Israel’s Diaspora Minister says he nearly broke down crying when he heard a rabbi read off the names of community members still missing following the collapse a 12-story residential tower in Surfside, Florida last Thursday.
Nachman Shai, the most senior Israeli official at the scene of the disaster in Florida, was attending a prayer service at a Florida synagogue on Sunday.
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“When I heard [the rabbi] reading the names, I myself almost cried,” Shai told Haaretz on Monday. “Name after name, a long list of missing members of the community who are probably not alive any longer.”
Shai arrived in Florida on Sunday morning, three days after the Champlain Towers South tower collapsed. As of Tuesday, 11 people have been confirmed dead and another are 150 missing. He was accompanied by an Israel Defense Forces search-and-rescue team, which is aiding local rescue workers in finding survivors and recovering bodies from the wreckage, as well as psycho-trauma experts from the United Hatzalah emergency medical service and representatives of the Defense and Foreign Ministries.
Israeli officials offered assistance in interviewing the victims’ families who are gathered at a nearby hotel in order to produce a list of people present in the building at the time of the collapse. They have also provided supplies and helped facilitate the arrival of relatives from Venezuela and Columbia, according to Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, the Consul General in Miami, who estimated that some 40 Jews are among the missing.
Of those confirmed dead by the Miami-Dade Police so far, four are Jewish.
Both Elbaz-Starinsky and Shai told Haaretz that several Israeli organizations are standing by as they await permission to join the humanitarian effort in Surfside.
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“We have put down an offer to send more teams, not just search-and-rescue, but social workers and emotional helpers. Now that our team is on the ground, I think it will be easier to coordinate. We are flooded with offers for support and for help from Israel and other Jewish organizations,” said Elbaz-Starinsky.
Israel’s presence in Florida signals how seriously Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government takes Israel’s relationship with Jewish communities abroad, Shai told Haaretz, describing a Friday afternoon phone call in which Bennett told him that “the best thing we can do at this stage can help the families and community.”
“Everything should be done to save life and, if you can’t save lives, at least to save the remains so that we can bury them,” Shai said.
In 2018, Bennett, then Diaspora minister, flew to Pittsburgh to represent Israel in the wake of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead.
Beyond its responsibility to the Jewish Diaspora, Israeli forces are also in Florida in order to reciprocate American support for the Jewish state, Shai said, calling Jerusalem’s humanitarian assistance “what friendship and alliance are all about.”
“It’s time to demonstrate that we can give something in return,” he said, describing his mission as partially motivated by the desire to “help strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel.”
Israeli efforts began within hours of the tower’s collapse, when the local consulate began sourcing supplies such as emergency lighting, medication and clothing, Elbaz-Starinsky told Haaretz.
“Just a few hours after this disaster I got a phone call from Foreign Minister [Yair Lapid], who immediately instructed me to give any help possible,” he said, emphasizing that Israel was providing assistance not because Jews are involved but because “it’s the right thing to do.”
“Now, of course, we cannot ignore the fact that there are many Jews makes our obligation and moral commitment even greater, but we would have been here even if there had not been Jews involved,” he said.
Eran Hazan, a native of Hadera now living in Florida, said that beyond official Israeli efforts, his organization, Yedidim USA, has also enlisted the local Israeli expatriate community, mobilizing dozens of volunteers and setting up a field kitchen that has served thousands of hot meals to families and rescue workers.
“We feel the pain of the people of the families. Every now and then they get a bad update and you see how they collapse and cry. It’s hard to see,” he said. “You get affected but you try and be strong for them.”