‘It’s gonna be a tough road’: Surfside Jewish community braces for bad news on dark Shabbat

SURFSIDE, Fla. (JTA) – One type of disaster, said volunteer physician Baruch Sandhaus, has “a lot of patients” – a heartbreaking scene with so many people and their injuries to deal with.

The sudden collapse of one of the Champlain Towers residential buildings this week in Surfside, Florida, a city in Miami-Dade County with a large Jewish population, was not that kind of disaster.

“It was the minimum number of patients,” he said.

Sandhaus has volunteered for decades with Hatzalah, the Jewish relief organization, and the aftermath of this disaster reminds him of another national tragedy.

“Unfortunately, you know, you have to start thinking of something else,” he added, referring to the September 11 attacks, which left nearly 3,000 dead.

The “something else”, the prospect that all 159 people missing in the building collapse are probably dead, is not yet an outcome that no one wants to consider. But the idea haunts the blocks surrounding the remains of the building, where crowds of people waited and watched rescuers work remotely on Friday night, a pungent smell permeating the air and smoke and dust lining the streets.

He made a dark Shabbat for the Jews of Surfside and the surrounding towns that make up a heavily Jewish area called North Beach, at the north end of Miami Beach. Along with the other towns of Bal Harbor, Bay Harbor Islands and Indian Creek, North Beach has a population of approximately 14,000, of which over 5,000 are Jewish.

In the Shul of Bal Harbor, a majestic Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue next door where only 10 days earlier Governor Ron DeSantis had signed a bill extending the privileges of first responders to private rescuers (Hatzalah is the state’s only private faith-based voluntary emergency service, and Orthodox Jewish community lobbied for the bill), Friday night prayers were quieter than usual. Worshipers mumbled the incident as they exited the building.

Cheri Fine, left, and Mark (no last name provided) visit a makeshift memorial at the site of the collapsed building with photos of the missing in Surfside, Fla. On June 26, 2021 (Andrea Sarcos / AFP via Getty Images )

Chani Lipskar, whose husband Sholom Lipskar runs The Shul, said they knew 40 of the 159 missing were Jewish; Chabad broadcasts their names for prayers.

Uncertainty also stalks families waiting in a reunification center, set up a few blocks from the construction scene at the community center in the town of Surfside. Shimshon Tzubeli, a cantor who led Sephardic services to the Shul, walked through the crowd with a notebook on Friday, asking for contact details of evacuees and volunteers to match families to Shabbat meals.

“Shabbat is our main priority right now,” he said on Friday afternoon.

“We are done with the questions”

Volunteers gathered at the community center on Friday, brought together by a WhatsApp network set up for Jewish events, said Arielle Aronson, who spent Friday morning distributing food, bedding and clothing to evacuees.

South Florida’s close-knit Jewish community was wired and in high-tech communication mode, she said.

“Our rabbis posted Instagram posts, social media, WhatsApp messages,” said Aronson, 32, a second-grade teacher at a local Jewish school. The network was most recently activated to counter protest pro-Palestinian groups that came forward during the Israel-Gaza conflict last month.

“I’ve been to all the protests, Boca, Fort Lauderdale,” she said.

A kosher food table set up at the Surfside Community Center Family Reunification Center, June 25, 2021 (Ron Kampeas)

The mix of people who gathered on Friday – religious, secular, Latino, Hebrew – was a perfect sample of the area diverse Jewish community. The Miami area has a large percentage of Hispanic Jews, many of whom come from families who have left countries like Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere. According to demographer Ira Sheskin, the region’s Jewish community is 30% Hispanic.

A question is already surfacing on how to plan funerals for people who are not yet known to have died, said Jacob Solomon, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami.

“It’s very difficult to say, but I guess there will be a significant number of people who will need help with the funeral arrangements,” he said in an interview.

But at the community center, many families and friends still did not want to recognize the finality of the situation, whispering their anxieties to each other and turning away from strangers.

“My dad was in the building,” said 19-year-old Avi Cohen.

“I was going to marry his father,” said Rebecca Pollack, who stood with him. “We have finished the questions, we are finished, we are finished. It’s very hard for us.

Lev Parnas – the businessman involved in Jewish causes who was accused in the Donald Trump scandal in Ukraine of campaign finance violations in an alleged attempt to help re-elect the former president – was there.

“This is my community, I have lived here for 25 years, and when I saw what was happening I felt it was my duty to come here and help in any way I could”, did he declare. He met a friend whose sister, Cassandra Stratton, was among the missing, and he began to console her.

Staff from the Israeli Consulate in Miami were present, offering advice to Hebrew speakers. The federations have deployed rabbis who work as chaplains in local hospitals to care for the evacuees.

Uriel Gabbay, left, and Dovi Alperovich search for Jewish men to perform the mitzvah of putting tefillin one block from the collapsed building, June 25, 2021 (Ron Kampeas)

“The road will be difficult and long,” said Rabbi Jonathan Tabachnikoff, chaplain of a local children’s hospital, who approached the families and asked them in a soft voice if they wanted to speak. “They’re going to need some guidance, they’re going to need trauma facilitators and people to help them because that – we don’t even know who to blame or what happened yet.”

Reports have emerged since the collapse that structural engineers found damage to the complex, in 2018 and before. The building management was planning to start repairs when the building collapsed.

In the immediate shock of the aftermath, some of the survivors described their experiences to television crews who rushed to the scene.

Ofi Osin-Cohen, the director of the Miami Federation for Jewish Volunteers, lived in the building. She described Thursday on NBC’s Today Show that she was woken up by a big boom, looking out the window, seeing smoke, then opening her apartment door and seeing a hallway covered in debris.

“It was just surreal, really surreal,” she said.

Osin-Cohen, her husband, and a few elderly neighbors tried to get out of the building but could not find a way out through the debris and rising water; they returned to their apartment and the firefighters extracted the four people using a ladder.

In a letter to the community, Solomon said Osin-Cohen and her husband Barry are staying with their son and daughter-in-law in Miami.

Judeo-Mexican rescue team on the prowl

Despite the muted feel aided by the humid, hazy heat in the air that has swept over Surfside since Thursday, fears are sometimes explicit.

“When the backhoe loaders come,” said a man leaving the Shul on Friday night, “it’s over.”

Large earthmovers throughout the incident scene can signal that hope for survivors is lost. But as long as individual researchers undertake the meticulous work of picking up the rubble, there is hope, however slim.

Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team search for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

As of Saturday, passers-by were still looking for photos of the missing stuck to a fence. Gusts of torrential rain sometimes stop the search and send thugs to disperse to search for awnings or for their cars. Then, when the sun reappears, they come out.

A relief organization founded in 2005 by the Mexican Jewish community, called Cadena, has deployed volunteers specializing in the search for survivors. They are on hold, awaiting permission from local authorities to join the search.

“We have a professional rescue team, they are professionally trained in Israel. We have life tracking devices, rescue dogs, ”said Dana Gurvich, Cadena team leader who lives in Miami and is originally from Mexico City. “They are not in place because we are not authorized to” help, pending clearance from authorities in Miami.

“But we try to give as much support and be as practical as possible.”

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