Monday, October 29, 2007

Scenes From an Inferno

Another story also caught my interest, this time from The Los Angeles Times:
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.The rest of the story describes how Rabbi Brod provided food and shelter to firefighters, few of them presumably Jewish, while they tried to get the flames under control. Chabad is an organization of rigorously orthodox Jews, devoted in part to getting wayward non-Orthodox Jews to observe the many demands of the orthodox version of the faith. Yet he feels not just comfortable but obligated to help out the fellow members of his American family in their hour of need.From where I sit very far away this is an extraordinary scene. It is almost impossible to imagine a Lubavitch Rabbi so truly incorporated into the society around him if the society is in Western Europe, or Russia, or elsewhere with a significant Orthodox Jewish community and a significant history of dark anti-Semitism. He is integrated but not assimilated, free to observe his demanding faith while helping out those who have completely different traditions. And they in turn are glad to take, driven by curiosity about his practices rather than resentment or conspiracist suspicion, accepting as normal that this exotic man is truly one of them – as American as they are, even if some of his habits are a little unusual. The episode is in some ways so ordinary, yet so revealing if you read between the lines.This is an amazing country, despite the best efforts of our government and intellectuals. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

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