Jewish communities in Hawaii lead relief efforts in wake of deadly fire

The Chabad house is currently sheltering Jews from across the island of Maui


A burned cars sits among destroyed buildings in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 11, 2023. A wildfire that left Lahaina in charred ruins has killed at least 55 people, authorities said on August 10, making it one of the deadliest disasters in the US state's history. Brushfires on Maui, fueled by high winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south of Hawaii, broke out August 8 and rapidly engulfed Lahaina. (Photo by Paula RAMON / AFP) / "The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Paula RAMON has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [August 11] instead of [August 10]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require." (Photo by PAULA RAMON/AFP via Getty Images)

(JNS) Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has expressed his condolences to those killed in Hawaii's deadliest wildfire - as Jewish communities across the islands helped with the relief effort.

The death toll stood at 93 on Saturday night, with officials warning it would climb higher after fires raged across the Hawaiian island of Maui in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

“On behalf of the state and people of Israel I express heartfelt condolences to the people of Hawaii over the devastating destruction and loss of life caused by the wildfires,” said Cohen.

“Israel stands with Hawaii and offers its hand in support at this difficult time,” he added.

Hawaii's Jewish Governor Josh Green said that 2,200 structures had been destroyed or damaged in West Maui—86% residential buildings.

“The losses approach $6 billion in estimate,” said Green, adding that it will take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.

The wildfire razed the town of Lahaina on the western side of the island, leading to questions about the response from authorities. According to Adam Weintraub, communication director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, none of the state's integrated outdoor siren warning system was activated, including the 80 outdoor sirens in Maui—the second largest island on the Hawaii archipelago.

Hawaii has the largest outdoor siren system in the world, with around 400 alarms across the state.

U.S. President Joe Biden called the situation a major disaster last Thursday. That action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in Maui County.

The Jewish community was pitching in to help too. Chabad centers across Hawaii were offering vital services—from kosher meals and Shabbat services to emotional support.

Rabbi Mendel Krasnjasnky of Chabad of Maui reported multiple homes belonging to Jewish residents succumbing to the blaze.

While the Chabad House will be open for Shabbat for prayer and shelter, many people are continuing to board flights to other islands, said the rabbi. Some residents who lost their homes and those still fleeing the fires are being housed at the Chabad House, while others have been welcomed into community members’ homes.

David Goldberg, who lives down the street from the Chabad center, has been on the ground helping organize local efforts. He has spent the past several days helping manage the flow of people who came to the Chabad center to take showers, pray, put on tefillin or just sleep.

“We’ve opened space up for whoever is in need. And everybody’s been super-gracious. Many don’t have wallets; they only have their phones,” he said of tourists who left their hotels with only what they needed for day trips and were unable to return. He’s also provided camping gear to people who have been staying on the beach or in their cars.

When the area was being evacuated, Goldberg helped move the Torah scrolls to safety, and when they got the all-clear, arrange Chabad space for a family whose bar mitzvah plans were waylaid by the storm. The bar mitzvah will be held this Shabbat.

“We’re just trying to get people into homes so they can sleep,” said Goldberg. “This has been the last 72 hours. We’ve been trying to get people into beds so they can rest a few hours and then figure out their travel plans.”

Goldberg, who has been on Maui for six years now and owns a Jeep rental business, spent Thursday trekking into Lahaina to deliver water and fuel. He has helped people now homeless, community members whose businesses have been destroyed and tourists who left their hotels for day trips only to discover they had no way to get back to their belongings. He says he mourns the history and culture of the area that’s been destroyed, in addition to the loss of life.

“With lives lost and properties decimated, we are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” says Maui’s mayor, Richard Bissen.

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