At Least 11 Jews Among 46 Dead in Florida Condo Collapse

The Associated Press
Sam Sokol
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A Star of David with the words "SURFSIDE STRONG" placed on the monument that has images of some of the missing from the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida, yesterday.
A Star of David with the words "SURFSIDE STRONG" placed on the monument that has images of some of the missing from the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida, yesterday.Credit: GIORGIO VIERA - AFP
The Associated Press
Sam Sokol

At least 11 members of South Florida’s Jewish community are among the 46 people declared dead by Florida officials since last month's partial collapse of a 12-story residential tower in the town of Surfside.

About 100 others remain unaccounted for as of Wednesday morning local time.

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The 40-year-old beachfront high-rise pancaked onto itself on June 24. The collapse turned dozens of apartment units into a pile of rubble, causing what one local rabbi described as suffering “of biblical proportions.”

Speaking with local ABC television affiliate WPLG on Sunday, Israeli search and rescue team commander Col. Golan Vach said that he believed that the chance of finding survivors in the rubble at this point “are close to zero.” The current situation in Surfside makes it “difficult for me to say professionally that I believe there is a solid chance to find somebody alive, unfortunately,” said Vachs, who commanded the Israeli army rescue team that was dispatched to Florida.

Among those found on Monday were 66-year-old Ingrid Ainsworth and her husband, Tzvi, 68, a Chabad Hasidic couple who had moved to Surfside from Sydney, Australia to be near several of their seven children who had settled in South Florida. Ingrid Ainsworth was originally from Montreal. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, lived in Miami Beach.

Worshipers at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Aventura, Florida, U.S. 2021.Credit: JOE SKIPPER/ REUTERS

Aryeh Citron, the Ainsworths’ rabbi, told NBC's Channel 6 South Florida affiliate, “Tzvi was a very easy-going fellow, very nice to talk to. Great sense of humor, very chatty.” He “just had a lot to say about his life and the places he’s been and jobs that he’s done and talking about his kids — just a great all-around guy,” the rabbi said, adding that the only thing that could keep him away from the synagogue was his wife, who “was having treatments and often going to doctor.”

“He was very devoted to her. Always taking care of her. If he was missing, if he didn't come to the synagogue, it was because he was with her or his children,” Citron said, adding that the Ainsworths had welcomed a new grandchild into the family just a day before the collapse.

“Every person she encountered, ever in her life, became her friend. Everyone was treated as equals,” daughter Chana Wasserman wrote of Ingrid Ainsworth in a blog post last April. “The guy at the laundromat, the guy working at the fruit market, the receptionist at the doctor's office, the high school kid working at Blockbuster, the seamstress, the lady doing her nails, a pigeon, the stewardess, the lady cleaning the house, the outcast, the misunderstood, the popular, the unpopular.”

Search and rescue personnel working at the site of the collapsed Florida condominium complex in Surfside, Miami, on Friday.Credit: MIAMI DADE FIRE DEPARTMENT/ RE

She described her mother as someone who “sees the world through rainbow colored glasses with unicorns and dolphins diving in and out,” adding, “My mother’s sense of wonder is the same as that of a 4-year-old.”

While many of those who are missing are members of the Jewish community, the suffering extends of course across the city and the country. Among the victims of the collapse are Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Miami, who was declared dead on June 27. His wife Ana and daughters Lucia, 11, and Emma, 4, are still missing.

Stacie Dawn Fang, who moved to Florida from New Jersey, died in the hospital on June 26 after she and her son, Jonah Handler, were rescued from the wreckage. In a statement, her family said that “there are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie.”

Antonio and Gladys Lozano, 83 and 79 respectively, were just shy of their 59th anniversary when they died. They used to “'play argue' about who would pass first,” their son told ABC, adding that at the end of the day “they got what they both wanted; Each other.”

Manuel LaFont, 54, was an avid baseball fan whose ex-wife, Adriana LaFont, had picked up their two children from his condominium only hours before the tragedy. “Manny, daddy, we want to hug you again to tell you how much we love you!” she posted on Facebook after his death.

One victim who was identified on Saturday was 7-year-old Stella Cattarossi, whose body was removed from the scene Thursday by her father, a Miami firefighter. According to WPLG television, her father draped her body with a jacket and an American flag before removing her from the scene as local first responders stood in salute.

Last Wednesday, Miami-Dade police recovered the body of 56-year-old Bonnie Epstein, a retired real estate investor who had moved to Florida from Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, David, whose body was recovered two days later. According to Chabad.org, the couple “had a passion for water-sports, including kite surfing and jet skiing.”

In a Facebook post quoted by the Washington Post, their son Jonathan wrote that his parents “were amazing people” who “would be touched by the outpouring of love and support we’ve received.”

“They were just the absolute coolest,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I feel so grateful to be their son.”

Speaking with the Post, Epstein’s neighbor and friend Jay Miller said the couple had delayed a trip north because David was undergoing physical therapy on his arm.

