A Devastating, Yet Uplifting Experience

An on-the-ground report from Sonoma county

Since the onset of the North Bay wildfires, we have reached out to all of the Jewish communal organizations in our service area, in concert with the East Bay Federation. This post is part of a series of first-hand accounts from Federation staff and our partners in the affected region. The reflection below was co-authored by the Federation’s Roxanne Cohen, and Stephanie Levin of the Peninsula JCC.

In Sonoma county yesterday, we experienced the remarkable coming together of community in the face of tremendous devastation caused by the still-raging wildfires in the North Bay. We visited with Rabbi Ted Feldman at B’nai Israel Jewish Center (Petaluma), Reb Irwin Keller at Congregation Ner Shalom (Cotati) and Rabbis George Gittleman and Stephanie Kramer at Congregation Shomrei Torah (Santa Rosa) and offered them support on behalf of our community. They shared their personal stories of evacuation and uncertainty, while at the same time taking on the tremendous responsibility of caring for their congregants and community. We helped Shomrei Torah make calls to check on the status of congregants, thanked the volunteers and staff from Camp Newman and Camp Tawonga who were running a make-shift camp for children, and offered support and partnership to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, IsraAID, and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, who are providing front-line trauma support and triage for countless families who have been evacuated from or lost their homes.

What we do know is that these families, congregations, and organizations, face more unknown than known challenges. The outpouring of love, support, kindness, and generosity is as overwhelming as the situation itself. It was heartwarming to see so many volunteers present, and it was heartbreaking to learn how many people lost everything. It was unsettling to meet families in a state of limbo as they waited to see the fate of their home, their futures uncertain. It was life-affirming to see children playing and having fun, yet worrisome to imagine how this experience will affect them long-term. It seemed just as hard to witness this devastation, as it was to return to our safe homes. It was beautiful and distressing, uplifting and tear-jerking to be with the community today. The only way to navigate experiences like this is to focus on the good – the united effort to help.

We also visited with the staff of Camp Newman and NFTY, who are working around the clock to plan for uninterrupted retreat and summer camp programs, despite the near complete physical destruction of Camp Newman’s Santa Rosa site, and we were boosted by their perspective. As overwhelming as the loss of the camp is, they understand that it pales in comparison to those who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, or their loved ones. However, their sustained optimism is contagious; confident that they will rebuild and be stronger for it in the end.

We are proud to be members of the Federation and JCC teams, working together to provide support as a community. While the fires are not yet contained, the needs will be significant and ongoing. The outpouring of donations at the PJCC has been inspiring, yet most evacuation sites are not yet ready for the influx of supplies, nor do they have enough volunteers to distribute them. In fact, with families still in limbo, it is not yet known what will be necessary in the short and long term.

Supporting the community’s unforeseen future will be tremendous – from individual financial assistance for those who have lost everything, to housing relocation, to scholarship assistance. From the institutional perspective, programs including grief counseling, coverage of lost revenue, and in many cases, the rebuilding of lost structures will require not only dollars but patience. Currently, funding remains the greatest need, and we ask that all who are able, to please give as generously as you can to the Federation's North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund.

As we enter Shabbat, we offer prayers for containment of the fires, strength for those on the front lines, and compassion for those facing loss. We are with you, Sonoma county.

Roxanne Cohen is a senior program officer at the Federation. Stephanie Levin is the Director of Programs for the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City.

If you are looking for wildfire resources, or information on how you can help, view our blog. We will continue to update this post as more news develops.

Categories: Community


October 13, 2017


Roxanne Cohen