In California, Even Wildfires Can’t Extinguish USYers’ Determination and Spirit

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Friday, Nov. 9, was supposed to be the beginning of a weekend teens in Far West USY had been looking forward to for months. Encampment — a joyous time for them to come together at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California and spend the weekend reconnecting with their friends from California, Arizona and Nevada and celebrating Shabbat as a community.

But the California wildfires put an end to that.

What took place, instead, was a different kind of Shabbat, one that speaks volumes about what Judaism and USY mean to these teens.

Cancelling Encampment

Darren Klein, Regional Teen Engagement Director for USY’s Pacific Southwest Region, initially believed Encampment could go on as planned. “When I went to bed Thursday night at 1 am, I had no sense that we’d have to cancel. The wildfires were in a location that didn’t affect the campsite. When I woke up 5 am Friday morning, the camp was still fine, but getting there was a completely different story.”

The fires had jumped the Freeway and were now reaching Malibu, in addition to the San Fernando Valley. There are three routes to Camp Ramah. The 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway were closed. “When it became clear that Highway 126 could also be affected, we had no choice but to cancel the weekend.”

Now Darren and his staff had the daunting task of notifying 150 teens and their families, many of whom were already on their way. “It happened so quickly that seven kids in Phoenix had to be pulled off the airplane.” Buses hired to transport teens from southern California and the airport also had to be stopped. Miraculously Darren and his team were able to reach everyone in time.

But there was one more problem. Far West USY’s Regional Executive Board and the Encampment teen co-chairs, many from out of the area, were already in Los Angeles. So were the NOAM teens, who had flown in from Israel to attend Encampment. They had all stayed together at a house on Thursday night. Now the question was, where would the out-of-town teens spend the rest of the weekend?

That’s when USYers from Los Angeles sprang into action.

Saving Shabbat

It started with a Facebook post from Adinah Singer-Frankes at 8:36 am on Friday, followed by a post from Noa Kligfeld a half hour later. Both girls, who live in LA, encouraged their fellow USYers to be there for each other, to find a way to create their own Shabbat experience together with their friends, regardless of the circumstances.

Following these two posts, things quickly started to fall into place. Darren and Regional Chair Belinda Sacks, who had evacuated her home the night before, reached out to Rabbi Adam Kligfeld (Noa’s dad) of Temple Beth Am. Within the hour, the rabbi and Temple Beth Am’s Executive Director, Sheryl Goldman, had arranged for the synagogue to provide a full Shabbat dinner after services for anyone who wished to attend. Adinah, a high school sophomore and the Religion and Education Vice President for her chapter, brought two USY teens that she was hosting at her home. In all there were ten from USY, as well as local families impacted by the fires.

Meanwhile Noa, a high school senior and Far West USY’s Regional President, spent Friday working with other USYers to figure out where the teens from out-of-town and those who had evacuated their homes could stay. They were considering transporting everyone from Los Angeles to San Diego, a distance of over 120 miles, when USYer Gabby Grunfeld’s family generously offered up their home in Hancock Park. In addition to hosting 30 teens that weekend, Gabby’s mom cooked for everyone, including preparing a wonderful Shabbat meal.

Coming together

Says Noa, “We of course have a culture of Shabbat at USY, but it’s different experiencing it at home instead of at camp. It was really cool to have candle lighting, Kiddish and Shalom Aleichem inside a home. For some USYers, it was their first time seeing that outside of a campsite. I think it was a really important experience for them.”

The group hung out all weekend, ended Shabbat with Havdalah and on Saturday night, Adinah and another USYer joined them. “We were able to come together in a moment when we really needed each other,” adds Noa.

“My friends and I really believe that we have the power to make the world better than it is. And sometimes that’s on a large scale and sometimes it’s for 30 people, making their Shabbat warm and beautiful, bright and full of light, when it could have been filled with so much darkness."

Adina adds, “There are a lot of people in Far West USY whose homes were affected or completely destroyed. Doing some kind of fundraiser for them is really important. I’ll work with my peers to help make that happen.”

As of now, the wildfires are still blazing. But the spirit of USYers burns even brighter.

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