On June 26 and 27, police identified the remains of Leon and Cristina Oliwkowicz, a couple from Venezuela with ties to Jewish communities in Florida and Chicago. Leon, 80, and Cristina, 74, lived on the eighth floor of Champlain Towers South for several years, according to Venezuelan journalist Shirley Varnagy, a close friend of their family. They had sent their children to live in the United States from Venezuela and then joined them as the economic and political crisis worsened in their native country, said Rabbi Moshe Perlstein.

Perlstein is the dean of Ohr Eliyahu-Lubavitch Mesivta Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish School in Chicago where one of their daughters, Leah Fouhal, works as an office manager. He flew to Florida to support Fouhal after the disaster as she waited anxiously to learn her parents’ fate. Late on June 27, authorities announced that their bodies had been recovered.

“On Friday [June 25], she was there, standing a few blocks away, and smoke was coming from the [collapsed building]. And she tells me, ‘I just hope I’ll be able to bury my parents instead of their ashes.’ And then, thank God, she was able to bury her parents, not the ashes,” Perlstein said of Fouhal.

The oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed three days ago, resulting in fatalities and many people still unaccounted for, in Surfside, Fla., on Sunday.Credit: Gerald Herbert,AP

“The Jewish people have unfortunately known too many cases where we have buried ashes. We don’t want to bury people, but it’s better than burying ashes,” he added as he prepared for their funeral.

Perlstein said the couple were known for their generosity: Three years ago, they donated a valuable Torah scroll to the school in memory of Leon Oliwkowicz’s parents.

“He was a person that enjoyed when he gave. He was happy. He loved giving,” Perlstein said. “With his wife, they were very dedicated to their children, helping the children, doing anything they could for their children,” he said. “It was their life: giving to the family and giving charity to others.”

According to the Miami Herald, they had four children and 11 grandchildren.

“No one prepares us for such harsh news and tragedies. Unfortunately, two of the Venezuelans [missing] in the Surfside [collapse] were found dead. RIP Leon Oliwkowicz and Cristina Beatriz Elvira. Our deepest condolences and support for his family and friends,” tweeted Brian Fincheltub, director of Consular Affairs at the Venezuelan Embassy.

Also confirmed dead was 55-year-old Frankie Kleiman, whose body was recovered last Monday.

Kleiman, 55, had recently married 46-year-old Ana Ortiz, who lived on the seventh floor of Champlain Towers South with her son Luis Bermudez, a 26-year-old who had battled muscular dystrophy for years and used a wheelchair. According to the Miami Herald, the couple had tied the knot less than a month before the collapse. Both Ortiz and Bermudez’s bodies were recovered on Saturday.

Kleiman lived with his new wife and stepson on the same floor as his brother, Jay Kleiman, a musician who was in town for a funeral, and their mother, Nancy Kress Levin, 76, both of whose bodies were recovered on Monday.

People mourn at the memorial site in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. June 2021. Credit: MARCO BELLO/ REUTERS

“It is so tragic that he flew [in] for a friend who died from COVID complications, and ended up there,” said Mark Baranek of 52-year-old Jay Kleiman, whom he coached on a synagogue flag football team.

One friend described Frankie Kleiman to the Miami Herald as “happy-go-lucky” and “the guy that you can count on.”

The family’s roots in the Miami area go back decades. Like so many others in Miami, Nancy Kress Levin fled the Cuban Revolution in 1959. First she settled with her husband in Puerto Rico, and then in the 1980s she moved as a single mom with her two boys to Surfside. There, they lived in a then-new building popular with Hispanic Jews who had come mostly from Cuba. According to the Miami Herald, Frankie Kleiman had four children from a previous marriage, one of whom was pregnant with his first grandchild. 

In February, he posted on Facebook that he was launching a new venture, a company providing business services such as mailbox rental, notary services and passport photos.

The Kleimans are related to Deborah Berezdivin, a university student who came to attend the same funeral as Jay Kleiman, the Herald reported. She and her boyfriend, Ilan Naibryf, the president of the Chabad Student Board at the University of Chicago, are still missing.

Michael David Altman, 50, originally from San Jose, Costa Rica, was also among the declared dead. According to WPLG, Altman’s family scoured area hospitals following the collapse in the hope that they would find him alive. Prior to his body’s recovery, Altman’s son, Nicholas Altman, posted his father’s picture on Facebook, asking people to share any information regarding his whereabouts.

“This is my dad who I love more than anything – Michael Altman. He was on the 11th floor of the Miami building that collapsed late last night. He’s missing right now. If you have any information, please let me know,” he wrote.

A racquetball enthusiast, Altman worked as an accountant and was a “very loving guy,” Nicholas told the Miami Herald. He was “always smiling. He was very fun and loved to tell jokes.”

Many of the families of those missing have gathered at a local hotel, awaiting news of their loved ones. 

In a Facebook post, Jonathan Berkun, a rabbi at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, described the families’ feelings of shock and horror. “The suffering in Miami is of biblical proportions. The waiting, not knowing, hoping and praying is torturous. Some sit silently in shock. Some weep. And some need a hug (15 months in the making) to be able to cry,” he wrote.

Speaking with Haaretz last week, Gabe Groisman, mayor of the neighboring town of Bal Harbour, said that “the South Florida community is rallying around the families of the victims with prayer, love and all kinds of support. We grieve with them and we are holding on to hope with them until the very last moment.”

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