called, “From The Ashes.” As he sat on the piano bench, he told the congregation, “While I have lost everything I have, it is true that I have everything too. My love and my music.”

This is the story of the Woolsey fire; foundations of faith and love, where creation is possible again, despite the loss. We know that when the prophet Elijah called out to God in distress, God did not answer him in the mighty wind, in the earthquake, or even in the fire. Rather, God answered him kol demama daka, the sound of delicate silence. Through the untouched mezuzah and the foundation stones of hopes and dreams. Through the ketubah and broken glass, representing love and joy.

We have concluded our Festival of Lights. We have ceased reciting blessings over flame. Yet, we continue to have the responsibility to hear that still small voice, to recognize those in need, and to carry on the message of the miracles we are witness to each and every day.

As Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways of looking at the world — either you see nothing as a miracle or you see everything as a miracle.”

As Jews, I think we know the right choice.

Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

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