As of Monday afternoon, there were 150 people – over 50 of them Jewish – still listed as unaccounted for in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida. As the search under the implacable, sodden pile of rubble dragged on into a fifth day, turning up only scattered remains and more bodies that brought the death toll up to 11, the families have grown increasingly frustrated and despondent.
Israel’s Minister of the Diaspora Nachman Shai, who visited with family members of the missing on Sunday afternoon, brought a top search and rescue team, some words of hope — and a dose of realism.
“I saw the relatives in shul, and it was heartbreaking,” Shai told the Forward. “I will never forget this. I tried to comfort them, to tell them that our Jewish history tells us to never lose hope. That miracles still happen once in a while. But deep in my heart I know it’s over, and I feel so sorry.”
When he was sworn in as Israel’s new Minister of the Diaspora two weeks ago, Shai said that the flow of help between Israel and the Jews around the world needed to go both ways. This weekend, Shai put those words into action, arriving Sunday in Surfside with an expert search and rescue team from Israel’s Central Command and a promise from Israel’s top leadership to do everything they could for the traumatized community.
“It’s time to give,” Shai said. “It’s about the Miami Jewish community and the Jewish community in Florida and the American people as a whole. If there is a chance where we can reciprocate what America has done for us for so many years, this is the time.”
The 10-member team, which includes engineers as well as search and rescue experts, has experience in over two dozen other disaster relief missions, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Shai said they would be here as long as they were needed, and would be joined by five more team members this week, followed by trauma counselors and whatever else the community needs.
“It’s not over,” he said. “We are going to extend any kind of help our friends need, on the site digging for remains and also psychological support for the families and the entire community.”
Since arriving in Miami on Sunday morning, Shai has toured the site of the disaster, and met with multiple representatives from the Jewish community, and officials including Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senator Rick Scott (with a call to Senator Marco Rubio), and other politicians. He also met with Rabbi Sholom Lipskar at The Shul of Bal Harbour, the Orthodox synagogue which has been at the center of the Jewish community’s response.
“We are ready to respond to any demand,” Shai said. “I told them how important this is to us. I kept saying, tell us what we can do for you, and we will do it.”
Greater Miami Jewish Federation president and chief executive officer Jacob Solomon said he and Federation senior staff met with Shai at the site of the disaster on Sunday afternoon, when the minister spoke about the importance of the ties between Israel and American Jews.
“We in Miami have always felt that the relationship already goes both ways,” Solomon said in an email. There is something very compelling —and very Jewish — to acknowledge with pride that we depend on each other. That’s what family is all about.”
Shai’s message is backed by new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other top Israeli leaders. On Friday morning, one day after of the collapse, he spoke with Bennett, who gave his go-ahead, along with Foreign Minister Benny Gantz and the Defense Minister Yair Lapid. By Saturday night Shai and the rescue team were in the air.
A member of the Israeli Knesset for ten years, for both the Labor and the now dissolved Kadima party, Shai, 74, has long worked to improve Israel’s ties with the diaspora, particularly in the United States. He has pushed for greater acceptance of all Jewish groups and denominations, and warned that intolerant Israeli religious policies are alienating non-Orthodox Jews. During the ceremony inaugurating him as Diaspora Minister, Shai said most Israelis “don’t understand how important the bridge to the Jewish world is,” according to Haaretz.
The fighting between Israel and Gaza this spring, when Israel responded to Hamas bombs that killed 13 Israelis with airstrikes that destroyed hundreds of buildings in Gaza and killed over 200 Palestinians, including 66 children, prompted unprecedented levels of criticism in America and new support for Palestinian rights. Now the Israeli humanitarian mission to help with the Surfside disaster, which has drawn attention and sympathy from around the world, will show Israel’s humane side under a new government.
“The same military that responded to terror attacks from Gaza, this same army is now sending its best and most experienced rescue team to America,” Shai said.
Israel’s long experience with terrorism and bomb attacks has made its agencies expert at dealing with destroyed buildings and psychological distress.
“We have unique experience dealing with a civilian population under trauma,” Shai said. “We have the right people to come and treat people who are suffering. I am not a psychologist, but I have no doubt that this community needs post-traumatic treatment. If there’s someone in the world who can help, it is Israel.”
Jordan Levin has been writing about Miami since the early 90’s, including 18 years at the Miami Herald.
‘It’s time to give’ — Israeli rescue team arrives in Miami to help in Surfside condo collapse