Rabbi’s Disaster To Do List: 10 Community-Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires

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 (thanks, Or Ami President, Fred Gruber), 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 (thanks, Mike Mason) 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 (thanks, Chris Joffe of Joffe Emergency Services). 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 ( – Fire Response Fund). 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 (thanks, Diana Ho of Management Arts) 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 and Rabbi Julia Weisz both serve Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi Kipnes’s blog

Ethics General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

A Reform Congregation Emerges from the Flood

On Rosh HaShanah we celebrated Creation, and by Yom Kippur we had been hit by the flood.

The deluge began Thursday afternoon.  I posted pictures to Twitter and Facebook, amused by the enormous puddles everywhere.  Two hours later, it was clear that this was no joke.  The four lane road in front of our Congregation, Har HaShem, was now a rushing river. Muddy water poured in everywhere.   Our Executive Director Gary Fifer and I waded through more than a foot of water in the parking lot, grabbed the sifrei torah from the ark, wrapped them in plastic and put them in a high place.  We cut the power and headed for high ground.

IMG_8399The situation at Har HaShem remains critical as we recover from this 500-year flood. In all, we estimate that we sustained about $150,000 to $200,000 worth of damage and we now know that our insurance policy will cover only a tiny fraction of this.  We have established a fund, to which you may donate here (or through our website). Our entire lower level, with eight classrooms, was destroyed. Carpet, drywall, furniture, shelving, school supplies, congregational archives – gone.  Our sanctuary, social hall and South Building flooded as did two residential houses we own.  Our parking lot was covered with inches of mud and debris.

While all of this has been painful and difficult, there were no significant injuries or deaths in the Jewish community. We pray that God grants strength and comfort to the many in the region who have lost so much more.

A little light dispels great darkness, our Sages taught.  Indeed.  Many people have come together to bring the synagogue back to life.  The neighborhood system we created this past year enabled the 30 neighborhood  captains, responsible for creating community and fostering Jewish living in their neighborhoods , to quickly and locally identify need and volunteers.  It was moving to see members in need being helped by neighbor-congregants they may not have known hours before.  At the synagogue itself roughly 50 member volunteers have worked tirelessly to get us cleaned up.  Our Youth Group kids spent the unexpected no-school here, inspiring other volunteers by working their hearts out.  Nechama, a Jewish Response to Disaster, has done untold good in Boulder and have been lifesavers for Har HaShem.  They’re helping us rebuild.

IMG_8277More light: we are a homeless overflow shelter in the winter and summer months and offered several homeless folks who are guests during the year an hourly wage to help downstairs.  We are deeply impressed by their energy and dedication.  My family won’t forget having them over for kiddush and lunch in our sukkah (I live next door to the synagogue) during a lunch break.

The entire Boulder community came together during this crisis.  Students from CU Chabad, members of the neighboring Conservative congregation, whose synagogue was also badly damaged, strangers off the street – so many have reached out.  The Federation has been wonderful, the JCC is by our side, Jewish Family Service has been a lifeline to many.

Several folks from across the country have reached out.  Rabbi Hara Person of the CCAR and Rabbi Jan Offel of the URJ helped us get some books to replace those that were destroyed. Rabbi Deborah Prinz of the CCAR has reached out to help.  And I’ve been so moved that several of you have extended a hand as well.

We have a lot of work ahead.  Most significant is addressing the huge financial setback. If you are moved to donate, you may do so here (or through our website), or through URJ Disaster Relief.  Of course there are other challenges, from finding space for our delayed religious school start, to an overextended staff, to maintaining other programming during the coming weeks.

The deep connections between the creation story of Bereishit and the flood story are well known.  Bereishit Rabbah teaches that initially God’s light was unobscured and could be seen from one end of the earth to the other.  Acts of evil, including those of the generation of the flood, caused that light to be removed and concealed.  Here, in these early days of the new creation of 5774 and in the wake of our flood, we have seen the unmistakable glow of divine light in the many acts of righteousness within our community and from far beyond.   May we be strengthened to rebuild in the coming weeks and months.

Rabbi Joshua Rose is the rabbi of Congregation Har HaShem, in Boulder, CO.