Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Israel Rescuers delegation gather upon their arrival in the area near the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in the city of Surfside, Florida, on June 27, 2021.Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
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The IDF Arrives in Surfside

Israeli rescuers are helping alleviate the suffering in Miami, showing that Jews can still resemble a family.

by
Armin Rosen
July 01, 2021
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Israel Rescuers delegation gather upon their arrival in the area near the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in the city of Surfside, Florida, on June 27, 2021.Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday, less than three days after the north side of the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Fl., collapsed, Telemundo released a video of a tense standoff between the mother of a missing 26-year-old woman and Florida governor Ron DeSantis during a closed-door briefing for families of those still missing. Ongoing fires and the instability of the surviving structure had slowed rescue efforts, leading to a toxic feedback loop of unknowing: The families, caught in a terrifying rupture in reality and starved for information about their loved ones, reached the natural and painfully human conclusion that not enough was being done.

Frustration boiled during the early days of the catastrophe, but there were many ways that this was expressed. But in her confrontation with DeSantis, the mother articulated a somewhat unexpected criteria for proving that every means of rescue was in fact being exhausted. “I was promised yesterday, and everybody else was promised, that the Israelis would be allowed in and that they are here,” she pleaded. “I have inside information they are not here and they are not working. Governor, it’s in your control, as I understand. You promised us and they’re not here.”

On Sunday morning, the Israelis arrived—a small team consisting of the top brass of the Israel Defense Force’s Homefront Command, including two colonels. They joined a psycho-trauma unit from Israel-based United Hatzalah, and paramedics from Magen David Adom and Zaka who had also traveled to Miami from the Middle East. “They [the families] said, now stuff is getting done,” an Israeli who had been working with the families recalled to me. “I thought, wait, things were already getting done!”

As Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, Israel’s Consul General in Miami, told me, “It’s not that we’re coming and running the scene and we’re these big guys who save the world,” adding, “We’re not here to save America. We’re here to show support, solidarity. America would have done exactly the same.” Elbaz-Starinsky said he hadn’t left Surfside since last Thursday morning, and had stolen a few hours of sleep in his car on some nights.

The IDF team has been an object of special fascination. On Wednesday, in a tented and muddy press area with a weird resemblance to a county fairground, media swarmed Elad Edri, a close-shaven and unflinchingly calm IDF colonel clutching a yellow hard-hat, angling for quotes even while DeSantis was speaking less than 100 feet away. “Oh yeah, Elad’s way more interesting than the governor,” Dovie Maisel, the leader of the Israeli United Hatzalah team told me, probably accurately.

Edri is not working on the pile—the pictures of olive-clad rescuers crouched over concrete are not of him. Rather, his job is to interact with family members, in order to obtain information that could help locate and identify the missing. “You have to give them the chance to be a part of the operation,” Edri explained. “They are really taking an active part in what we do, in our actions. We don’t send the rescue teams before we get the right information that we need from the families.”

Edri’s job is as sensitive as the one his colleagues at the Champlain Towers are charged with, and it might go an even longer way toward explaining what the Israelis are doing here, and why their mere presence helped calm a combustible situation. The tragedy is also unfolding away from the pile, at the Sea View Hotel in Bal Harbour where the families are currently gathered, beyond the view of the media and among the people whose loved ones are somewhere in the morass of concrete. The Israelis are here for the living, and in the story of how and why they got to Surfside, it’s possible to truly appreciate the breadth of the tragedy in South Florida, as well as how its living victims might begin to heal.

That the Israeli visitors have succeeded in alleviating anyone’s suffering shows what the Jewish state can mean to people thousands of miles away during the worst moment of their lives. Just weeks after an 11-day conflict with Hamas that raised fresh anxieties over a schism between Israel and the diaspora, the tragedy in Surfside shows that the connections between American Jews and the Jewish state are not merely political and go beyond the strictly rational. The bonds are resilient in ways that perhaps only a crisis can fully surface. In moments of need, all other contexts retreat into the background, and the Jews can still resemble a family.

The tragedy in Surfside shows that the connections between American Jews and the Jewish state are not merely political and go beyond the strictly rational.

When Baruch Sandhaus arrived at the Champlain Towers minutes after the collapse, he witnessed a dreadful reprise of something he had seen before, nearly twenty years earlier, as one of the first Hatzalah paramedics to arrive at the site of the World Trade Center on September 11, not long before the second plane hit: “A lot of debris on the ground, clouds of ash, layers on the road and on cars.” Sandhaus, an owner of a medical concierge service who left New York for Miami in 2005, is one of three co-founders of the all-volunteer Hatzalah of South Florida, and he coordinated the first on-site triage in Surfside in the early hours late last Thursday morning.

