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Fires rage across the state; Colorado Springs Jews evacuate

Fires rage outside Ft. CollinsAS a very worried Rabbi Moshe Liberow approached his hometown of Colorado Springs on Interstate 25 on Tuesday afternoon, a tornado-like pillar of smoke and an apocalyptic sky that he describes as “miles and miles of orange and darkness,” told him that the situation was dire.

Returning from a Chabad event he had attended last weekend in New York, Rabbi Liberow — the spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Colorado — was driving south from DIA. He was fully aware that the Waldo Canyon fire, fanned by strong winds and encouraged by torrid record temperatures, was raging ever nearer to Colorado Springs, where his home, synagogue and mikveh are located.

He had been on the phone with his wife Zelda throughout the weekend as she nervously told her husband that the fire was growing steadily larger and nearer to their northwestern Colorado Springs neighborhood.

Four of the couple’s six children were with her at home — the other two were safely away at summer camp.

He knew by Tuesday afternoon, heading toward the Springs on I-25, that she had received a pre-evacuation order but not whether she had managed to get out. That final bit of crucial information was denied him, due to cellphones that could no longer connect.

“As I was driving home,” Rabbi Liberow told the Intermountain Jewish News on Wednesday morning, “I knew that the situation was very bad.”

That conviction only grew more sure as he approached Colorado Springs. He tried to get off at an exit that would lead to his home — Rockrimmon Drive — but the road was a chaotic mess, clogged with official and private vehicles trying to get in or get out, and everything was cloaked in smoke so thick that Rabbi Liberow — a native Briton — compared it to an English fog.

“It was dramatic,” he said. “It was scary.”

He tried to get information on the fire and evacuations. He called 911 but the over-burdened system put him on hold. He was able to reach a member of his congregation but that person was unable to offer any conclusive information about the situation.

He could still not reach his wife.

Realizing the futility of trying to get back to the area where his home and synagogue are located, the rabbi opted to get back on the interstate and head for Denver, hoping against hope that his family were able to get out of the fire-threatened area.

Not very long after, on the highway heading north, Rabbi Liberow saw something that he describes as miraculous.

Two vehicles ahead of him, also heading north, he spotted the family car, driven by his wife, with their four children inside.

“I was so happy,” Rabbi Liberow literally exhaled while speaking to the IJN this week. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The family drove to Denver in a mini-convoy. Finally, with the help of Denver-area Chabad rabbis, they were able to secure a hard-to-find hotel room in downtown Denver.

All that they own in Colorado Springs remained in immediate danger on Wednesday, however. The raging Waldo Creek fire had consumed what the Denver Post described as “an untold number of homes” late Tuesday and early Wednesday.

The rabbi and his family — who represent a movement known for offering help to other people affected by natural disasters — became victims themselves this week.

“Baruch Hashem,” Rabbi Liberow said Wednesday, “people’s lives are the most important thing. We’re praying for everybody, Jewish and non-Jewish.”

A SIMILAR attitude existed this week in Boulder, although the Flagstaff fire in that city, at least as of midweek, had not posed nearly so dire a threat as the Waldo Canyon fire to the south.

At Har Hashem, Boulder’s Reform congregation, president Gary Fifer was trying to ascertain Wednesday morning whether any of the synagogue’s members had been “impacted or displaced” by the fire. By then, Fifer said, he had received no word as to whether that was the case.

Har Hashem, however, already had a fire procedure in place this week, based on its experience with last autumn’s Fourmile Fire. It has already started a fundraising drive to provide funds, or possibly emergency supplies, to aid the Red Cross in its efforts to provide emergency support for Boulderites forced to evacuate their homes.

By Wednesday, Has Hashem’s youthful summer campers were baking cookies to sell as part of the fundraising effort.

Although the congregation had yet to be contacted by emergency authorities to stand by in case space was needed to house evacuees, Fifer said, it was making efforts to prepare for that eventuality.

Not far away, the CU-based Chabad house led by Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm was also preparing to lend a hand. Chabad-CU has 11 rooms set aside for emergency purposes in its facility on 14th Street, Rabbi Wilhelm said Wednesday morning.

The rooms had been readied to receive as many evacuees as they can hold, the rabbi said, should the city request to use the shelter.

“Otherwise, we’re just waiting.”

In central Boulder, Rabbi Pesach Scheiner of Chabad-Lubavitch of Boulder County, told the IJN that although the fire was still several miles away from his location, actual flames could be glimpsed.

“So far,” Rabbi Scheiner said, “I don’t know of anyone who has been affected from our part of the Jewish community.”

At Colorado Springs’ Temple Shalom, however, president Michele Campbell told the IJN on Wednesday that any number of the synagogue’s families had been evacuated as of midweek.

Some of them took shelter at other congregants’ homes, thanks both to informal contacts between members and a Facebook page that has been set up to match evacuees with people who have available space in their homes, Campbell said.

There were also rumors, still unconfirmed by Wednesday afternoon, that at least some members of the synagogue had lost their homes to the Waldo Creek inferno.

Although Temple Shalom’s facilities are, for several reasons, inadequate as an emergency shelter for evacuees, she added, the synagogue planned to offer its space to a Colorado Springs school — the Alpine Autism Center — whose own facilities are in the evacuation zone, for several mornings this week at least.

“It’s nice to be able to do something,” Campbell said. “Sometimes we all feel so helpless.”

Temple Shalom has already welcomed members of the Colorado Springs Chabad community to attend services this Shabbat, since it’s not expected that they will be able to return to their own facility nearer the foothills by then, if it even still exists.

Temple Shalom’s Rabbi Mel Glazer is a grief counselor and plans to speak on the subject of loss.

“And this,” Campbell said, “is definitely a situation for loss.”

IN the midst of a disaster whose scope isn’t even realized yet, at least one story of success can be recorded.

As Rabbi Liberow was headed back to Denver, driven by the fire in his neighborhood, he made a call to Steven Castillo, a member of his Chabad congregation.

His message was brief but succinct: Try to save the two Torahs in the synagogue.

Castillo, an area dentist, went to work immediately. He scoped out the roads leading back into the neighborhood, by then in a police lockdown. The usual route was blocked by police cars. Another route, a new road that few people have even started to use, seemed to still be open.

Since no police stopped him, Castillo went that way, and found he was the only car traveling back into the fire zone. He was able to get to the small synagogue, located in a shopping plaza. It took him about 15 minutes, he told the IJN on Wednesday, to gather the sefer Torahs, prayer books and most of the other ritual items and load them into the truck he was driving.

On the way back toward town, the road was jammed with evacuees heading out, so Castillo found yet another unused route. Once again, no police tried to divert him and only a handful of cars were on that road. He found himself at home remarkably quickly, the sacred items safe and sound, and realized that he had made the trip in less time than it takes on an ordinary day.

“I didn’t even think about it,” Castillo said. “It was like a whole channel opened up just for me. It was like Divine Providence.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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