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Carrying Torah Scrolls to Safety: How I Spent My Sunday

Rabbi Paul Kipnes
and Paul Kleinfinger

That’s me.  With Congregation Or Ami’s two Sifrei Torah on the Las Virgenes bridge over the 101 Freeway. I had just carried the two scrolls from our synagogue building, away from the smoky fire.

With me is my new friend Paul Kleinfinger, a nice Jewish boy who offered to shoulder the responsibility for protecting the Torah scrolls. Thank you Paul for the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim (this act of lovingkindness), and for assisting someone (me) in need of help.

If you look closely behind us on the left, you see the hill that was part aflame and part smoldering. A hill swarming with fire fighters dressed in orange.  A hill being battered by a bulldozer and a flock of super scooper planes and helicopters dropping tons of water on the flames.

View from the Synagogue’s Front Door
of Plane Dropping Water on Flames

The flames and smoke were 200 yards from our Calabasas synagogue. Locals will recognize from the pictures that the fire was on the hill behind the Las Virgenes Fire Station, and right near the onramp to the 101 West.

The burn area was wide, but the flames were small, and the firefighters were vigorously attacking the fire. Luckily, Las Virgenes Blvd separated the flames from our area; it appeared unlikely that the fire could jump across the road. Clearly, the Fire Department’s plan was to make a stand on that ridge. Still the smoke was heavy, flames were still burning and we worried.

After receiving a series of texts, Facebook messages, and calls from congregants, Congregation Or Ami President Hedi Gross and I decided to meet at the synagogue to evacuate the Torah scrolls, computers, prayerbooks and more.

Next to our children and our lives, a Sefer Torah is the holiest possession of the Jew. Jews will often risk their lives to save a Sefer Torah in case of fire. Fortunately, the immediate danger seemed low.

Firefighting Helicopter over Or Ami

We have been down this road before so we are prepared. Previous fires have caused us to move our offsite High Holy Day services to a different location, and to quickly evacuate everything of significance from the synagogue. (I even got a Rosh Hashana sermon out of it.) Now lists hang in the synagogue as to what needs to be evacuated if a fire threatens our sanctuary home.

Hedi, (First Man) Matt Gross and their daughter Molly came toward the synagogue from different directions, only to be turned back at the freeway exit by the LA County Sheriffs. My car was also turned away, but after showing my identification, the officer allowed me to walk across the bridge and “do what I needed to do.”

Torah Scrolls, Wrapped in
Tallitot, for Evacuation

So I walked across the bridge, turned down our road, and unlocked the front door. Wrapping our two scrolls in tallitot, I carried them out of the synagogue and back down the road.

They were heavy. It was hot outside. But just like we tell the students who are nervous about carrying Torah during their B’nai Mitzvah service, the Torah scrolls carried themselves across the bridge.

As I was walking and carrying, Hedi and Matt finally were allowed to pass through to the synagogue from the back way (down Mureau Road).

Matt and President Hedi Gross
Carry Computers for Evacuation

Watching the helicopters fly overhead gave them an adrenaline rush to unhook the computers and carry them to their cars. Hedi received innumerable offers – by phone, Facebook and text – to help from congregants and friends. They evaluated how and if to remove other important items from the building.

Hedi’s friends Greg and Ben Luterman from Shomrei Torah Synagogue met me across the bridge to help with the Torah scrolls. I must have been really tired, and because of smoke inhalation (not really) probably was not thinking straight, because I even released one Torah scroll to that Jewish Greg who was wearing a cursed (pagan?) Yankees t-shirt; I’m a religious Red Sox fan.

Laurie Tragen-Boykoff & son
Loren Safeguard our Scrolls

We delivered the Torah scrolls for safekeeping overnight to congregants Laurie Tragen Boykoff and Terry Boykoff, and their son Loren, who carried them in and lovingly placed them on their dining room table. They were excited to be able to open and examine up close our sacred scrolls.

When all was said and done, the fast work of the Fire Department contained the fire before it could spread even more. Hedi and Matt realized that with cars now permitted to pass through, the danger was diminishing. They returned the computers back to their rightful places. Premises chair Terry Boykoff reported that the news was announcing, and bird’s eye video was confirming, that threat had all but passed. Somewhere between 50-170 acres burned. But no homes were damaged.

So thank you to all who called, to all who prayed, and to all who offered to help. We believe our synagogue is safe and our precautions were prudent but unnecessary.

And now back to our regularly scheduled High Holy Day preparations…

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