It was the human element of the tragedy that soon proved most challenging. Friday’s briefing for family members of the missing was widely seen as disastrous, with the authorities, however well-meaning, providing little in the way of useful information. They faced tearful inquiries about why so few rescuers appeared to be on the scene—even though the rubble was still on fire and the full collapse of the rest of the building was a distinct possibility. “On Friday, the temperature started getting hotter,” Sandhaus recalled. Family members wandered the second floor of the Grand Beach hotel all night—hardly anyone could sleep. The Florida Hatzalah team turned to what seemed like the only solution, which ended up being the correct solution. They walked to The Shul, the Chabad complex in the heart of Bal Harbour, and got Rabbi Sholom Lipskar out of bed at 1am on Saturday. The rabbi, who is in his late 70s, and who nearly died of covid last year, asked to be taken to the scene of the disaster, to see where several of his congregants were trapped.

Lipskar was sent to south Florida by the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Many credit Lipskar for the existence of a Jewish community in what had been seen as an unfriendly section of Miami Beach well into the 1980s (“Jews like to go where they tell us we can’t go,” said Zushie Litkowski, a longtime Bal Harbour resident and a post-disaster volunteer and fundraising organizer). Lipskar seldom smiles but is never angry, and he has seemingly inexhaustible stores of energy and focus. He exhibits little physical or emotional strain beneath his glasses and white beard, but is far from unfeeling, and in recent days he’s proven capable of shouldering impossible psychic, organizational, and spiritual burdens without appearing overwhelmed.

Early Saturday morning, Lipskar walked the perimeter of the site and talked to first responders. “I was shoving chairs under him to get him to sit down—he didn’t want to,” said Sandhaus, who estimated that the rabbi was on his feet for over four hours of his five hour visit. The site was far from safe. “Fires were still raging when we were there.” But Lipskar had a very specific mission in mind. As Sandhaus put it, “He wanted to be able to look the community in the eye to say to them definitively: All efforts are being done.” He left the site at 7:30am, to arrive back at The Shul in time for Shabbat morning services.

According to Sandhaus, Lipskar went to the site in part to assess whether the presence of an Israeli team would help the situation. He decided it would. Such is Lipskar’s status, Sandhaus said, that he “wasn’t gonna pull the trigger until [Lipskar] thought it was warranted.”

Hatzalah in South Florida contacted Magen David Adom in Israel, which maintains a close relationship with IDF Homefront Command, the branch of the army responsible for various forms of population management during a national emergency, with a mandate ranging from traffic control to urban search and rescue to earthquake preparation. As the Haaretz journalist Anschel Pfeffer once put it, the IDF, for all its flaws, and whatever else it might be, is the largest Jewish organization in the world. Nachman Shai, the minister for Diaspora Affairs and the highest-ranking Israeli official in Surfside this week, evoked the closeness of the Jewish world—and thus the unusually global reach of what could seem like local troubles—this way: “It’s important for Jews in the diaspora to know that we care for them and that we will come any time they need us.” In the official Israeli view, and in the view of many American Jews—including some in unimaginable distress in Surfside—the Jewish backyard extends for thousands of miles, meaning that every crisis is inevitably an intimate one, and that there is comfort to be had from people on the other side of the world feeling some responsibility for your pain.

Hatzalah in Florida made it clear that the IDF team would have to arrive immediately—such was the situation that there was almost no point in sending them if they couldn’t be in Miami by Sunday morning. The Israelis grasped the urgency. The IDF group was approved and mobilized in roughly two hours. The process of getting them to Miami began at around 5:30pm Israel time, and they were on a plane around midnight. They went straight from the airport to the pile.

I spoke to Sandhaus on Monday, in a Hatzalah van parked in front of the Grand Beach Hotel. He would look out the driver-side window and take long drags on a vape pen. Like nearly everyone I’ve met this week, he seemed a stray thought or two away from tears. In the midst of our conversation, we were suddenly boxed in by a city bus, which had arrived to transport families of the missing to the Sea View, the new briefing venue. A group of them walked right in front of us, their faces fixed in disembodying shock. It had rained nearly all day—nature wouldn’t relent for them.

“They’re still in the mindset of: They’re gonna find somebody,” Sandhaus said of the searchers six blocks south of us. “They’re in that mindset that they’re still gonna find that one person.”

Of all the unanswerable questions that the Surfside catastrophe poses, a good number stray into the realm of the practical. What possible comfort can the survivors and families feel right now? Could anything meaningfully lessen their suffering? On Sunday, groups of family members began visiting the site of the collapse, a partially successful test of one possible response to those dilemmas. The visitors shouted names and screamed goodbyes. But seeing the Israelis work on the pile, Sandhaus said, “provided them a sense of comfort.”

“In the first five minutes there were a lot of emotions and crying,” Yossi Harlig, a Miami police chaplain and a Chabad rabbi in Kendall, south of Miami, said. “But as the hour went on, you saw a sort of calmness. People started praying. We put on tefillin with people. And the reason is people felt they had another opportunity to be close to their loved one.”

