By Ron Kampeas
August 11, 2023 (JTA) — Jewish groups in the United States and in Hawaii are launching relief efforts following the devastation caused by wildfires that have killed more than 50 people so far.
The wildfires have all but destroyed the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, which Hawaii’s Jewish governor, Josh Green, toured on Thursday with Brian Schatz, the state’s Jewish senator.
“What we saw today was likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history,” Green said in a statement.
The fires have had consequences for Hawaiians well beyond the fire zone.
“It’s with much gratitude and humility to share that the Jewish Congregation of Maui and its grounds are safe,” the non-denominational synagogue wrote on its website. “However, many in our community have lost their homes, businesses and also a loved one from the devastation of the fires.”
Experts say that higher temperatures and reduced rain as the result of climate change have made Hawaii more vulnerable to wildfires, while changes to agriculture in the state have contributed fuel. The state is the site of the country’s second youth-led climate change lawsuit; brought by 14 teens, mostly Native Hawaiians, the suit against the state’s transportation department got a trial date just days before the fires erupted.
There are 2,000 to 3,000 Jews in Maui, eJewishPhilanthropy reported, with two synagogues: the Jewish Congregation of Maui, which was not in the evacuation zone, and Chabad of Maui, which was.
The rabbis of both synagogues told eJewishPhilanthropy and the Forward that congregants are among those evacuated. Rabbi Mendy Krasnjansky, the Chabad rabbi, told the Forward that volunteers were standing by to reach the synagogue and rescue Torah scrolls, if needed.
The Jewish Federations of North America on Thursday launched a Hawaii Wildfire Fund to bring to the evacuees toiletries, first-aid kits, non-perishable foods, baby supplies and other supplies.
“Not only is support needed in Maui, but people are fleeing to Honolulu where Jewish communal organizations will be working to support those in need,” Alisa Bodner, the JFNA spokeswoman, said in an email.
Rabbi David Kosak of Portland, Oregon’s Congregation Neveh Shalom was vacationing in Maui, in a safe zone. He told his hometown TV news outlet, KGW8, that he had connected Portland’s Jewish community with Maui’s to accelerate assistance to the evacuees.
Portland’s Jewish federation was already on the job, its community relations director, Bob Horenstein, told KGW8, as part of the JFNA’s national effort.
Horenstein noted that Oregon had suffered its own share of wildfires recently. “We can empathize with the people of Maui and the big island and we could be supportive of what their needs are. It’s really important that we respond just from a humanitarian point of view,” he said.
Schatz filed reports from Lahaina, where he was with Green, on social media.
“Lahaina Town has been reduced to ashes,” he said of the historic area. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking. The recovery process will be long, but we’re committed to these families and communities.”
Photo Caption: An aerial image shows destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii, Aug. 10, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon AFP via Getty Images)