To say last week was a challenging one for the Milken community and the community at large, would be an understatement. Massive wildfires raged across Southern California threatening homes and buildings. At first, school was canceled on Tuesday due to the poor air quality. Then, it really hit home early Wednesday morning when the Skirball Fire erupted a little too close for comfort.
Menacing flames were visible from the Milken campus. Some of our students, faculty, and staff were forced to evacuate from their homes, not knowing if they would have homes or a school to go back to, and parts of the 405 were shut down as the inferno rapidly made its way to the edges of the freeway, creating an eerie, surreal scene. The fierce, unpredictable Santa Ana winds made for a dangerous situation that could change course at any moment.
After the news of the fire was communicated to families, faculty, and staff, the Milken community did not hesitate to spring into action. They did what families do in a crisis—they responded by coming together to take care of each other. Head of School Gary Weisserman noted, “the beautiful outpouring of support” from a significant number of people, offering their homes, resources, and meals, to try to help people involved. “It was a wonderful thing to see. Watching people come together was terrific. We talk about being our brother’s keeper and this was a great example,” he remarked.
With our campus threatened by the fire, everyone had to act quickly. Weisserman took the Torahs to Valley Beth Shalom in Encino for safe keeping. Our Operations and Safety Department went into crisis mode to ensure the safety of the campus. As the blaze quickly tore through the hills, our campus operations team was on fire watch foot patrols 24/7. Groundskeepers removed falling debris from walkways and roofs, and saturated vegetation on the south and east sides of campus with fire hoses to keep falling embers from catching fire. They also saturated the roofs as a precaution.
"This fire had the potential to render our campus uninhabitable as it was raging less than three miles from campus and quickly spreading in our direction," said Nathan Humphreys, the director of operations and campus safety.
The Clean Up
It wasn’t enough that the fires were mostly contained around campus, there was much to be done to prepare for school to reopen. The operations team spent 180 man hours changing HVAC filters, disinfecting classrooms, and disinfecting and washing exterior walkways and furniture. An Industrial Hygienist took air and surface samples in order to deem our campus a safe environment for students, faculty and staff. Respirators and ultra clean rooms were made available for anyone needing a reprieve from the elements.
Returning to Campus
When the decision was made to reopen and the campus was safe for students, the community came together for reflection and to look back at what had transpired.
Gratitude was on everyone’s mind, and it was the theme of the Town Meeting on the Monday school reopened. There were hugs all around as everyone welcomed each other back. Weisserman addressed everyone by saying he was “happy, grateful, and relieved to see everyone here today.” He referenced the email letter he had sent out to the Milken community, saying, “More than at any time in my memory, we are earning the word “community” in our school’s name.”
Humphreys recognized the Operations Team for all their hard work keeping our school safe and preparing it for everyone’s return. They received thunderous applause from the audience for their contributions.
Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin carried the Torah, which had been brought back to campus unscathed, into the gym. He asked anyone whose home was destroyed, or had to leave his or her home to rise and that together, as a community in solidarity, we would say a traditional blessing known as benching Gomel.
“During the past week, we have felt how precarious life and our material possessions can be. If we have averted disaster, we realize as the blessing proclaims, how fortunate or undeserving we are,” said Rabbi Bernat-Kunin. “As we kindle the controlled flames of our Hanukkiot this week—flames of unity and identity and rededication—may our good fortune remind us of what it means to be a community of Jews and human beings, what it means to be responsible insurers for one another. Second, may we look back and remember the gifts we have received from those who courageously serve and protect us. And finally, may we hold onto the fleeting awareness of letting go of what is transitory and holding on tightly to what really matters most in life.”
Mitzvots and Gratitude
There were many opportunities for everyone to perform a mitzvah to show their gratitude. Students, faculty, and staff expressed their appreciation to the firefighters who helped battle the fire by writing cards, posing with thank you signs, and decorating cookies that would be delivered to local fire stations. Later, groups of students delivered the cookies in person to the fire stations and met and thanked some of the firefighters in person.
“It was so nice to get to meet the men that helped keep us safe this past week. It helped me remember how lucky we are and how we can’t take anything we have for granted,” said Sophie Kaplan ’19, who visited Station 108, along with Kayla Sorensen ’19. Groups of students delivered cookies to a total of six fire stations.
Another group of students participated in Operation Gratitude, assembling supply kits for the firefighters, police, and United States Army. “I was very scared for Milken, as the fire was very close. I felt like I needed to give back to all those that helped clear up the fire and those who kept us safe in these times of chaos," remarked Talia Byrnes ’21. “In difficult times like these, we need to come together as a community to help those that protect us,” she added. Byrnes was joined by Tommy Bareket ’21, Daniel Bareket ’20, and Mika Cohen ’21, who also took part in the program.
Now after being back for a full week of school, a sense of normalcy has again settled over campus. Classes were back in session, students filled the campus once again, and the Chanukah celebrations have begun. Laughter and lively conversations drifted through the campus this week, ending out 2017 on a positive note as students and faculty prepare to head off for the Winter Break.