Part of the Israeli theory of trauma reduction is that those at risk must be kept occupied. As United Hatzalah therapist Hadas Rucham explained to me, one of the group’s trauma protocols could be summed up in a single Hebrew world: ma’ase, which can mean either “make,” or “do.” “When people are stressed, make them do things. Make them be active.” The IDF’s presence could be thought of as part of the healing process: Describing the layout of an apartment, or a distinguishing physical feature or piece of jewelry or clothing to Edri or one of his colleagues is an activity that assuages one’s sense of helplessness, restoring some basic sense of agency and purpose in a world that’s suddenly lost all logic. On Tuesday afternoon, Elbaz-Starinsky estimated that 80 percent of the families, Jewish and non-Jewish, had talked to the IDF team.

Rucham works at the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, and is a national dispatcher for United Hatzalah’s psycho-trauma team in Israel, determining where the unit’s 500 volunteers are most needed. In October of 2018, she was with a Hatzalah team from Israel that traveled to Pittsburgh to offer support after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

“In Pittsburgh they needed their security back, especially the children,” she recalled. The Jews needed to regain a lost sense of comfort within an environment that suddenly became destabilized, even threatening. “Here the need is mostly for information... when people have information they can cope. Without information they feel helpless, like nobody knows them, nobody sees them.”

The need to establish some basic certainty in the midst of a ceaseless horror extends beyond the families. Much of the community feels that need, and felt it from the moment they heard the news of the tower’s collapse. For many, the answer to uncertainty was action. At 2:30am last Thursday, about 80 minutes after the disaster, Zushie Litkowski and Svia Bension, both in their mid-30s, were already on the phone with a third friend, Efraim Stefansky, planning a relief fund, which launched about an hour later. The effort now has the support of Hatzalah of South Florida and The Shul, and its total now stands at over $1.3 million. On Wednesday, Bension was helping to coordinate a team that has grown to 250 volunteers, who are delivering items and sorting through donations. Both Bension and Litkowski say they’ve gotten two to three hours of sleep each night since the collapse. “More and more volunteers started to come in,” Bension recalled of the early hours of the crisis. “Someone asked, are you in charge? I said yeah, sure, why not.”

The Israelis are bringing their Israeliness.

Bension served for six years as an officer in Magav, the IDF’s border patrol unit, where she spent time as a SWAT team squad leader. She moved to Florida from New York last November. Israelis are unavoidable on the north end of Miami Beach, which would be the case if United Hatzalah, Magen David Adom, and the IDF had never traveled here. At the Bal Harbour Publix, a man shouted into a phone in Hebrew while he loaded ice into a golf cart; at the media tent, someone in a Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue uniform conversed with officers from the IDF team in the visitors’ native tongue. One of the leaders of Yedidim, a volunteer group that has been ubiquitous across Surfside, is an Israeli who arrived in Florida 18 years ago.

“The Israelis are bringing their Israeliness,” Elbaz-Starinsky said of the teams that had arrived in Miami. But the Israelis have been bringing their Israeliness to Miami for a while now. This week, Surfside and Bal Harbor have been an image of a Jewish world where the psychic distances were getting shorter and where Israel and the diaspora were direct extensions of each other rather than opposite poles, for reasons running far deeper than the political or religious climate in either context. Perhaps that would have been the case even if the tower were still standing, and the local Israeli-Americans hadn’t needed to snap into crisis mode, a condition that their native country had mastered through hard necessity.

The IDF is expected to stay in Florida through the middle of next week. No one can predict how long it will take to clear the rubble at the Champlain Towers. Residents speculate darkly about a weeks-long process, or about funerals being held every day for a month. Donated items are being moved out of The Shul, both because the synagogue’s day camp for children started this week and because the space will likely have to be used for shiva calls, though no one knows when those will begin.

It is the unknowing that still marks this tragedy, just as it did a week ago. Sandhaus recalled that during one of the family visits to the site, a relative of the missing came up to him and asked, “‘Be honest: Will I have something, anything to bury—a finger, anything?’ I did not know what to say.” Then a dog on the pile started barking. “I said, these dogs only bark when they sniff something. That’s your answer. It gave him comfort to know there’s hope. All he wanted was something to be able to bury.”

The worst possible form of closure constitutes hope in Surfside now, where 147 people remain unaccounted for, but the power of having a definite answer—along with the certainty of some basic final solace—should never be underestimated. Moments before I spoke with Rabbi Harlig, who wore a badge identifying himself as a police chaplain, a man approached him and another officer, and “opened a yellow envelope, and took out a picture of him and his son,” Harlig recalled. “He said, ‘I want to let you know that my son was in the building. And yesterday they notified me that they found my son. And he gives us a hug and says: Thank you so much for bringing back my son so that I could bury him.’”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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