Mayim MishegaasMayim Mishegaas

Mayim on the destruction wrought by the California wildfires

Our founder shares her sadness at the loss of life and place, including the Jewish summer camps that helped shape her identity
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 11/13/2018 at 11:19 AM EDT
Palm trees frame a home being destroyed by a wildfire above Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Known as the Woolsey Fire, it has consumed tens of thousands of acres and destroyed multiple homes. Reed Saxon/AP Photo

What a couple of weeks it’s been for Southern California. The mass shooting at Borderline in nearby Thousand Oaks was shocking to those of us who know the sweet town of T.O. as we call it. It’s known as a safe place; a place free from the kind of trouble that plagues so many parts of Los Angeles. Thousand Oaks is a handful of exits from my house; I drive past it a few times a week. It’s beyond tragic to hear of another shooting; another case of a young man likely not given the mental health care he needed; another case of lives taken down mercilessly and brutally.

This followed with a cruel swiftness by fires which have damaged thousands of homes and displaced thousands and thousands of people. While Northern CA has been hit hard as well, and entire towns such as Paradise have been ravaged by Mother Nature’s firey forces, Thousand Oaks and many neighboring communities have been forced to flee and, as of this writing, at least 44 lives have been lost due to these fires.

I have a very close friend who has been evacuated, along with her husband, 2-month-old baby and three cats and dog. They’ve been living at her sister’s for days. Yes, they are alive. They have each other. They are okay. But the enormity of being evacuated and not knowing when–and if–you can go home is unimaginable. As friends, we try to be supportive. I have offered help and assistance, but there’s not much I can do, really. We try to understand, but we really can’t.

RELATED: A personal essay from an evacuated Calabasas resident

There is no logic to this kind of destruction. The winds, the brush, and the ferociousness of fire itself are not something we can manage easily. The men and women who are fighting these fires do so selflessly and bravely. They leave home every day and risk their lives for others.

I was touched by the Ojai fires several months back, and there was one night when I was not sure my home was okay. My cat was safely evacuated. My kids and I were safe. That night was one of numbness and dissociation. One night. These families are living in a constant state of fear and uncertainty and I can’t imagine it.

I see that many celebrities have been affected by the fires and while a celebrity’s life or home is no more nor less important than that of a non-celebrity, it has warmed my heart how many other celebrities have opened their social media accounts to share helplines and to even assist individuals. We are all equal in the face of this kind of disaster.

I have been personally affected by these fires in a way that can’t be fully expressed in words. My childhood Jewish camps, Camp Hilltop and Camp Hess Kramer, have been damaged irreparably in the fires in Malibu. We aren’t entirely sure what remains, but we know as of now that most buildings at Camp Hilltop are gone. Our chapel is gone. Hess Kramer is deeper in the mountain and has thus far sustained less damage but it is still incredibly significant. These camps were the place my parents sent me for 5 weekends a year from the time I was 9 until I was 19. We could not afford summer camp, but the subsidized programs I went on through the Jewish Federation on scholarship formed me into the woman I am today.

These camps were where I found my place as a modern Jew, as part of a people who had known slavery, suffering, and savagery. These camps were the highlight of my teen years in so many ways. My close friend Rebecca Fox and I dressed like twins and wreaked havoc in the best of ways at these camps. I sang in talent shows and laughed at the popular kids giving each other back rubs during song sessions. My brother was one of the counselors one year at camp; I swelled with pride when kids would flock to him—camp was a place to find role models in our counselors. And find them we did.

Camp Hess Kramer was where I started as a camper; it was where I went when I was 9 and 10 and 11; a young camper still learning how to be away from mom and dad. I kissed Josh Netburn in a game of spin the bottle at that camp. I missed my mom and dad at that camp. I felt like I had a new sense of identity at that camp. I got to wake up, get dressed and walk with my friends to the mess hall for breakfast in that camp.

Camp Hilltop had a chapel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In my teen years, I didn’t know if I believed in Gd. What I did believe in was the ocean in its vastness. I believed in the way the sun reflected off of that body of infinite water. I believed that the waves would keep coming no matter what I believed. I now know that that was Gd. I just didn’t know it yet. Camp Hilltop knew it.

Guys I see at my kids’ soccer games now were at camp with me. We’ve all grown up and we have kids the age we were when we laughed and cried and talked late into the night at camp. David Abell, do you remember what a good time we had there? I’ll see you at soccer next weekend—if the air quality from the fires allows it—and we can hug it out.

Things can be rebuilt, and I hope that there will be opportunities for our community to rebuild the camps so many of us grew up at. But the pain of the physical loss of the places is real and it is great. We are ok. But it is also ok to mourn the loss of places and things that moved us and propelled us to be where we are today.

If you want to help, go to this story. And when the smoke clears, consider baking or cooking for your local fire or police department even if you haven’t been touched by fire or disaster. Show that you appreciate the way they choose to live their lives. And most of all: be safe.

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