Camp offers shelter, peace amid fire chaos
The pairing of the rabbi and the firefighters was a natural one.
He had beds. They had been sleeping on asphalt. He had food and showers. They were grateful.
Rabbi Yosef Brod should have rushed down the mountain a week ago, when the Slide fire was burning toward Camp Gan Israel, the 75-acre Jewish camp he runs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The fire charred nearly 13,000 acres and wiped out 201 homes as it spread.
But Brod, a rabbi with the Chasidic Lubovitch, or Chabad, sect, stayed. “Have a nice day,” he told his employees as they evacuated. “Drive carefully.”
Over the weekend, about a dozen fire engines were parked by the giant Hanukkah candelabra at the camp. One firefighter chatted on a cellphone while another shivered in his boxers. A third asked Brod what the symbols on the cabin doors meant -- they were prayer scrolls called mezuzot that are meant to keep their occupants safe.
State prison officials also came by, looking to house inmate mop-up crews in the camp’s bunks.
Brod says he kept the camp open because he believed that God would shelter the pine-shaded site, which the Chabad organization bought for summer and winter camps and weekend retreats. So Brod called his wife after the evacuations were ordered last Monday and said he wouldn’t be driving home to West Hollywood.
“She knew I’m so devoted to this place I wouldn’t leave,” he said. One of his employees stayed, too, and told Brod that, if need be, he would carry the camp director down the mountain.
By midweek, flames were licking the camp’s northern edge, and a firefighting helicopter tapped the camp’s pool for water. Brod ran a hose from a fire hydrant to the pool to keep it full.
He already prays three times a day, but that afternoon, “We prayed with a little more intensity,” Brod said.
The blaze halted about 100 yards from the camp’s wood-shingle main lodge and spared the property’s cellphone towers, basketball court and 16 other buildings.
The blaze had pushed a clutch of soot-dusted firefighters onto the narrow road that curves into the camp. Brod fed them. He offered mattresses and soap.
Down the road from the camp, firefighters had been dozing in pop-up tents, on cots and huddled between engines in a parking lot of the Snow Valley Mountain Resort in Running Springs, where the command center had been set up.
The news of better digs spread quickly.
So many firefighters streamed into Camp Gan Israel that Brod called other rabbis for help.
He found one fire crew sleeping on the grass just outside of camp, and offered them real beds.
“That’s kind of a big deal, to have a bunch of sweaty firemen stomping through your place,” said Ontario Fire Capt. Art Andres. “And this is a place where people pay good money to find rest or peace or something.”
A compact man with black-rimmed glasses, a salt-and-pepper beard and a black yarmulke, Brod held a prayer service for a Jewish firefighter.
On Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Brod couldn’t work until after sunset. So firefighters signed themselves in, writing on a yellow legal pad that they had come from departments in Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Tuolumne and other places. They ate a traditional stew that had been prepared before sunset the night before, when the Sabbath began.
As the men and women ate each night, Brod shared his interpretation of the week’s events. “One match destroys a thousand homes just like that,” he told firefighters. “If we have the power to destroy the world, we have the power to make it better.”
The firefighters sat in quiet with their thoughts.
Brod slouched on a folding chair in the camp’s restaurant-size kitchen as he recounted the week’s events. A button had popped open on his shirt, but he didn’t notice.
His two cellphones interrupted. A friend in Maryland was checking to see if he was OK. The other caller offered to bring oranges and coffee. Meanwhile, firefighters played billiards and table tennis.
After dinner, Brod went outside and climbed into his white Ford Expedition to check on his guests. He darted past cabins with nearly all the windows lighted, and slowed only to chat with firefighters. Their eyes were weary and their voices hoarse.
“So you own this whole place?” croaked one firefighter.
“God owns the world,” the rabbi replied.
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