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Jewish groups scramble to help after condo collapse amid grim search for missing

Organizations raise money, help spread word about those unaccounted for after disaster at building in heavily Jewish area; Israeli group to send psychotrauma unit

Search and Rescue personnel work at a partial collapse building in Surfside, Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)
Search and Rescue personnel work at a partial collapse building in Surfside, Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

Jewish groups in the US and an Israeli rescue organization are mobilizing to aid victims of a condominium tower collapse near Miami, with several members of the Jewish community missing amid fading hopes of finding them alive.

At least one person was killed and 99 more were still missing as the sun went down on the heavily Jewish suburb of Surfside Thursday, nearly a full day after much of the 12-story building suddenly collapsed at around 1:30 a.m.

First responders have pulled 35 people from the rubble and treated 10 people on the scene with at least two transported to a nearby hospital for care, officials said in a press briefing.

Search and rescue teams are continuing to scour the mess of crushed concrete and twisted metal to look for any survivors from the 55 apartments that were in the part of the building that collapsed, though officials indicate that the death toll is expected to rise substantially.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

A spokesperson for Israel’s consulate in Miami said the Jerusalem had offered search and rescue help or other aid to local authorities, but had yet to receive an answer. Israeli search and rescue teams are often dispatched abroad to aid in missions following earthquakes and other disasters.

Illustrative: IDF soldiers search for survivors in a building that collapsed during an earthquake that struck Mexico on September 24, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

As the scope of devastation became clear Thursday, many Jewish communities across the United States sprung into action. By early morning, Jewish WhatsApp groups were buzzing with names of missing people and requests for prayers. As the day went on, names and photographs of people presumed to have died in the collapse, potentially among the deadliest structural disasters in American history, began circulating as well, with loved ones frantically searching for answers.

Chabad of South Broward said at least 34 of the people unaccounted for are Jewish, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported.

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA – JUNE 24: In this aerial view, search and rescue personnel work after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (JOE RAEDLE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside said several members of his congregation were among the missing.

“This is something that transcends our capacity for understanding,” he said on CNN. “We accept it and we have to learn, as we do in our culture, resilience and to move forward because challenges don’t hold us back.”

People look towards a 12-story beachfront condo building that partially collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP /Marta Lavandier)

COLLive, an Orthodox news site that covers the Chabad-Lubavitch community, published dozens of names on a list of people to pray for; some of the Hebrew names indicated that parents and children together were among the missing.

The Chabad at the University of Chicago announced that the president of its student board was missing along with his girlfriend, also a college student.

Fortuna Smukler posted about the disaster on Facebook, hoping that someone would know the whereabouts of Myriam Caspi Notkin and Arnie Notkin, an elderly couple who lived on the third floor.

Arnie Notkin spent years teaching physical education at a local elementary school, said Smukler, a North Miami Beach commissioner who is friends with Myriam Notkin’s daughters.

“He was such a well-liked P.E. teacher from people’s past,” she said. “Everyone’s been posting, ‘Oh my god, he was my coach.’”

“It would be a miracle if they’re found alive,” she added.

An online fundraiser launched by The Shul of Bal Harbour, located a mile north of the collapsed building, had raised $240,000 from more than 2,000 donors within hours. That synagogue and another nearby Chabad also put out calls for toiletries, blankets and toys that could be distributed to survivors. Meanwhile, kosher restaurants in the area distributed food to first responders and to those who were displaced from the portion of the building that had not collapsed.

A couple embrace as they wait for news of survivors from a condominium that collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. Dozens of survivors were pulled out, and rescuers continue to look for more. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation launched a campaign to aid the victims, setting up an emergency fund to assist with immediate as well as long-term needs.

“Be part of the Jewish community’s response,” the federation said in a mass email. “Help those affected by the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, FL.”

In Israel, United Hatzalah said it was working with El Al to dispatch a psychotrauma and crisis response unit to help relatives of victims, neighbors, community members and others cope with the tragedy.

“As soon as the collapse occurred, we began making preparations for the mission to depart,” said United Hatzalah President Eli Beer said in a statement. “They will be there as soon as regulations permit us to arrive.”

Hatzalah of South Florida was among the organizations helping with rescue efforts at the scene of the collapse.

“It’s been a rough day,” Michael Strongin, one of 30 Hatzalah volunteers at the site, told the Sun-Sentinel.

Rescue worker walk among the rubble where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP/Lynne Sladky)

At a nearby community center, family members of those missing in the Florida apartment building collapse waited in anguish for news of loved ones as volunteers provided water, coffee, lunches, and clothes, as well as emotional support.

Some were seated and motionless; others sobbed.

More than a thousand people have passed through the community center, said Ron Ben Hayoun, a 22-year-old volunteer and north Miami resident who had returned to his childhood neighborhood to help.

In this city with a large Jewish community, “we try to help everyone, we are not exclusive.”

“It’s pretty shocking. people are very emotional,” said the young man, who had recently returned from a stint in the Israel Defense Forces.

People lie on cots as they wait for news at a family reunification center, after a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP/Lynne Sladky)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he had spoken to the local Israeli consul and the head of the local Jewish Federation to offer support.

“Foreign Ministry staff in Miami and Israel are doing everything they can to help those on the ground, the wounded and the families. It is a difficult and complex event and it will take time to deal with it. We are at their disposal for any assistance they may need,” Lapid said in a Foreign Ministry statement.

Though the cause is as yet unknown, local officials are beginning to address how this could have happened.

“This was not an act of God,” Surfside Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told USA Today. “This was not a natural disaster. Buildings don’t just fall.”

Jacob Magid, AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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