Elderly Jewish couple confirmed dead in Miami building collapse

Leon Oliwkowicz and Cristina Beatriz (Rus) de Oliwkowicz were natives of Venezuela, are remembered for their generosity

Leon Oliwkowicz carries a Torah scroll at a dedication ceremony in Chicago in 2019. (Courtesy Chabad)
Leon Oliwkowicz carries a Torah scroll at a dedication ceremony in Chicago in 2019. (Courtesy Chabad)

A Jewish elderly couple was confirmed to be among those killed in the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, last week.

The bodies of Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife Cristina Beatriz (Rus) de Oliwkowicz, 74, were recovered by rescue workers on Sunday and identified later that night. The couple was laid to rest in a traditional Jewish ceremony on Monday.

The couple, natives of Venezuela, had lived on the 8th floor of the condo tower for several years, according to Venezuelan journalist Shirley Varnagy, a close friend of their family.

They had sent their children to live in the US from Venezuela, and then joined them as the economic and political crisis worsened in their native country, said Rabbi Moshe Perlstein, dean of the Yeshivas Ohr Eliyahu-Lubavitch Mesivta, an Orthodox Jewish School in Chicago where one of their daughters, Leah Fouhal, works as an office manager.

Perlstein flew to Florida to support Fouhal after the disaster as she waited anxiously to learn her parents’ fate. Late Sunday, authorities announced that their bodies had been recovered.

“On Friday, she was there and she was 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,” he said.

“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 said as he prepared for their funeral on Monday.

People visit the makeshift memorial for the victims of the building collapse, near the site of the accident in Surfside, Florida, north of Miami Beach on June 27, 2021.(CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

Perlstein said the couple was 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.”

At the 2019 procession to celebrate the Sefer Torah, according to Chabad, Oliwkowicz spoke in Yiddish and expressed “his satisfaction at finally having the opportunity to commission a Torah scroll in memory of his parents.”

So far, 11 people have been confirmed dead and 150 are still missing following the collapse of the 12-story condo building in Surfside, Florida, just outside Miami early Thursday morning.

Jewish faithful pray at the Shul of Bal Harbour after members of the community were reported missing in the partial collapse of a 12-story beachfront condo, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

On Monday, authorities said they also recovered the remains of Frankie Kleiman, 55, who had recently gotten married, and Michael David Altman, 50. Frankie’s wife, Ana Ortiz, and her son, Luis Bermudez, both from Puerto Rico, were both confirmed dead on Sunday. Kleiman’s brother, Jay Kleiman, and their mother Nancy Kress Levin, are still among the missing.

Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, the founder of the Shul of Bal Harbour, said many members of his community remain unaccounted for following the collapse.

“The circumstances are very, very grim,” said Lipskar. “It’s a very large group of people, unfortunately,” he said. “From the synagogue, everybody knows somebody. It’s like one big community, so [there were] a lot of people that lived in that building.”

A delegation from the IDF Home Front Command arrived in Florida on Sunday to help aid in the search and rescue efforts. Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, who accompanied the delegation, is returning to Israel on Tuesday after meeting with officials and bereaved family members.

“While I wish I was here with you for happier times, real friends show up for each other every day,” Shai told a group of local rabbis on Tuesday. “We’re here for our Jewish friends and every human being affected by this tragedy.”

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