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


When the Rabbi Feels Trauma: Lessons from the SoCal Fires

We jumped into the fire, but many of us feel fortunate like we have come out relatively unscathed. Or at least that’s how it might appear at first.

I worry that we have forgotten, in the course of escaping these ever spreading flames, that just a short while ago our entire community experienced two other intense events: the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a country-western bar frequented by college students in Thousand Oaks, CA and the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Our community has faced three major traumatic events coming at us in just a two week period. How do we process these fires, and the flames of hatred, directed at us?

I want to tell you a story, a true story, about trauma. My trauma. I share my personal story with you because I want to help us all, as we all face the fallout from these three traumatic events.

Seeking Advice to Understand How to Respond

Since last Wednesday, after the mass shootings, as the fires began to rage across the Conejo Valley, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I got in touch with our rabbinic colleagues from communities in Santa Rosa, CA which was decimated by fires a year ago, Houston, TX which endured horrible floods, and Parkland, FL which faced a murderous mass shooter in the high school. We called them because we needed to understand what we might expect and what we might do to help heal our community.

Most of us do understand that the process of repair for those who lost houses or were wounded or had loved ones murdered is long and arduous. But Rabbis Stephanie Kramer, Oren Hayon, and Marci Bloch who guided us well also cautioned us that our experience does not end when we return to our homes, find new homes, or when the dead are buried. They taught us that the process of healing would also be long and arduous for all of us. We will need to come to terms with the fact that these fires – and increased mass shootings – are now the new normal. They are going to happen, again and again, and they are going to get worse before they get better. Repair of our broken hearts and broken world takes time.

Recognizing our Trauma

We need to recognize our trauma. My rabbinic colleagues told us that those who survive, those who evacuated, even returned to their houses and saw how close the fires came – sometimes all the way up to backyards – or those who saw their friends’ homes burnt down, also will face trauma. Meaning most of us.

The story that I want to tell you tonight is about my day one week after the fires began. I want to open your eyes to what can happen. I have done advanced pastoral counseling work, studied about the traumatic effects of such experiences, and was warned by all those rabbis who told me what was going to happen to many of you. Well, it happened to me too.

One week after the fires began, I had to take a day off. Because after dealing with these events 24/7 for a week, I hit the wall. I am not sharing this for sympathy or caring: I’m good and with continued support from my team, I will be even stronger.

As the Tears Began to Flow.. And Not Stop

My story began at about six o’clock, when I began crying. I was talking to my kids about what was going on with the fires and our work to be there for our community. Sitting safely in my home, far enough away from the fires to be assuredly safe, I recounted our work organizing the community. And the tears began to flow. Initially I figured I was just exhausted.

But then I woke in the middle of the night and while watching an episode of the TV show Parenthood – about a dad who couldn’t find time for himself, but finally broke away and went surfing – and all of a sudden I found myself bawling again. At four thirty in the morning.

That morning I participated in an early conference call but had to break away numerous times because I kept shedding tears.

Calling my Therapist

My very next call was to my therapist, who I see sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. He opened up an appointment for me at 5:00 pm. I then texted Sally Weber, a social worker and friend from Jewish Family Services, who earlier in the week “kidnapped me” from the relief work to encourage me begin to process. She could talk at two thirty.

Then I contacted the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to get in touch with Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the CCAR’s crisis counselor, who said he would call me back in twenty minutes.

Rex and I talked for an hour. Sally and I spoke for an hour. My therapist and I spent an hour together. And you know what I discovered in those three hours of therapy? That although I thought I was not directly touched by any of this, I actually was traumatized by all that has happened. It was partly exhaustion, but not just that.

