They were only a precious few items that David Lake managed to rescue from the rubble that was once his house in the Blue Mountains, 80 kilometers west of Sydney, after it was razed to the ground by wild bushfires that have ravaged Australia’s most populous state.
Lake, a traditional Sephardi Jew, fled the Blue Mountains on Monday night as fires threatened local communities. The following day the 50-year-old accountant received a call from Chabad’s Rabbi Yossi Schapiro, who offered him refuge at the Chabad house on Sydney’s north shore, which has 40 rooms available for bushfire victims “irrespective of religion.”
“All my possessions were incinerated,” Lake told Haaretz on Thursday. “It’s difficult and emotionally traumatizing.”
But retrieving his kiddush cup was a blessing, he said.
“I picked the cup up from the ashes. The fire had thrown it across the room. The force of the explosion must have been quite ferocious,” he said. “The house became like an oven."
“The kiddush cup was completely blackened but I managed to restore it – it’s still useable,” he said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
He said the mezuzah on the archway in front of his door was “still intact.” But he picked up several others laying in the ashes that were totally destroyed.
“I’m pretty sure the Torah scrolls are all burnt,” he regretfully added.
The disaster does have an upside, he conceded: “I don’t normally get to daven [pray] with a minyan. But it’s hanging over my head that I’ve got to make plans for the future though I’m glad I’m in safe hands.”
Schapiro said Lake – whom he had met during an outreach trip to the Blue Mountains in September – was among dozens of Jews in the area who he called as soon as news broke of searing heat and howling winds that fire experts declared “as bad as it gets.”
“I called David – he lost everything,” Rabbi Schapiro said. “He’s going to be here for a while and we’ll host him for as long as he needs. He is devastated; any person would be devastated."
Among the handful of Jews joining him at the Chabad house was a mother and her two children who abandoned their home in the Blue Mountains and fled to the city.
“Her husband was away on business so she came and stayed for the night,” the rabbi said .
Schapiro’s father Nochum, who runs the Chabad house, said, “She said with tears, ‘You don't know how much this means to me!’"
“We are in contact with more people in the area who may need to evacuate in the near future if things take a turn for the worse," Nochum added.
But the homes of others in the small Jewish community of the Blue Mountains were spared, though they remain on high alert.
“We are packed and ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice,” award-winning author Alan Gold told J-Wire, a local Jewish website, on Wednesday.
“There is a lot of police activity and we are keeping an eye on this ever-changing scenario.”
Almost 30 wild fires remain out of control this week, according to the Rural Fire Service, with 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of forests burnt.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed so far, with insurance claims expected to exceed $100 million, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.
All schools were closed in the region on Wednesday as NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell declared a state of emergency for 30 days. Sydney, one hour’s drive from the epicenter of the fires, was engulfed with smoke earlier this week.
Thousands of firefighters, backed by hundreds of colleagues from across the country, managed to avert a catastrophe with the help of a temperature drop on Thursday.
Other Jewish groups rallied to help the victims this week. Our Big Kitchen, a Chabad-run community kitchen in Bondi, staged a cook-a-thon on Tuesday, preparing more than 1000 meals for distribution to victims and firefighters.
“We are coordinating and assisting relief efforts and call upon all community members to get involved, whether by volunteering or donating,” said Pinchus Feldman, the chief rabbi of Chabad in Sydney.
“We pray that God Almighty has mercy and brings a swift end to this terrible catastrophe, comforts the bereaved and heals the wounded.”
The Jewish House, a crisis center, is offering psychological help, as well as housing assistance for those who require pet-friendly shelter.
“We’re in touch with 25 families,” said the center’s CEO, Rabbi Mendel Kastel. “Most are all packed up and ready to run if they need to.”
Jewish Aid Australia has launched an appeal to support the victims. “Like all Australians, the Jewish community is deeply concerned by the devastation left in the fires' wake,” said CEO Gary Samowitz.
Bush fires are akin to Australia’s frontline war. In 2009, bushfires killed more than 170 people and destroyed 150 homes in Victoria, the worst blaze in Australian history.