Image: Rabbis at the wildfire in Running Springs, Calif
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP
From left, Rabbis Shalom Harlig, Levi Cunin and his brother Chaim Cunin pray on Highway 18 as fire crews fight an approaching wildfire in Running Springs, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 10/25/2007 7:45:36 AM ET 2007-10-25T11:45:36

Dark beards blowing, black felt fedoras flying off their heads, the four Hasidic rabbis clapped their chests with open palms and cheered as the firefighting helicopter dipped its bucket into their camp swimming pool.

At the Camp Gan Israel, crews fighting devastating blazes in the mountains east of Los Angeles have found more than a source of water. The rabbis have been serving kosher meals, spiced with a dollop of their own spiritual musings.

Josef Broed, a Brooklyn native who leads the picturesque retreat center, didn’t consider evacuating with the rest of his staff when the order came Monday.

“This is a holy place,” said Broed, a rabbi in the Orthodox Jewish movement called Chabad. “God is going to watch over our place, and we will survive.”

Instead of leaving, Broed hooked fire hoses to the hydrants at the 72-acre camp, fired up a generator for his main lodge and began welcoming firefighters who have come in waves, hurrying past the rustic synagogue, the cabins and fields to fight flames on the slopes below.

More than 300 homes in the area have been destroyed.

‘What’s going to be with supper?’
As Wednesday waned and the flames died down with diminishing winds, Broed approached a team of exhausted firefighters.

“What’s going to be with supper?” he asked them. “You people must eat a good, hot supper. You have worked hard.”

Then came the feast: chicken, salami, cold cuts, baked potatoes, rye bread and sodas.

“You people eat and enjoy, and I will talk,” said Broed, a slim, short man with a gentle voice and a warm smile.

He didn’t preach, but as rabbis will do, he spun a lesson.

“A flame always goes up, it wants something spiritual,” he told them.

“A little bit of fire makes warm, and fire also represents enlightening,” he said.

“When we are confused, when we don’t know right from wrong, we are in the dark. Light is essential,” he told them.

And then, as they finished their supper, he asked: “So, what’s going to be with sleeping?”

Late Tuesday, with about 20 firefighters tucked in for a rare bit of sleep in a safe bed, Broed contacted fellow rabbis around the state to see if anyone could help.

On Wednesday, three rabbis pulled into the camp. Broed ran to them, and the four men embraced and burst into a victory song and foot-stomping dance.

“Mazeltov!” they shouted to each other. “It’s a miracle.”

'This is surreal'
A helicopter buzzed low again, dipping its 100-gallon red “bambi bucket” into the pool.

“This is surreal,” said Rabbi Levi Cunin of Malibu, whose own community was hit by wildfires this week. “Our mission as Chabad is to spread the well springs of knowledge, and here, from our pool in this beautiful place, we are able to help.”

Although fires have burned other properties in the area, “ours is an oasis, being protected. And God willing, it should continue,” Cunin said.

The rabbis said they will continue to support firefighting efforts however they can.

But Broed said he is no fool and already had packed the one thing he couldn’t leave behind if forced to evacuate.

“In case, God forbid, something should happen, I have my Torah,” he said. “That’s all I need.”

The American Red Cross has set up a service for evacuees to register their status and for loved ones to search for evacuees. Either call 1-800-REDCROSS or go to disastersafe.redcross.org . Click here for more information on how you can help.

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