In the Aftermath of Maui’s Wildfires, a Rabbi-Turned-Farmer Steps Up

By | Aug 21, 2023
Maui fires

Jewish politics and power

Jewish Politics & Power is published every other week. Sign up for our newsletter for updates.

Last week’s wildfires in Hawaii were among the most devastating in American history. For this installment of Moment‘s regular biweekly Jewish Politics & Power newsletter, Nathan Guttman reports from the ground on relief efforts on the island of Maui provided by Maui Kosher Farm.


Derek Miller barely survived the wildfires that swept through areas of the Hawaiian island of Maui on August 8. As the rapidly intensifying flames engulfed his home, he managed to jump into his truck and drive away through the heavy smoke that had cast pitch black darkness over the Maui afternoon. The flying embers, he later recalled, were so hot that they started new fires everywhere they hit. Through the smoke and darkness, Miller spotted six people holding flashlights, trapped in a nearby store. He stopped, got them out of the building, whose roof was already burning, and into a rescue car. When he got back to his truck, it had already begun melting from the heat, so Miller chased the rescue car down and crammed in. 

An hour later, they made it out. His head bears a scar from a metal trash can he struggled to move from the road in the escape, and burn marks can still be seen on his face.

At a makeshift shelter, Miller managed to charge his phone a bit and make a quick call to inform a family member he was alive, but the cell phone connectivity cut out. Miller’s second message went to Rabbi Mendel Zirkind. “I survived the fire, my house is gone and I have nowhere to go,” he texted the rabbi.

At his farm on the eastern ridge of the Western Maui mountains, Rabbi Zirkind, 43, was unaware of the drama playing out in Lahaina, Hawaii’s historic capital, which was the epicenter of the all-consuming wildfire that Miller had just escaped from. The fires are the worst the island has ever seen and likely one of the most devastating in U.S. history, claiming lives, homes, businesses and cultural sites. 

As night fell on Zirkind’s farm, the magnitude of the tragedy began to unfold. His wife, Chana, 44, got a text message from an Israeli resident of Lahaina letting her know that she had escaped the fire with her family and they were now on their way to the Zirkinds’ farm.

By morning, Eden Brook-Edmisson had also been able to get a few bars on her cell phone. With her husband and two young daughters, the Israeli expat was left without gas in her car, stranded on the outskirts of Lahaina. “We need gas,” she told Rabbi Zirkind.

Within hours, Maui Kosher Farm, the Zirkinds’ mountain getaway, had transformed into an around-the-clock rescue and shelter operation. “When the fires happened, I suddenly understood that I now had bigger shoes to fill,” Zirkind told me at his farm a few days later.

A day after the wildfire decimated huge parts of Lahaina, with roads closed and local fires still burning, Zirkind filled up his truck with food, water, gasoline and propane and headed into town, escorted by the local police. In the darkness and with the GPS out of service, he went looking for his people—Israelis living in Maui and Jewish Americans who had formed an unofficial community surrounding the rabbi, his family and their kosher farm.

Zirkind finally found the hotel that had turned into a shelter for the newly homeless fire refugees, and there he located a group of Israelis who had fled the town. “They looked at me as if I had fallen out of the sky,” Zirkind said. “They had no idea that 20 minutes from here life was still going on.” Since then, Zirkind has devoted every waking moment to helping Jews and non-Jews who survived the fire.

Under an avocado tree in the middle of the Zirkinds’ farm stands a big blue tent. It’s Derek’s Miller home for now. Other guests who took shelter at the farm have found more permanent residences.

In the few hours we spent together on Maui last week, Zirkind’s phone never stopped ringing and buzzing with messages. Someone’s dog got left behind? No problem, he’s on the way. A family wondering how they’ll pay their kids’ school tuition now that they’ve lost their home and all their belongings? Not to worry, Zirkind is taking care of it. He’ll find the money for tuition. For Miller, it was going back into town to try and find his grandmother’s menorah. And the list goes on. On Tuesday, Zirkind once again took the long and winding road—the only one currently open—into Lahaina. His cargo this time: prayer books and a mezuzah for a Jewish family that lost their house to the fire and are now living with friends outside town.

