On Oct. 14, 2017, I was registered to run in a 5k. I had been training for a few weeks and I was excited to run it with my partner.
As the date approached, and my anticipation increased, the sky changed colors. It was an alarming orange and there were bits of ash falling from above.
The race was cancelled. That was what the fires in Northern California meant to me; they were an inconvenience.
In retrospect, my concern was incomparable to the losses of the people that I would soon meet.
Shortly after the fires, San Francisco Hillel planned and organized a service trip with several other Bay Area Hillels to perform relief work. As soon as I heard the announcement, I knew that I wanted to go.
The date approached and I didn’t know what to expect of the trip. The only image I could muster was of my peers and me cleaning debris. I had no idea how inspiring this trip would be for me.
On Saturday, we drove to a synagogue in Santa Rosa, Congregation Shomrei Torah, where we stayed for the weekend.
Rabbi Stephanie Kramer spoke to us about her efforts to heal her community. At Shomrei Torah, there was free childcare so families could get back to work, a carnival to help children cope, and more to support and keep the spirits up of those who were affected by the fires. She shared with us how scared the families were, but also about how they came together to gather information, comfort each other, and eventually rebuild their shared community.
Later that night, I was feeling sick and tired. I had been recovering from a terrible flu. I wasn’t sure that I would be in good enough condition to participate in the next day’s activities, though my desire to do so was strong.
To my surprise, I woke up the next morning feeling fully rejuvenated. I slept well and I felt happy. I felt like I could do anything! It was almost supernatural how vigorous I suddenly felt.
That morning we drove to PEER Sonoma, a donation warehouse. Thanks to my constant eagerness for the next task, I was placed in an organizational position.
I learned in conversation that I was organizing donations that would eventually be tabled at a free store. That means that the fire survivors would shop for what they needed (and, more importantly, what they wanted) and that they would not have to pay for anything.
We then listened to a woman tell her story about how she lost her house and everything she owned. We heard her story while looking at her charcoaled and vacant lot.
The tragedy of the fires became vivid as she recounted her experiences. I could imagine the scalding heat and whooshing sounds of the flames. I could imagine the panic of death being close enough to taste.
But I also sympathized with her resilience. After the fire, she moved into a shared living space, which was not ideal for her. But in her effort to survive and thrive from her circumstances, she found joy in hanging art on the walls. She found meaning in the few items that survived the fire, which was common among Santa Rosa fire survivors.
We proceeded to volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, where in just three hours we made a couple thousand meals for the survivors of Santa Rosa.
In addition, we volunteered with the Jewish Community Free Clinic. This clinic is run on miracles. They do not charge anyone for treatment and most people that work there are not paid. They run on donations and volunteers. In other words, the kindness of others.
The kindness of others was something that I had the privilege to observe profoundly on this trip. It was the kindness of others that brought donations to food banks and warehouses that brought people together to give and receive as humbly as possible. I was honored to be a part of this exchanging too.
We were hosted by the synagogue, we were fed by the Wexner Foundation and we allowed to shower at the city gym. We were given generous accommodations to stay in the city.
At the same time, we gave our time, love and effort to heal some of Santa Rosa. It was the most direct sense of community I have ever felt before! Witnessing a simple snippet of the city’s communal healing process restored my hope and faith in the human race, and of our power to take care of each other.
I felt connected to the people of Santa Rosa on this trip, and also to San Francisco Hillel. There were deep and reflective discussions with my peers and the staff that taught me so much about American and Jewish culture. We shared our upbringings and experiences without having to worry about being judged. I grew closer to my peers at San Francisco Hillel and created new connections with my new friends at Berkeley Hillel.
Despite the horrid tragedy prompting this trip, it was a surreal experience of love and connection for me. One of my peers and I both agreed that it felt like we were separate from the “real world.” No way in “real life” could we feel so happy, could we feel so supported.
My takeaway, though, is that “real life” can be like that. In fact, it should be.
Most of my life has been about self-preservation. Jewish generations have had to self-preserve through countless environments. Now, however, it is time that we unveil ourselves and extend our hands. Life can feel so much better. The world can be so much better. And the first few steps toward that are in service, with trips such as this.
This piece originally appeared in The Jewish News of Northern California and on the SF Hillel blog.