Rabbi saves Torah scrolls from destruction in California fires

Community leader rescues scrolls as wildfire engulfs area in Thousand Oaks, CA - where shooter had killed 12 only a day before.

Josefin Dolsten - JTA ,

Fire rages in California
Fire rages in California

The death toll and damage continue to rise in California in the wildfires ravaging the state. More than 6,400 homes have been damaged and at least 31 people have been killed, according to CNN.

Like other Californians, Jewish residents are evacuating their homes and dealing with the devastating fallout of the fires. Synagogues, camps and a day school have all sustained damage.

At 3 in the morning Friday, a neighbor roused Rabbi Barry Diamond from sleep to let him know that their Southern California neighborhood had been given a voluntary evacuation order. About 20 minutes later the rabbi arrived at the Reform synagogue in Thousand Oaks where he works, to see fire surrounding the area by the building.

“There’s a hill right across the street from our temple — it was fully engulfed — and there was a raining down of sparks onto our property,” he told JTA on Monday.

But that didn’t deter Diamond, 56, from dashing into the synagogue to save his congregation’s holiest objects. Setting off an alarm, he entered the sanctuary and grabbed two of the congregation’s Torah scrolls: One had survived the Holocaust, the other was dedicated only six months earlier.

He then ran in a second time and, with the help of the synagogue president, Sandy Greenstein, brought out the remaining two scrolls as well as the Book of Esther scroll traditionally read on Purim.

“I would say I was a cross between nervous and determined to get these out,” Diamond said. “Sometimes you just have to put your head down and do the work and worry about your feelings later.”

As he loaded the Torahs into his car, Diamond looked back and saw that plants behind the sanctuary were ablaze. A photo taken of Diamond shows a wall of red-tinted smoke behind a nearby stand of trees.

Diamond and his wife, as well as most of his congregants, have had to evacuate their homes. As far as he knows no one has been hurt, but the synagogue has sustained damage.

The fires hit the community at an especially trying time: Only a day earlier, congregants learned that a deadly shooting at a nearby bar left 12 people dead. Diamond said two congregants were at the bar at the time of the shooting and know people who were killed.

The rabbi is trying to be there for congregants affected by either or both tragedies.

“There are people who lost their homes, there are people who are displaced, and we have to acknowledge and recognize them and be there and support them,” he said. “And there were a number of families who just suffered terribly because of this horrible act, and I don’t want their pain to be eclipsed because there’s a broader disaster that we’re living through.”