When I arrived on Maui to cover the wildfires that have devastated parts of the island and claimed 114 lives so far—as of today, more than 800 people are still missing—I was met by a young Israeli who has been living there for the past two years and had just lost his home in Lahaina. He joined me to help out in my reporting work. “I don’t like the media and I don’t like journalists,” was the first thing he said when he sat down in my car. “So why are you here?” I inquired, surprised by the sudden burst of candor. “Because the rabbi asked me to come. I’ll do anything to help him,” he replied. 

The Zirkinds’ kosher farm in Maui is a dazzling mishmash of tropical fruit, livestock and Jewish artifacts. The vans parked outside make it clear that you’ve arrived at the right place. One license plate reads RABBI, another KOSHER and the third JEWISH. Chana shows me around, pointing out every fruit-bearing tree, all growing wild and watered by the local stream. On the other end of the lot, Mendel takes me to the crowded array of animal enclosures: chickens, sheep, goats and a small cage full of very cute yellow-feathered chicks. “These will be for kapparot,” Mendel explains, referring to the Jewish tradition of waving a chicken over a person’s head on the eve of Yom Kippur in order to pass on one’s sins to the animal. And yes, Zirkind is also a certified Jewish slaughterer, ensuring that the animals on his farm end up as kosher meat.

At the center of the yard is a covered open-air area referred to as the “mishkan,” devoted to studying, praying, eating and hanging out. Around the center table, a group of a dozen or so girls from the U.S. mainland were finishing up breakfast. They’ve been staying at Zirkind’s farm as part of a summer program aimed at giving Orthodox girls a taste of farming life.

“Ever since I was six years old, I had a dream of being a farmer,” Zirkind tells me. But in order for this dream to come true, it took another dream.

Rabbi Mendel Zirkind (right) and his wife Chana (left).  Photo Courtesy of Rabbi Mendel Zirkind.

Zirkind grew up in Israel to a Chabad-Lubavitch family, learned about cooking and growing food from his mother, completed his rabbinical studies and later worked as a private chef in New York City. “I never wanted to marry,” he said, “which is very unusual in haredi society.” But one day, the Lubavicher rebbe appeared in his dream and told him it was time to get married. He was 37 and he knew that Chana, who grew up in the United States and was also a Chabad follower, was the one. Shortly after the wedding, a friend called Chana and told her about an opportunity in Maui. “I said no. Who wants to live on a tiny island in the middle of this huge Pacific Ocean?” Mendel recounts. But during their honeymoon, he looked a little deeper into the idea and learned that Maui was, in fact, a place where his dream of being a farmer could be realized, with the added value, he says, of “bringing more haredi people into the world of farming.”

These past two weeks added a new meaning to this rabbi’s mission.

“I grew up believing in the saying of the Baal Shem Tov [founder of the Hasidic movement] who said that sometimes a Jew comes into this world only in order to help another Jew,” says Zirkind. “Every morning when I wake up, I say to myself: ‘what can I do to help another human being? What can I do to help another Jew?’” He adds that it makes no difference to him if the people he helps are Jewish or not. The stranded drivers trying to leave Lahaina who refueled their cars with gasoline from Zirkind’s truck can testify to that.

4 thoughts on “In the Aftermath of Maui’s Wildfires, a Rabbi-Turned-Farmer Steps Up

  1. Ephraim says:

    Giant holy couple

  2. chaim Riven says:

    BEAUTIFUL !!!!!

  3. Jane says:

    What a testimony to God’s love and use of mankind to perform His miracles

  4. Alicia blackwell says:

    Rabbi mendel and channa are the best!we are neighbors and we regularly attend the shabbat friday eve meal and volunteer every Thursday. It was above and beyond how the maui kosher farm housed and fed over 35 fire refuges and took care of so many others providing shelter,food and support in any way that was needed! Go to and see for yourself!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.