It could have been worse. Everything can be rebuilt or replaced. Thankfully, no lives were lost, and nobody was hurt. That message is reflected over and over again in the reassuring eyes and words of Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana.
When a fire in a two-year-old freezer ravaged that congregation’s kitchen on Saturday, February 15, at 6:30 a.m., nobody was in the building. The fire appeared to be contained to the kitchen, and the rabbi and her husband, Matt, quickly removed the Torah scrolls from the building.
Later, when the extent of smoke damage was revealed, it became apparent that the congregation – Orange County’s first Jewish one, founded in 1943 – would have to undergo extensive rebuilding. The Torah scrolls, cherished by so many Orange County residents over the years, had not escaped the fire’s wrath.
Rabbi Moshe Druin of Sofer Online inspected all six scrolls and determined that most of them needed repair or replacement. “When the temperature gets too high, whole words pop off the scroll or seams pop open,” explained Susie Amster, the congregation’s executive director.
“The hardest thing was going in the sanctuary and walking up to the Ark,” Rabbi Cohen said. “The first time I saw that the Torah scrolls weren’t in there and the doors were sticky, I sat there and cried.”
Because Torah scrolls are hand written using specialized procedures, the process will be time-consuming and expensive. The newest one, written in 2005 in honor of Rabbi Emeritus Shelton Donnell, survived, is kashered and is available for use. Another one, a Czech scroll that is 250 years old, needs work but can be salvaged, Rabbi Cohen said.
While the rabbi was relieved about that and about retrieving such items as puppets she uses in services for young children, there are many things that could not be saved – records, Shabbat prayerbooks and High Holy Day prayerbooks, to name a few. Meanwhile, many of the day-to-day operations of the congregation are in the school building, where the religious school, preschool and French-American school also hold regular classes. One congregant built a makeshift Ark for the children to use in the library of the school building, and another congregant painted it.
While reconstruction continues, most Shabbat and Holy Day services will be held at the LDS Community Center, 674 S. Yorba Street, Orange. Shabbat services have been held at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot and Chapman University, and congregants are hosting events in their homes.
“The congregants, the Jewish community and others in Orange County have been amazing,” Rabbi Cohen said. “People have been opening their doors to us.”
“The spirit of community shines through this disaster,” agreed Monica Engel, a congregant. “Mitzvah Meals,” a weekly program in which congregants cook and serve meals to homeless people “didn’t skip a beat,” according to Engel, who came up with the idea about five years ago. She added, “We scrambled to find food and managed to prepare our usual ‘gourmet’ meals for the needy at Parties by Panache on schedule. We continue to serve about 300 people per week.”
Amster added that, “A temple is much more than a building. We’re getting a good number of people at services, and there’s a palpable spirit.”
Rabbi Cohen concluded, “The building doesn’t necessarily have a soul by itself, but we breathe soul into it. That can be resuscitated, and we will breathe life back into the sanctuary. From this experience, hopefully we will come out stronger.”
YOU CAN HELP
Temple Beth Sholom has established an emergency fire fund, and donations may be made through the congregation’s website at www.tbsoc.com or by calling the temple office
at (714) 628-4600.