Even as they struggle to help families hit hard by the coronavirus and the economic downtown, Jewish organizations in California and the Pacific Northwest are mobilized — once again — to help victims of the wildfires that have devastated large swaths of region.
“The mood and tone here?” said Marc Blattner, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. “People are in a haze. It’s smoky, confusing, people are melancholy. There’s still COVID, and everything is in flux. Next year will be better.”
Maybe. This year’s destruction by western wildfires has already surpassed the previous years’ devastation, which included a handful of popular Jewish summer camps. Across three coastal states — Washington, Oregon and California — fires have roared through remote areas nearly the size of New Jersey, more than 5 million acres, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate, their homes damaged or destroyed. More than two dozen people have died.
While the region’s largest concentrations of Jews — in Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles — are distant from the worst of the fires, winds have carried cruel reminders — from an orange-red smoky haze that made San Francisco look like an imagined surface of Mars to a carpet of ash falling on neighborhoods across Los Angeles to a constant, gray gloom in Seattle.
Portland last week recorded the worst air quality index in the world.
Like in cities throughout the country, celebration of the High Holy Days in the west was already altered by the pandemic virus, with all but Orthodox communities planning to attend services on Zoom or streaming platforms. But the wildfires have added a cruel overlay to what has already been a challenging summer.
“Everybody is touched by this,” said Blattner, a literal statement that reflects the smoke in Portland and fires that destroyed the homes of 27 Jewish families in the southwestern part of the state. “You can feel it. You can smell it. You can taste it all the time. It’s here. It’s happening to us. I just hope it gets better sooner rather than later.”
About 35,000 of Oregon’s 43,000 Jews live in the greater Portland area.
Oregon has been battling six major wildfires, a seventh that straddles the border with California, plus a sprinkling of smaller fires. One of them, south of Medford, destroyed two towns last week, Phoenix and Talent, where the Jewish families who lost their homes lived.
The Portland Federation raised $18,000 in emergency funds to help them through a special donation page, Blattner said.
In Washington, two major fires have burned 300 miles east of Seattle, but winds have pushed smoke westward, where two months of street protests in Seattle have already rattled the city and surrounding areas. Most of the state’s 70,000 Jews live in metropolitan Seattle.
No Jews have died in fire-related deaths in any of the three states. But still, said Nancy Greer, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, “People feel like we’re being tested to the nth degree. It’s been a lot. We didn’t know there’d be a pandemic. But we managed. We didn’t know there’s be so much social unrest. But we managed. Now we have the fires. Is God testing us?”
“People are emotionally exhausted.,” she said.
In California, among nearly 50 fires burning, the largest are located well inland from the coast and nearer the Central Valley and northern parts of the state. Several are burning within 60 miles of San Francisco, where the mix of smoke and fog has created an alternating palette of eerie atmospheric colors.
San Francisco and nine surrounding counties are home to 473,000 Jewish households,
“The Bay Area has been out of the immediate line of fire,” said Roxanne Cohen, managing director of community impact for the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and its surrounding counties. “But the smoke, the skies, it has just been like a blanket of anxiety sitting on everyone’s shoulders.”
In effect, the poor air quality has countermanded a major safeguard against COVID-19, which called for people to conduct activities outside. The smoky air has forced people indoors with windows and doors closed to mitigate respiration problems.
“There now an intertwining of these challenges we’re all facing,” said Danny Grossman, the group’s chief executive officer. “The fires, the smoke, the bad air forces us back indoors. So there’s a lot of rethinking, pivoting and trying to adjust to the circumstances.”
One fire closest to major population centers is burning in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Pasadena and Glendale, threatening homes and evacuations and sending ash throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
Jay Sanderson, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he knew of no fire-related deaths among Jews but warned, “Our worst fire period is ahead of us unfortunately.”
Greer, the Seattle Federation executive, sees a silver lining in the disruptions of the summer. With lifestyles, family finances and illness changed by a barrage of outside events, “some people,” she said, “will look to their faith to gain solace and understanding.”
“Everybody has a lot more time on their hands,” she said. “With that comes a lot of contemplation. People are reprioritizing. It’s now family, friendship, authentic connection and community. Only religion gives people a community of people.”
And even if the community can only gather digitally for the High Holidays, the fires and their impact could well add a “sort of spiritual quality” to the days ahead.
“When we’re all experiencing a day of darkness, it takes people to profound places,” said Grossman. “We know that some of that also leads to mental health challenges. But as we’re thinking about the zeitgeist of the community as we approach the Holidays, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in a reflective mode as a community.”
Michael Janofsky is an editor and writer in Los Angeles.
Jewish organizations mobilize to help wildfire victims