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Maui fire survivors tell of Chabad’s assistance in wake of disaster

“We weren’t prepared,” he said. “We didn’t have gas. We had no food, no water—everything was closed, no electricity,” says Ido Sarfati, whose stories burned to the ground.

Ido Sarfati stands outside the remains of his businesses that were destroyed by wildfires last week that swept through Lahaina on the island of Maui, Aug. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ido Sarfati.
Ido Sarfati stands outside the remains of his businesses that were destroyed by wildfires last week that swept through Lahaina on the island of Maui, Aug. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ido Sarfati.

When Ido Sarfati moved to the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui a decade ago, he thought he had the perfect place to build a business. And he did; it grew to include seven retail shops that sold skincare products and other offerings to tourists. Last week, all of his stores burned to the ground in the historic wildfires that have claimed the lives of at least 93 people and destroyed more than 2,700 structures valued at more than $5 billion.

But Sarfati’s greatest feeling is not of loss, he tells Chabad.org, but of determination to rebuild and assist others who lost everything.

With the help of Rabbi Mendy Krasnjansky, co-director of Chabad of Maui, Sarfati, a native of Israel, and a group of 30 friends fled the island on Friday and made their way to Honolulu, where they had Shabbat dinner and lunch with the rabbi’s parents, Rabbi Itchel and Perel Krasnjansky, directors of Chabad of Hawaii.

“Rabbi Mendy from Maui is a really good friend. He’s my rabbi,” says Sarfati. “He really took care that everybody would take care of us.”

On Shabbat morning, he and other Jewish survivors of the deadliest fire in the United States in more than a century recited the blessing of thanksgiving known as Birkat Hagomel, said by people who have survived a traumatic, potentially life-threatening experience.

“I’m not usually crying,” says Sarfati. “But I had tears in my eyes when I heard the songs of Shabbat. I knew then that we were OK, and we had the option to say thanks again to G‑d. It was a really strong moment.”

 ‘We need help and support’

Sarfati’s escape was a nightmare, he describes.

Ido Sarfati stands outside the remains of his businesses that were destroyed by wildfires last week that swept through Lahaina on the island of Maui, Aug. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ido Sarfati.

When the winds started on Aug. 8, the power went out, and he kept the stores closed. He went to a BBQ at a friend’s house, then started smelling smoke. As they ate, they saw gray smoke filling the sky. As a dark fog descended that afternoon, without knowing what was happening, he fled the town with friends—nine in the car and another with eight people behind them—and a generator. “We weren’t prepared,” he said. “We didn’t have gas. We had no food, no water—everything was closed, no electricity.”

After hours of searching, he found a hotel in Kaanapali that would let them stay, and after dropping off his travel companions, he headed out to find more of his friends until 30 of them were safe and accounted for in the chaos.

“I was out until 3 a.m. I found them and brought them [to the hotel],” he recalls. “You feel like you met your family after that, shouting with happiness,” he said.

They struggled for food and to sort out the next steps. He eventually made his way back to Lahaina only to see the area filled with army and police, and rubble where his shops once stood.

Now, staying in an apartment with seven other people, Sarfati says he wants people to know about how many of his friends and neighbors lost everything. “I’ve never been on the side of asking, it feels weird to ask for help from people, but we do need help and support, so people can get places to live and restart their lives.”

Cars, homes and businesses were burned in the wildfires that swept through Lahaina on the island of Maui. Photo courtesy of Ido Sarfati.

A Tourist in Search of Tefillin

Joel Jacobson and his wife, Heather, were on vacation, staying at an Airbnb north of Lahaina while their four kids were away at summer camp. They’d been snorkeling and spent time on the beach Monday, and then on Tuesday embarked on a day trip to the other side of the island. The power was out, but they took their necessities for the day and went.

Heading back home at the end of the day, they found traffic at a crawl. Not knowing the situation, they tried to get back to their Airbnb. After spending hours sitting on the highway for what should have been a few hours’ ride, they slept in their car.

“The horizon was just in flames; it was crazy, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jacobson. “While we were driving and where we spent the night, we could look out the window and see the whole horizon was on fire.”

A friend told Jacobson about Chabad of Maui, and he called Rabbi Mendy Krasnjansky to find some tefillin to borrow and ask his advice about what to do. Krasnjansky offered them his guest house, where the couple stayed until they flew out Thursday. “We were very happy to have a place to stay Wednesday night,” he says.”I had no idea there was a Chabad in Maui, but fortunately, somebody told me.”

All of their belongings are still in West Maui where their Airbnb was, but it was totally inaccessible, he recounts. That includes his tefillin—he’s got a loaner pair from his synagogue and his sons’ sets in the meantime—but hopes to be reunited with his tefillin bag, which his grandmother knit for him for his bar mitzvah many decades ago. “I definitely want that back,” he says.

Their thoughts are with the people in Maui, who lost so much. When he was charging his phone at a shopping center at 7 a.m., he could overhear women talking about how their houses had burned down and crying about the losses they’d experienced.

“For us, it was challenging, but we’re fine,” says Jacobson. “Even if we lose some things, it’s all replaceable. For some people, this was a horrible devastation. Our hearts go out to them.”

The blazes that ripped through Lahaina on the island of Maui represented one of the most deadly fires in U.S. history. Photo courtesy of Ido Sarfati.

Kosher Food for the Stranded

Meanwhile, Yudi Weinbaum, chef and owner of Oahukosher.com in Honolulu has been working late into the night to fill orders from stranded tourists and others staying in area hotels. They made close to 100 challahs for Shabbat last week—six to seven times their usual. “We were making large batches of everything,” he says. “We had to keep running out and shopping more, we worked until 3, 4 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday and Thursday.”

Along with Chabad emissaries and volunteers around Hawaii, Weinbaum is watching to see what he can do to help as more time passes.

“We’re only at the beginning right now,” he says. “As we get the news, and as we get feedback of what’s needed, we’re going to be ready to be able to act and help them out in Maui.”

Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org/News.

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