When tragedy strikes, there is often no rhyme or reason. Yet we often find unsung heroes who rarely desire recognition or accolade. Jews, in particular, have long found Florida as a refuge from the chaos and fast-paced life elsewhere, and many have settled on its shores to ride out their golden years. The Surfside Champlain South Towers oceanfront condominium collapse last Thursday, just north of Miami Beach, has left 12 confirmed dead and 149 victims unaccounted for, as structural flaws are revealed and an investigation before a grand jury appears imminent. Most apartments in this complex had a mezuzah affixed on their doorposts, and during wintertime this condo has a much higher occupancy rate. There remains a concern that there are duplicate names on the unaccounted list, as both English and Hebrew names might have been reported to the rescue team.
Back in April, Jean Wodnicki, the building board president, called concrete deterioration in the garage significant and accelerating as she urges the residents to pony up to make the necessary repairs. Backing up reports that the pool was first to vanish underground, a 2018 engineering report by Morabito Consultants noted its failed waterproofing and that the design did not allow water to drain.
Assistance has streamed in from every corner of the world. Upwards of 800 responders are present, representing 60-some-odd agencies, as search and rescue efforts persist and chances of survival simmer. There are also federal, state, and local responders numbering nearly 500, who have jointly removed over three million pounds (850 cubic feet) of debris. Hope remains that victims can be found alive as evidence exists of survivors coming out of similar worldwide disasters well after two weeks following similar incidents. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken the collapse quite seriously and has spent many hours comforting family members. Notably, the Governor met with the Rosenberg family early Tuesday, as they hold out hope for three missing loved ones. Senator Marco Rubio has, as well, been a voice of comfort. President and First Lady Biden also scheduled a visit to the area. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke with DeSantis, offering assistance.
Jews often turn to tz’dakah when in times of peril. One campaign was launched, thechesedfund.com/shulofbalharbour/miamitragedy, garnering over $1,250,000 in donations from over 10,000 individuals amongst some 55 teams. The fund, with a goal of $5 million, was set up by The Shul of Bal Harbour, the local Orthodox Torah hub, and will be dispersed directly to victims and families as necessary.
Hatzalah of South Florida, under the leadership of Baruch Sandhaus, quickly established a command center at the Family Reunification Center at the Grand Beach Hotel, where they are providing medical assistance and support to affected families. They are accepting donations at hatzalahsouthflorida.org/donate.
The ten-member Israeli Defense Forces Homefront Command Search Team, which has been present since Monday, has taken time to speak with families and has determined that the building over the garage was first to collapse, followed by a section to its rear, and then the adjacent tower soon fell. The team has committed to isolate each individual apartment unit as part of their search. The team, led by Col. Golan Vach, was also joined by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and Foreign Ministry representative Guy Giladi, Israel’s former Deputy Consul General in Miami. The IDF often appears at worldwide disaster sites.
Israeli airline El Al also worked with United Hatzalah to arrange for the transport of a six-person psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit to assist in mental health needs at the request of the Miami Jewish Federation. Eli Beer, the group’s president and a recipient of South Florida’s medical expertise during a bout with COVID, arranged the effort. ZAKA, as well, sent a team of their experts to Surfside.
Chesed Shel Emes, a New York-based bereavement group, dispatched a team to assist in the kavod ha’meis needs for the niftarim. This team joins Chesed Shel Emes of Florida, led by Police Chaplain Mark Rosenberg, which now totals 25-odd members. Bal Harbour’s mayor, Gabriel Groisman, has noted that Jewish death-related customs will be honored.
One notable story of a civilian’s extreme kindness has emerged of Alex Medjuck, a Lakewood, New Jersey, resident who drove down to Surfside to set up a Pizza Biza kiosk at the family center. Pizza Biza brings chalav Yisrael and pas Yisrael pizza ovens and chefs to events, and Alex chose to give back by offering responders and family members fresh pizza.
Scenes of relatives immersed in t’filah near the collapse site have become commonplace, with one even featured on the cover of The New York Times. All are encouraged to say kapitlach 20 and 119 in T’hilim for the unaccounted.
By Shabsie Saphirstein