Florida Jewish community prays for miracles after condo collapse
Local rabbi says 'circumstances are very, very grim,' adds that as bodies start being identified community can expect a very difficult week ahead
SURFSIDE, Florida (AP) — Numerous members of an Orthodox synagogue are among those missing after the collapse of a seaside condominium tower in Surfside, Florida. The town is home to a large Jewish community, where the families often crowd the sidewalks before sunset as they walk to services for the Sabbath.
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, the founder of the Shul of Bal Harbour, said that his community is praying for miracles as rescue teams on Friday continued to search for survivors among the rubble of the 12-story Champlain Towers South.
“It definitely needs miracles … because the circumstances are very, very grim,” said Lipskar, who is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to the area.
Lipskar could not say exactly how many members of his congregation were missing. But he said that many members of Surfside’s Jewish community were unaccounted for.
“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.”
The Shul is located about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) north of the building that collapsed early Thursday morning, killing at least four people. Officials said Friday that 159 people are still unaccounted for.
Lipskar said the Jewish Sabbath would provide his congregation with a “moment of respite” to take a “deep breath” and gather strength as bodies begin to be recovered and identified.
“This is going to be a very tough week,” he said. “They just started to pull out bodies. Unfortunately, the first bodies that they took out, they were unable to identify.”
According to Jewish custom, true virtue, or “Chesed Shel Emes,” means the entire body and all its parts, including limbs, blood and tissue, must be collected for burial.
Bodies are also not allowed to be left overnight or exposed in the open because the body is considered to be made in “the image of God, so if you disrespect the body, in a way you’re showing disrespect to God,” said David Rose, international director of Zaka, an Israeli-based rescue and recovery organization.
His volunteer organization specializes in this painstaking work of collecting the entire body, a seemingly impossible task in disasters with mass casualties.
“Usually when a person is killed, unless it’s an explosion, the body is complete,” Rose said.
With mass casualty disasters like Thursday’s collapse, they will make every effort to piece together the entire body, using DNA samples for blood and tissue, carefully collecting it from the concrete and other surfaces. In some cases, however, certain parts may not be matched to the deceased.
“Everything gets collected and everything gets buried. It might not be with the person it belongs to, but that’s the most important thing — that it gets buried,” said Rose, whose organization has trained teams across the world on the process.
He said there are likely teams in South Florida that that are experienced in the process due to the area’s large Jewish population.
The Shul’s “8777 Collins Avenue Relief Fund” has raised more than $500,000 for families of the victims. Lipskar said his synagogue aims to raise $1 million for housing and other expenses.
Lipskar also said that he had an “excellent” meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who visited the Shul of Bal Harbour on Friday afternoon, and that DeSantis contributed $5,000 to the synagogue’s relief effort. Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting.
Lipskar said he plans to tell his congregation during Friday evening’s service to continue to be kind and “to awaken their spirituality.”
“That’s the only thing that works during these times,” he said. “The brain doesn’t work; the heart doesn’t work. It’s only the spirit that continues to have existence and continuity.”