Schools close as smoke, ash and fire spread across Jewish Los Angeles
Torahs are relocated as Skirball fire rages in Mulholland Pass. Camp Ramah in Ojai survives a rough night as Ventura's Thomas Fire continues to expand.
December 7, 2017
As the Skirball Fire in Bel Air wound down Friday and many affected residents were able to return home, the the much larger Thomas Fire that has ravaged Ojai and Ventura counties continued to rage close to Ojai’s Camp Ramah in California, a sleepaway camp which many Shalhevet students attend in the summer.
“We are relieved to report that fires that approached the camp from the mountains were stopped by truly heroic efforts from fire personnel at the edge of camp,” said a statement the camp posted on its Facebook page.
The leadership of the camp met the firefighters on Friday, December 8 to bring them coffee and breakfast. A post with several photos of the camp leaders with the firefighter on Camp Ramah’s Facebook page at 12:40 p.m. wrote:
“Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude to everyone involved.”
In a speech to firefighters, Rabbi Joe Menashe, Head Rabbi of Camp Ramah in California, gave a D’var Torah relating the fires to Hanukkah, which begins next Tuesday night.
“The holiday is not just about dreidels and menorahs,” Rabbi Menashe said. “It’s really about a miracle that we believe happened a couple thousand years ago.
“Last night when we shared this news, it wasn’t just one person that said this, we say nes gadol haya sham, that a great miracle happened here.”
He thanked the firefighters for their heroic bravery.
Other Jewish landmarks in Los Angeles are still figuring out what to do this weekend. Officials at Stephen S. Wise Temple, less than a mile from where the Skirball fire began, wrote on their website that “Tot Shabbat” would be cancelled tonight, Dec. 8, and that they would update the community on Sunday activities before Sunday.
Leo Baeck Temple on Sepulveda Boulevard, also adjacent to the flames, said on its homepage that: “As a result of the Skirball fire, the Leo Baeck Temple, including the ECC, will remain closed on Friday, Dec. 8th.” The ECC is the synagogue’s Early Childhood Center.
The Torahs of both Stephen S. Wise Temple and Leo Baeck Temple are being stored at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Camp Ramah continued to be the Jewish institution most severely threated. The Thomas Fire, centered in Ventura County fire where it is located, had destroyed at least 423 structures as of Thursday, and expanded to more than 150,000 acres by Friday afternoon as it continued to spread toward. The city of Ojai was said to be surrounded by fire on three sides, and homes were evacuated near the coast in Carpinteria,
At 10:42 p.m. Wednesday, camp officials had posted an update stating that the mandatory evacuation was still in force.
“Please join us in prayers for all the first responders, firefighters, and support personnel,” the posting stated.
After much worry from the community and camp faculty, a team of firefighters arrived on Wednesday night and Thursday and were able to hold back the flames.
In light of multiple fires which have spread in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, 11 Jewish day schools closed Tuesday or Wednesday and said they would stay closed through Friday.
Among them were Milken Community Schools in Bel Air, which closed Tuesday because of the Skirball Fire; Valley Torah girls and boys high schools in North Hollywood, the Alice and Nahum Lainer School (formerly Sinai-Akiba) in Westwood. American Jewish University, in the immediate vicinity of the Skirball fire, was closed as well. UCLA cancelled classes for Thursday but said it would reopen on Friday.
The Skirball Fire was declared 30 percent contained Thursday evening and most residents who had been evacuated were allowed to go home. Some schools were shut down due to traffic or ashy air, among them Lainer and public schools including Palisades Charter high school, Santa Monica High School.
De Toledo High School in West Hills has not closed, and neither have Shalhevet or YULA.
Milken Community Schools and Stephen S. Wise Temple Day School, both located near the Skirball Cultural Center and the Getty Center, are especially close to the fires. The Skirball Fire is named after Skirball Center Drive, which is the freeway exit closest to where the fire is, which in turn is named after the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum.
Milken was closed down Wednesday and was set to be closed Thursday and Friday as well.
“As you know, we are carefully watching the danger posed by the Skirball fire,” Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman wrote to his community on Wednesday. “The winds are expected to pick up and shift tonight, which increases the risk from the fire to our campus. School will be closed both Thursday and Friday of this week, and no one will be permitted to access campus until an all clear is given.”
On Wednesday morning, the Skirball Fire led to a shutdown of the 405 freeway and threatened houses and families in Bel Air Brentwood and beyond, areas of L.A.’s Westside, which is home to much of Los Angeles’ Jewish community.
“School was canceled because there is a lot of ash in the air,” said Valley Torah senior Ben Hamer. “I tried to stay inside all day.”
Ben said he was not worried about having to evacuate his house, and that though the fires in Santa Clarita and near the Getty and Skirball are close to the Jewish community in Valley Village, he thinks everything will turn out okay.
