Water Carrier: Rabbi Fights Southern California Fire with Love

Water Carrier: Rabbi Fights Southern California Fire with Love

Rabbi Chaim Hanoka bringing water to the firefighter’s staging area, roughly 20 miles from his home.

by Dvora Lakein - Pasadena, CA

September 4, 2009

(lubavitch.com) It has been a long and smoky week in Southern California as firefighters valiantly battle the area’s largest-ever fire and residents race to safety. With 58,000 hectares of land charred, fire officials are now declaring 38 percent containment.

“But that’s still almost 70 percent that remains unchecked,” worries Rabbi Chaim Hanoka. 

Chabad’s representative to Pasadena and the Greater San Gabriel Valley was able to see 100-foot flames from his front window, two miles from the conflagration. When he left his home on Tuesday and Wednesday, ash covered his car and his lungs hurt from the effort it took to breathe. Smoke plastered the skies. At several points during the week, the smoke was so heavy that it was impossible to see several hundred feet ahead.

And yet, the rabbi is grateful. Hanoka’s home and Chabad Center remain untouched; his immediate neighborhood was not even forced to evacuate. At this point, says the seasoned rabbi who has lived in this wildfire-prone region for18 years, his concern is solely for his congregants. 

“Many of our community members are still nervous that the fire will return down the mountain,” he says. “While no one that I know lost their homes, many had to flee without their possessions. People don’t have the luxury to pack everything up.”

The fire has already destroyed 62 homes in Los Angeles County and displaced thousands more residents. “Everyone,” says Hanoka, “is talking about the fire and asking each other how they are faring. In the last few days, people are starting to become cautiously optimistic.” He and his team are helping the evacuated find temporary shelter and providing them with food and drink.  

In what he describes as a righteous act of chutzpah, Hanoka drove past a blockaded area with a precious commodity: 100 cases of water to quench the thirst of the more than 2,500 firefighters battling the blaze. He arranged for Sparkletts, a local bottler, to donate the clear beverage. Then, together with his nephew, he lugged the drinks to the firefighter’s staging area, roughly 20 miles from his home.

The staging area is a temporary tent community where the firefighters sleep for short bouts, eat and drink, and then return to duty. Helicopters fill up on water from the nearby dam, hovering overhead every few minutes. Hanoka spent some time passing out water and encouraging the firefighters.

He is no stranger to those in uniform. As a sheriff chaplain, Hanoka accompanies police officers on their beats and serves as a liaison between the Russian-Jewish community and the police force. Much of his chaplain duties include encouraging the officers and allowing them to “walk through their issues from all the garbage and gruesomeness they encounter daily.” This act of kindness was an extension of that service to the broader community.

If there is one silver edge to this smoky cloud, it is the camaraderie that the shared fear has engendered.

“Things like this bring out the best in people,” believes Hanoka. “Families that had little to do with each other are joining together and expressing goodwill. Whether it was lodging or food, they have shown true concern for one another.”

Last Shabbat morning several men arrived for services, surprising their rabbi who expected them to be home, on watch. Instead they came to the synagogue asking Rabbi Hanoka to help them pray for rain. Together they said psalms and recited several hearty “l’chaims” at the Kiddush, in the hopes that their endangered properties would remain safe.    

As the weekend wound down, and the fire heated up, their homes remained unscathed.

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