'Suffering of Biblical Proportions': The Jews on the Front Lines of Florida's Condo Disaster

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Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo
Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South CondoCredit: Wilfredo Lee,AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

In the days following the partial collapse of a 12-story residential tower outside of Miami last Thursday, Jewish clergy from across southern Florida have rallied to provide physical assistance and spiritual support to the families of the more than 150 people still missing in the rubble.

Following the disaster at the 40-year-old beachfront high-rise in Surfside, Jewish organizations – including the local Federation, Jewish ambulance service and burial society – all mobilized to provide aid, as did rescue teams from Israel and Mexico. Alongside them were dozens of rabbis from different denominations ranging from ultra-Orthodox to Reform who have raised money, collected supplies and taken turns comforting the families of the building’s residents who are currently gathered at a local hotel.

Speaking at a special communal prayer gathering on Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Yossi Harlig, the co-director of a local Chabad synagogue, said that while there was little anybody could say to comfort the families, just having a rabbi present could help.

Aerial image of the oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed in Surfside, FloridaCredit: Gerald Herbert,AP

“The Rebbe always taught us Ahavat Yisrael [love for fellow Jews] and being with people in good times and in challenging times. [Meeting with the families] you have to stay focused on being there for them. Nothing I can say will give them comfort, but just knowing that someone is listening to what they need to say, that will,” chabad.org reported him as saying.

“You also have to be there for the police, the fire fighters, the people in rescue. This is a very challenging time for them because they feel like they are rescuing their own families. You want to encourage them to keep going. Everyone may wear different uniforms, but everyone is in this together.”

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

Rabbi Jonathan Berkun
Worshippers at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Aventura, Florida pray during a memorial service for victims.Credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters

While the community initially focused on collecting supplies such as phone chargers, blankets, pillows, clothes, medication and other urgent needs for the survivors, subsequent efforts have since pivoted to raising money and comforting families, Rabbi Guido Cohen, of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a nearby Conservative congregation, told Haaretz.

There is also “a rotation of rabbis” who agreed to spend shifts at the Grand Beach Hotel where families are awaiting need from their loved ones, he said. “Many rabbis are stationed there providing spiritual support and making those families know that they are not alone.”

In a Facebook post, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, another rabbi at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, described the families’ feelings of shock and horror he witnessed during a recent visit to the Surfside Community Center.

“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.

It’s going to be extremely traumatic to see the destruction there and I think when people see that, it’s going to sink in, the reality, and I think they need therapists and they need spiritual care providers to be there

Rabbi Frederick Klein

“Despite the ample chairs, I noticed one woman sitting motionless on the ground. I sat alongside her when she told me that her 21-year-old son is missing. He is her ‘baby,’ and out of her three children, her only son. Her husband wasn’t there with her because he insisted on remaining close to the collapsed building only a few blocks away. ‘I don’t know what I’m feeling,’ she said as she shared some stories about him. Then she wondered out loud as she gazed at the sky: ‘If my husband loses his only son…’ She gulped, unable to finish her sentence. It was unimaginable.”

“I met a young woman who was waiting for news about her father. His ex-wife was there as well.” he continued. “Then I spoke with another young woman whose fiancé is among the missing. The wedding is supposed to be in three weeks. Then there was the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were longtime members of our synagogue. His young wife was anxiously awaiting any information about her mother. I held her while she wept.”

Members of United Hatzalah meet with local community leaders in Florida.Credit: United Hatzalah

Rabbi Frederick Klein, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, helped to organize the rota of local rabbis visiting the families.

As the founder of Mishkan Miami – an organization which sends chaplains to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and long-term care facilities to offer consolation and guidance to those in crisis – Klein has extensive experience in dealing with loss.

“It’s going to be extremely traumatic to see the destruction there and I think when people see that, it’s going to sink in, the reality, and I think they need therapists and they need spiritual care providers to be there,” he explained in a phone call with Haaretz on Sunday evening, adding that beyond the 20 or so rabbis he has mobilized, there are rabbis from a variety of movements volunteering their time.

“I’ve seen in the past day 40 different congregational or community rabbis, everything from Reform to Chabad, liberal and conservative rabbis,” Klein said.

Rabbi Yosef Galimidi, left, speaks with Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett near the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. on Sunday. Credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters

“This is a tragedy of really large proportions and I think the more support we can give the people the better. It’s a crisis not just for individual families but for the Miami Jewish community and the impacts of this will be felt for years to come.”

The families of those missing are torn between hope and a growing sense that their loved ones are gone, he said, describing how this uncertainty can create “great anxiety and anger.” And as time passes without positive news, they are growing “more despondent,” increasing the need for chaplains and mental health professionals.

“For me it was also impactful. I lived in that building 15 years ago and I can tell you where I lived doesn’t exist anymore,” he continued.

“This can happen to any human being and that sense of insecurity is really the state of the world if you think about this. Life is always uncertain but an event like this sensitizes us to how fragile our lives are.”

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