Even as the Woolsey Fire – the largest wildfire on record for Los Angeles County, which has thus-far burned through 97,620 acres, destroyed at least 483 structures and damaged 86 others with thousands more still threatened – hovers at 50 percent containment, the fallout of the massive blaze continues to impact the lives of thousands throughout the affected areas. Among those primary areas are the communities of Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Oak Park in the Conejo Valley.
“There are people who lost everything, people who lost a great deal, and people who are still under mandatory evacuation orders who are in need of material and emotional support,” said Rabbi Moshe Bryski, Director of Chabad of the Conejo and Spiritual Leader of Chabad of Agoura Hills.
“In keeping with the Chabad House credo that summons us to respond to people’s urgent needs – whatever those may be – we used mass emails, social media and word-of-mouth to launch an emergency effort on behalf of the victims. The response from throughout the community has been incredible and, frankly, overwhelming. We’ve had literally truckloads of items come in.”
Bryski reports that ever since the first email went out on Sunday, there has been a constant flow of conscientious community-members stopping by Chabad of the Conejo’s headquarters on Canwood Street in Agoura Hills to drop off the full gamut of items called for, including clothing, kids gear, gift cards to local markets, toiletries and hotel vouchers. Commensurate to that influx has been a steady stream of individuals and families in need of assistance.
“One woman who lived in a nearby trailer park that went up in flames within minutes told me that everything she owned is now gone,” said Rabbi Yisroel Levine, Director of Outreach of Chabad of the Conejo and Spiritual Leader of Oak Park. “My heart broke for her as we tried to help her with whatever we could.”
Rabbi Levine’s hometown of Oak Park, which lost some 30 homes to the inferno, was the first locale in the Conejo region to be hit by the flames coming over the ridge from the nearby area of Simi Valley.
In addition to providing vital assistance to those visiting their center, Chabad’s volunteer corps – headed up by Rabbis Bryski, Levine, Eli Laber and Laibel Kahanov – loaded up vans and trucks dispatched to deliver donated goods to evacuation centers running short of certain essential items. “We’ve become an active crisis distribution center,” said Rabbi Eli Laber. “As the cities of Agoura Hills and Oak Park do not have local Red Cross chapters of their own, our Chabad center has become the de facto resource center for victims of the Woolsey fires and a drop-off point for those who wish to come to their aid. In fact, the City of Agoura Hills refers to Chabad as the place for such on its official website.” The members of the Agoura Hills City Council have each visited Chabad numerous times over the last few days and have been working along with Rabbi Bryski on the recovery effort.
Indeed, the spirit of community solidarity and inter-cooperation has been turning out to be one of the many inspiring sub-stories within an otherwise horrific week. “While we had to make a last-minute decision to close the shul on Shabbat for the first time in its 22-year history due to raging flames (over 100 feet high at times) just across the Chabad House, from Sunday morning services on, we’ve been up and running at full speed and intensity, and then some,” says Rabbi Laibel Kahanov. “It made a big difference to folks out there to know that we were open and accessible for services, classes and, of course, friendship and support.”
Beyond the active distribution center, on Wednesday late afternoon, Chabad of the Conejo organized and staged a community-wide demonstration of Hakarat Hatov, gratitude and appreciation, to the firefighters who spent endless hours on the fire-lines, saving lives and property.
Dubbed “A Walk of Thanks,” the ceremonies began with the display of a large banner with bold red letters reading, “Thank You Firefighters!” across the bridge at Reyes Adobe, a central Agoura Hills freeway overpass, which received the enthusiastic honks of hundreds of grateful rush-hour commuters in response. From there, a large group of community-members – including adults, children and mothers pushing strollers with infants, led by those carrying the same banner – commenced a one-mile march from Chabad of Agoura Hills to nearby Fire Station No. 89. There they presented the humble warriors of the Woolsey battles with hand-made gifts, cards, baked goods and effusive expressions of thanks.
Joining in Chabad’s “Walk of Thanks” was the Mayor pro tem of Agoura Hills, Linda Northrop, and City Councilmembers, Denis Weber and Ilece Buckley-Weber.
“From the sentiments of all who participated, one could sense a collective awareness that we, as a community and as a region, dodged a big one,” said Rabbi Moshe Bryski. With the raging winds, awesome licks of flames and huge plumes of smoke stretching for miles on end, we all came face-to-face with our vulnerabilities and emerged ever more grateful for the blessings of life.”
If you would like to help the relief efforts, please visit www.chabadconejo.com/woolsey.