Shaken Up by the Shootings

What I discovered was the intense effect on me, especially of these double shootings. I was experiencing the shootings as deeply personal attacks. First they came after us at a synagogue (I’m Jewish. I work in a synagogue. It could easily have been my synagogue.). And then, over at the Borderline Bar, that country western dance bar, one of our young people, 23 year old dear to me, had been in there dancing and ran for his life. I’m glad that he is physically unharmed. Yet, just five days earlier I had been sitting with him, commiserating over the synagogue shooting and all those shootings at churches, schools, concerts, malls, and elsewhere. I cautioned him that as terrible as it is, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I assured him though that the chances of his getting shot at is about as likely as his stepping off the curb and getting hit by a bus (I buried someone from that only once, very early in my rabbinate). Then just five days later, that young man was in the Borderline Bar shooting.

In those counseling sessions, I realized that I didn’t know how to keep my kids safe, or my congregant kids safe, or my congregation safe, or the school safe. I discovered that was frustrated and so sad. I realized that I couldn’t sit back anymore.

Survivor’s Guilt

And then I realized that I had a form of survivor’s guilt. I was feeling guilty that we were here in this gorgeous part of the country and while many were evacuated, most escaped with only smoke damage to their homes. Yes, in fact, the fires raged all the way up to peoples’ homes, workplaces, and backyards, but I and most of our congregants were safe.

As we dug deeper, the counselors helped me discover the intensity of the repetitious nature of these fires. What now was happening to people I love had happened in nearby Ventura, CA a year ago, and to a lesser degree, we faced fires two years ago in Calabasas. In fact back then, I rescued our two Torah scrolls from the approaching fires, carrying them across the freeway bridge to safety. Since then we post in the synagogue lists of items to take if we are evacuated.

Personal Sense of Loss

Amidst my tears, I also remembered that of the three Jewish camps destroyed, I had personal connections to each. I had been a director of Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp for four years. It was so long ago, I forget about it. And most of our temple teens go to Camp JCA Shalom for NFTY retreats. These camps are their home away from home. They were part of my life.

Then I realized that just one year ago, our Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where our family spent every summer for twenty years, had burned down. My therapy team helped me realize that I had trauma on top of trauma, compounded trauma.

And then I became aware of the self-growth I needed to undertake: that if I really wanted to do something to stop these annual fires from happening, and if I want to do something to stop these constant shootings, we all have to stand up. And I had to become a leader in a different way than I had been before. That’s is intense and a little bit scary too.

If it Could Happen to Me, It Could Happen to You Too

Finally, I learned that if I can become overwhelmed and traumatized by this, then, they tell me, it can happen to you too. Remember, I am trained to handle this and I train interns every year about just these types of situations. If it could happen to me, it can happen to you.

So even when you go back to your house and at first all seems fine, take your pulse. If you can’t sleep as well as you used to (or as well as you used to not sleep), or if you can’t relax, or if your child’s grades start to change, or if you witness significant behavioral changes in the kids or the adults or yourself, or if something else seems off, please call Rabbi Julia, call Cantor Doug, call me, or call the Jewish Federation crisis hotline, or call Jewish Family Services, or call a therapist, or call a friend. Because you too might be dealing with intense trauma or PTSD.

I was lucky; because of my training I quickly could tell that something was wrong. And I quickly reached out for help. But I’m not over it.

To remain in track, I have given control over my eating over to my wife Michelle; I said I would eat whatever she tell me to eat. I would go to sleep whenever she told me to go to bed. I have arranged with trusted friends who know me well to check in regularly.

And I have additional counseling appointments scheduled.

I’m Going to Be Okay… Are You?

So I’m okay, because I did and am doing the therapy work. But many of us may have to do it too. It’s not over when we are back in our homes. The fires are not over. These insidious shootings are not over. We are going to have to deal with the trauma from them and come to terms with the new normal. Because this new normal is insidious and can easily overwhelm.

Each week we light Shabbat candles, and we take the same element, the fire that destroyed, and use it to create light and hope, for today and for the future. We are going to light Shabbat candles to bring in Shabbat light so that we can do what we did this whole horrible week since the shooting happened and the fires started: Kindle more light, not of destruction, but of love, hope, and healing. Amen.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on