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Burning Questions

May 9, 2009 | by Jessica Levine Kupferberg

What would you do if you had 10 minutes to get out of your home, not knowing whether it will still be there tomorrow?

What would you do if you had 10 minutes to get out of your home, not knowing whether it will still be there tomorrow? What would you take? What would you leave? What is truly indispensable?

These are the questions that too many of my fellow San Diegans have faced in the last few days as fires ravage homes all over San Diego County. Members of our shul, families from our day school, my husband's colleagues -- many have been displaced, forced to grab their loved ones, pets and the few things they can't bear to live without. This is not a case of the media making the situation sound worse than it is; it's bad and it's close to home.

We live in La Jolla, which means "The Jewel." Our community is little more than a stone's throw from one of the prettiest pieces of coastline in the entire county and boasts the best weather too. We have a lovely shul with over 280 families, a spa-like mikvah, and an eruv on the way. This past Shabbat, as we do every week, we enjoyed our shul kiddush al fresco, socializing around the towering Torrey Pine tree that defines our shul's courtyard. We could not have predicted that such a short time later, our blue skies would turn toxic, the crisp ocean breezes replaced with menacing winds and our Torrey Pine and its courtyard laden with ash.

Thankfully, our normally idyllic coastal enclave seems to be out the path of the fire -- at least for now. But as the communities immediately to the North and to the East of us were steadily evacuated, my husband and I were increasingly concerned: What if we were next? What if a call comes in the middle of the night asking us -- telling us -- to leave?

We had to take stock of our things. I was surprised that the closets of clothes did not seem that important, nor the plasma TV, and not the kitchen appliances that I use faithfully each week preparing for Shabbat. We packed one bag for our family of six with pajamas and a change of clothes and basic toiletries. I put on the jewelry I cared about the most, not for their monetary value but because they were gifts from my husband and my late Papa, the grandfather who passed away in the Spring.

Suddenly, I remembered the box in the attic that I call my "archives," a collection of writings from childhood through college. That box holds treasures like rhyming mother's day poems, the essay my tough high school English teacher blessed with the much coveted but rarely bestowed A-plus, and the clipping from my college Jewish newspaper that proudly wore my byline. For the first time ever, I needed to pull my ketubah out of its safe place. We would need the kids' special blankets and a few toys. My husband began to upload all of our pictures, grateful that our children's adventures are digitally preserved and easy to transport. Laptop, yes; book collection, no. Wedding album, yes; but what about yearbooks? Take the tefilin, the tallit. Hurry up and wait. We are lucky to have this be merely an exercise for now, not like the friend who spent the night with us after being evacuated. I cannot imagine doing all of this with fire in my backyard.

There are good things about going through this. You read the email from the old high school classmate from St. Louis who remembered you lived in San Diego. You catch up with the friends who moved to Florida last year. You reassure your family in Canada, New York, Los Angeles. You hug your husband and children tighter and know that they really are what matters. You pray.

There is a feeling of achdut, togetherness, that sweetens the otherwise stifling air.

You see amazing things from your community. Our rabbi's oldest daughter is getting married Thursday night. With 600 people expected for an outdoor chuppah at the shul, I started to panic for the Rabbi's family. But the Rabbi and Rebbetzin, and even the bride, are amazingly calm. They are filled with faith that the skies will clear, the guests will arrive, that everything will be okay, so I am filled with confidence that the Simcha will be truly that -- a joyful occasion.

With school cancelled and outdoor play outlawed, the parents of the community and educators are banding together to keep the children from going stir crazy. Monday, almost a dozen families spent the day at the shul where we played musical chairs and learned about the Torah portion and fire safety. Yesterday, the school's gym teacher came to the shul to run indoor games. We will spend today doing activities at the day school and on Thursday a local movie theatre will open early so we can screen a DVD for the kids in a safe, air conditioned place. There is a feeling of achdut, togetherness, that sweetens the otherwise stifling air.

Donations from all over the county are pouring in to help our fellow San Diegans. So many Jewish families, from the observant to the secular, have opened their homes to displaced friends. Our shul, like so many others, has collected diapers, food, and bedding to help. Like the story of Abraham's tent in this week's torah portion, so many have displayed loving-kindness, selflessness and a warmly welcoming attitude. To illustrate the point, I heard on the news that they had more volunteers than evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium, the largest of the evacuation centers for the over 500,000 displaced San Diegans. That's a lot of volunteers.

Watching the footage of uncontained fires blazing just 10 miles or so from home, I am struck that this week's Torah portion also details the destruction of Sodom, a city that God destroyed because of its denizens' petty cruelty and refusal to be welcoming to guests. Like Sodom, our beautiful city is facing a raging enemy that refuses to go without exacting a heavy toll.

But unlike Sodom, the amazing actions of thousands of San Diegans reaching out to help has surely proved that this amazing city is worth saving. We pray that the winds will change -- both literally and figuratively -- and look forward to dancing at the Rabbi's daughter's wedding, our bags unpacked again.


Thursday arrives, as it always does, with Shabbat standing right behind it. When I walk outside in the morning, the scorched air is even stronger than it was yesterday. I know that friends are finally being let back into their homes, and I am grateful that I don't know anyone whose house is gone and saddened that I know that many are not so lucky. I pray the air clears in time for the 4:30 wedding.

Late Thursday afternoon, there are hundreds of chairs set up outside the shul around a white chuppah. Hopeful chafing dishes stand on tables around the Torrey Pine waiting to be filled with delectables. Incredibly, the air around the shul is good. I breathe deeply and squeeze the hand of my five year old, who begged to see her former babysitter in her bridal finery, a request I could not refuse after she has been cooped up all week. The people start pouring in, community members from all over town and brave visitors who ignored their friends' incredulity and traveled to San Diego this week of all weeks, refusing to miss this wedding. We buzz around those who were evacuated and trade stories about our week.

I take my daughter to see the radiant kallah sitting on her throne chair inside the shul. I give the excited bride my warm wishes and as I am backing away, she grabs my arm and says, "I want to give a bracha to you." With a wise smile, she blesses my loved ones and me with good health, nachas from children, happiness and all good things. I walk away truly feeling blessed.

We venture outside for the chuppah. We are all moved as the rabbi's daughter marries her bashert, her soulmate, their faces shining. It is a real milestone for our "little" La Jolla community that did not exist 20 years ago.

After endless raucous dancing and a delicious buffet, we all seem a little reluctant to leave this joyful oasis. I find my husband so we can walk -- blissfully walk -- home. Through the needles of the Torrey Pine, I catch a glimpse of the eerily gorgeous full moon, an incandescent fire ball created by the hazy smoke-filled sky, as if to remind us that something ugly can turn into something beautiful if you look at it the right way.

The danger finally feels distant, and we look forward to the salve that is Shabbat.


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