The Rabbi and the Firefighters

Camp offers shelter, peace amid fire chaos

Refusing to leave his retreat, rabbi devotes himself to serving crews battling the Slide blaze.

By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 29, 2007

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.

One of the reasons I published that column in its entirety is because 1000 years from now, it will be relevant.

The Rabbi could have easily fled, and nobody would have had a right to criticize him for doing so. Yet he had an opportunity to help people who desperately needed help.

Firefighters are like doctors and nurses. They do double shifts, going hours and hours without sleep. When they do sleep it is often uncomfortable. This time was different. The firefighters had beds to sleep in. This was not a couple firefighters putting out a fire in a home, which is daunting enough. This was an army of firefighters putting out a blaze that was engulfing major swaths of cities across the entire Southern California region. Thanks to this Rabbi, they were given shelter.

In return, the Rabbi kept his property safe. He had hundreds of firefighters protecting him around the clock.

So much good came out of this unique pairing up. The few firefighters that were Jewish did not know that there was an even a Rabbi in this area of Southern California. They now have a spiritual adviser. On a deeper level, some of the firefighters had never met anybody Jewish before. Their first impression of Jewish culture was overwhelmingly positive.

Some would say that this is a story of a kind man doing a good thing, and that his religion is irrelevant. This is false. Would a devoutly religious man of another faith have done the same thing? Absolutely. However, this Rabbi is a representative of Jewish values. These firefighters saw what Judaism is about. Hopefully they will associate “Jews,” and “kindness,” as one and the same.

The building that the Rabbi was defending was a place used for summer and winter camp for young Jewish children. Yet this “camp” is not just about playing. It involves serious learning. Jewish children are taught from Jewish texts, and they are taught Jewish values. The children are taught “Mitzvos,” which is Hebrew for, “good deeds.” The greatest Mitzvah in Judiasm is “Tzedakaha,” which means “charity.”

So yes, a Rabbi engaged in a charitable act so he could defend a place that is primarily designed to teach children about charity.

Problems can spread through communities like wildfire itself. Drugs, crime, and gangs can turn beautiful neighborhoods into havens of despair and hatred.

So can love and peace. They have to be able to be spread. If this is not possible, we should all just give up and let the worst in life win.

Buildings can burn, but souls cannot be left to be incinerated. We are all dust one day, but it does not have to be today.

Yes, this one Rabbi had his home saved because hundreds of firefighters were there to protect him. Yet those firefighters had their job made more than slightly easier thanks to this one Rabbi.

The last several days has seen the worst in humanity. It is saddening and maddening that much of the devastation was the result of arson. It is beneath the layers of these black smoke clouds that silver linings are found. The best in humanity does exist.

Yes it is nice that some people become rock stars, athletes, poets, and investment bankers. They all contribute to the world in their own special way. However, in a world often thought to be fueled by wealth and power, it is a relief to know that some people still care about more than what lines their pockets. They become police officers, firefighters and doctors, to keep their fellow creatures of God healthy and safe. They also become Priests, Reverends, Imams and Rabbis, helping connect people to God, and spreading a message more powerful than any fire…the power of human goodness.


7 Responses to “The Rabbi and the Firefighters”

  1. greg says:

    eric, a wonderful story. I used to live in Running Springs and my kids went to the elementary school on Running Springs School Road just down from where Camp Gan Israel now is. I bordered a horse at the stables near by and used to have after-hours parties at an estate once owned by a famous Hollywood director in the 1930s, 40s and 50s and frequented by the likes of Clark Gable and others, so I have fond memories of the area.

    During the fire I followed the story closely, as I still have friends and family there, listening to the police and fire scanners. Several times I heard about the Rabbi there and the good he was doing. As an ordained minister myself, I am heartened by stories such as this and proud to be a person of God. Not every community of faith is intolerant, hypocritical or corrupt and it’s wonderful to find someone faithfail to his or her tradition but also committed to doing good for the common good.

    Thanks for passing this on to us.

  2. Jersey McJones says:

    Wow, what a guy! I didn’t even know there were Hasidics out there. People have a lot of wierd preconceptions of what the Hasidics are all about – assuming that they are reclusive and clanish. It just isn’t true. There are everything from Hasidic rock musicians, to Rabbis like Brod who open there doors for all in need. Americans need to learn more about this Jewish sect. They are an important part of the fabric of American culture.

    Great piece.


  3. laree says:


    I love this story, I am going to share it with my cousin Pastor Crystal Goodnight, you can find her on myspace page in my friends section. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was God, God said, let there be Light. I was just reading about that Light SMILE.


  4. Crystal Goodnight says:

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing.
    There were so many lessons within this story. I was espcecially touched by the rabbi’s observance of the Shabbat – Sabboth rest. In the midst of all the chaos the rabbi remained faithful. Touching.

  5. Jersey McJones says:

    And Eric – Hey, don’t forget teachers! Teaching’s a fine, and terribly underrated and misunderstood, profession.


  6. This is an incredible story Eric. Not about the faith of the Rabbi, or the Firefighters though. People like that do those kinds of things all the time. it is about the resiliency of man. I fought the Laguna Fires way back in my younger days, and this did bring back memories…
    Patrick Sperry
    NREMT-Paramedic, FF1, Red Card Trained (RET)

    Also doing a track back

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