But some have had to evacuate.
Milken junior Lauren Farshi evacuated on Wednesday at seven a.m. to her grandparents’ house in Encino due to the Skirball fire near her home.
“I brought some family photos, some clothes to keep me warm, my computer, and my phone,” said Lauren. “I panicked in the beginning, but once I got in the car I tried to stay positive.”
She said her family received a call from the fire department to evacuate. Prior to this, her family had no evacuation plan.
“My family never thought that something like this would ever happen to them,” Lauren said.
Although significantly slowed due to traffic on the 101 freeway, Lauren said that the drive to her grandparents’ home made her feel safe.
She has been spending time with her cousins who also evacuated their homes. She said she is currently not worried because it seems the fire is not spreading in the direction of her house, and she thinks she will be able to return home Thursday morning.
Another Milken student who had to evacuate is Milken junior Ben Chasen, who lives across from American Jewish University on Mulholland Drive, right where the Skirball fire hit.
“We just kind of on the spot grabbed things we wouldn’t be able to replace — family videos, my parents’ wedding ketubah,” said Ben.
His father, Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, is the senior rabbi of the Leo Baeck Temple on North Sepulveda Boulevard near the Skirball fire. The synagogue closed Wednesday, canceling events like their Hebrew school and relocating their Torahs.
Ben said his father received a call at 5:20 a.m. that there was a fire around Leo Baeck. While he was there removing the Torahs, Ben and his mom gathered necessities for evacuation as well as sentimental items.
They initially relocated to a family friend’s house in Encino but are now at Ben’s cousin’s home in Calabasas. Rabbi Chasen has since gone back to Leo Baeck to remove artwork from the Reform temple and take it to a person’s home who has volunteered to store it.
“I think as terrible and scary as this is, it reminds you of the support you have and the great support these Jewish institutions and the community have,” Ben said.
Milken had a shabbaton planned at Camps Ramah and Hess Kramer for this weekend. Both are canceled but will be rescheduled.
Sophomore Amit Henn said the school was supporting its community well during a frightening time.
“They helped by making sure everyone is safe, and offering support to anyone who needs it,” Amit said. “They moved the Torah’s to [Valley Beth Shalom synagogue], and have made sure that everything in the school was safe.”
According to ABC News, The Los Angeles Unified School District closed all 265 schools in the San Fernando Valley and Westside for the week due to the Skirball fire, which has burned at least 150 acres in Bel Air.
Multiple schools have closed despite not being in the direct path of the fires, either because students are affected by traffic due to road closures or by poor air quality. Santa Monica High School held a half-day Tuesday and was closed beginning Wednesday for the rest of the week.
“We understand that some homes, apartments and school indoor spaces are feeling the impact of the smoke and that there are extreme winds in some of our neighborhoods,” an email from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District wrote to parents, teachers and students.
“We are calling a minimum day today,” SMMUSD stated on Tuesday.
The Lainer School also shut down on Wednesday and will be closed Thursday as well.
“Due to continued safety concerns arising from the Skirball fire — given the toxic air quality and our proximity to the blaze — we have decided to exercise the utmost caution and close school again,” Lainer Head of School Ms. Sarah Shulkind wrote to parents on Wednesday evening.
Other students, however, have had to attend school despite bad air quality. Arielle Meppen, a junior at Calabasas High School, traveled from the hills of Encino today and yesterday. Calabasas High is in the Las Virgenes Unified School District (LVUSD).
“At my house I can feel the smoke from the Sylmar fires,” Arielle said, describing leaving her house for school in Calabasas the past two mornings. “I couldn’t see, even being in my car I couldn’t breathe. With the air conditioning off, it was unbearable.”
She said she can smell the ash and fire even in her home with all the windows and doors closed. Still, she doesn’t mind having to go school. Students were allowed to eat lunch in unusual indoor areas, like the library. P.E. classes were also held inside.
“We continue to remain in close communication with LVUSD, our County Fire Officials, law enforcement and area school districts as we monitor the high winds and fires,” Calabasas principal Mrs. C.J. Foss, wrote to the community. She said schools would be open Thursday, “but if anything changes, please monitor your email and LVUSD social media for updates and information.”
Arielle said she is not worried about the fire reaching her home, since she is at the bottom of the hill and the fire is on the top. She and her family do not have an evacuation plan.
Camp Ramah has been threatened all week by the Thomas Fire, and dangerous conditions are expected to continue through Sunday. On Thursday morning, Ramah officials said they were “beyond grateful” that no damage had occurred during the night, when the wind-whipped fire expanded rapidly along Highway 33, just to the west of the camp.
“We are beyond grateful that our camp is still standing after last night’s scare,” states the camp’s Facebook page. “The fire is still present in the surrounding areas, and we continue to monitor its status.”
Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal said Shalhevet would stay open but would understand absences of those whose route to school was impacted by the fires. He also allowed Valley students to leave school early on Wednesday.
“Although the fires remain at a safe distance from Shalhevet, the air quality continues to be a concern,” Rabbi Segal wrote in an email to parents, students and faculty.
“Our administrative team has developed a plan for tomorrow and we feel that we can remain open with minimal impact to teaching and learning. We will ensure students remain indoors with doors/windows closed throughout the day.”
“We understand that traffic has been impacted by this as well and so we have let teachers and students know that they should not stress if they are running late due to traffic,” Rabbi Segal wrote.
Meanwhile, the much larger Thomas Fire has ravaged Ojai and Ventura counties, reaching close to Ojai’s Camp Ramah in California, a sleepaway camp which many Shalhevet students attend in the summer.
At 10:42 p.m. Wednesday, the camp posted an update to the community on its Facebook page about the Thomas fires.
“Camp Ramah in California is now in an area under mandatory evacuation and the fires continue to burn in the surrounding areas,” the posting stated. “The fires have not encroached onto camp and we are monitoring the situation carefully. Please join us in prayers for all the first responders, firefighters, and support personnel.”
With fire near and winds picking up, officials say be prepared
Survivor of Santa Rosa fire advises taking photos of things that could be lost. Winds tonight mean high fire danger.
The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning for Los Angeles County tonight through Friday, with the potential to spread existing fires and spark new ones that would be impossible to control.
Ari Rosenthal, a survivor of October’s devastating Santa Rosa fire in Northern California, had to evacuate fled from his home on five minutes notice in the middle of the night. The home was destroyed, and he now attends Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.
“There are definitely steps you can take before the fire happens,” Ari said in an interview with the Boiling Point last night. “The essence of what you should do is just be vigilant.”
Ari recommended preparing in advance by having photographs of things that are irreplaceable.
“Have copies or photos of documents or photos that are very important to you,” Ari said. “For example, my parents had their wedding ketuba in the house and we lost the house so we also lost the wedding ketuba.”
Ari also recommends checking fire alarms and smoke detectors, as well as having a “safety bag” ready with supplies in the event of a hasty evacuation.
Strong Santa Ana winds with gusts of up to 50 mph are expected tonight in western Los Angeles, “below passes and canyons between the Hollywood Hills and Malibu,” which includes Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Westwood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, where some Shalhevet students live.
These violent winds have already stoked the Southern California fires that have driven over 27,000 to evacuate.
Wind gusts of up to 80 mph in areas are expected including Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, Encino, and also eastern Ventura County, near where the much larger Thomas fire is raging.
Winds are expected to intensify tonight, and are likely to spread the flames even farther. Here are some of the guidelines the Los Angeles Fire Department has prepared to be safe in the event of a fire, in a strategy it calls “Ready, Set, Go!”
- Prepare emergency supplies: Food, water, cash, medication, chargers, and anything else you might need.
- Plan escape routes: Find at least two possible ways to leave your neighborhood.
- Park your vehicle facing towards the street. Roll up the windows and pack everything you wish to take.
- Check news sources and your local fire department website often for updates
- You do not need to wait for an evacuation order. Leave as early as possible.
List of Jewish school closures due to fires
By Clara Sandler, Community Editor
The following Jewish schools are closed today, according to a Boiling Point survey. Unless otherwise stated, they will be closed tomorrow as well.
- American Jewish University – Bel Air
- Emek Hebrew Academy – Sherman Oaks
- Valley Torah Boys High School – Valley Village
- Valley Torah Girls High School – Valley Village
- Milken Community Schools – Los Angeles
- Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School – Northridge (Closed for parent-teacher conferences)
- Ilan Ramon Day School – Agoura Hills
- Alice and Nahum Lainer School (formerly Sinai-Akiba Academy), Westwood
- Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple West – West Los Angeles
- Adat Ari El Day School – Valley Village
- Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School – Encino
The following schools are open as of Dec. 7.
- Shalhevet High School – Los Angeles
- YULA Girls High School – Los Angeles
- YULA Boys High School – Los Angeles
- Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy – Beverly Hills
- Gindi Maimonides Academy -Los Angeles
- Pressman Academy -Los Angeles
- Kadima Day School – West Hills
- de Toledo High School – West Hills
- Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple East – Los Angeles
- Yavneh Hebrew Academy – Los Angeles
- Yeshivat Ohr Eliyahu -Los Angeles
- Cheder Menachem -Los Angeles
- Beis Chaya Mushka – Los Angeles
- Beis Rebbe – Los Angeles
- Ohel Chana High School – Los Angeles
- Yeshiva Gedolah High School -Los Angeles
- Harkham Gaon High School -Los Angeles
- Bais Yaakov High School -Los Angeles
- The Wise School – Los Angeles
- LA Hebrew High School – Los Angeles
- Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok – Los Angeles