It’s not a good day when your town becomes synonymous with a disaster. The small but bustling town of Surfside is still reeling with the shock and pain resulting from the Champlain Towers collapse. Surfside has been the headquarters of the Aleph Institute ever since its inception, in 1981. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, Aleph’s Founder, has been the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s representative to the area, and is a singular figure responsible for the incredible growth of Judaism in the town – exploding beyond the “no Jews allowed” laws in the area to the vibrant community it is today.
As the senior rabbinic figure in the area, Rabbi Lipskar was on-site almost immediately, and has kept his presence active almost indefatigably – despite being in his late 70’s. Rabbi Lipskar has served as a trusted counselor for private individuals as well as government officials dealing with the disaster, organizer of aid and support for the survivors, and tragically, has been called upon to break the news of loss to many families, as well as officiate at funerals.
Rabbi Lipskar asked his Aleph military chaplains to keep his community in mind for prayer, with a letter reading: “With the tragedy of the Champlain Towers still unfolding just down the street from our headquarters in Surfside, its impact is being felt throughout our community. I would therefore like to ask all of you and your communities to mention us in prayer on this Shabbos; by saying Tehillim chapter 121 in the merit of those who have yet to be found, Tehillim chapter 23 in honor of the families who are suffering terribly, and, on an occasion after Shabbos, Keil Molei Rachamim in memory of the deceased. Your prayers will certainly arouse Heavenly mercy as we ask Hashem to end this bitter exile and bring consolation to us all, with the coming of Moshiach speedily.”
Aleph’s in-house headquarters staff has also been available to the survivors and families over the weeks. Rabbi Mendy Katz, outreach director, and Ch, Capt Elie Estrin, military personnel liaison, both spent time with families, encouraging, comforting and supporting.
Local Jewish military members and veterans stepped up in a huge way – both with physical effort as well as with a spiritual project. Former SPC Chaim Hertzel was onsite as a volunteer medic, while former 35th U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition gold winner SPC Danny Arshadnia helped build and provide a kosher food center at the community center, spending up to 18 hours a day cooking for survivors and first responders. Navy doc LCDR Zev Neuwirth (USNR) likewise arrived at the Champlain Towers in the early hours after the collapse, ready to assist first responders and relatives of the missing in any way he could.
“You have an overwhelming desire to jump in on hands and knees and start picking up concrete,” he told Tabletmag.com, “to jump on the pile and find any sign of life.” But the only thing he could do was say baruch dayan haemes, blessed is the true Judge. He wrote prescriptions for those whose medications were now stuck inside the ruins and treated survivors who hadn’t realized they’d suffered a serious injury until hours later, after the adrenaline spike of the initial disaster wore off.
But his firsthand view of the tragedy led him to a project very close to his heart: the commissioning of a Torah scroll written in memory of the victims. LCDR Neuwirth noted that the namesake dedication on the Torah will be his own mother, Devorie Neuwirth, who wrote the Response & Dispatching Protocols for the worldwide volunteer Jewish first-response organization Hatzalah. She also served as a Hatzalah emergency dispatcher for many years. Hatzalah has been on-site at the building collapse, implementing an advanced forward medical treatment facility at the site, while providing around the-clock emergency medical care to all recovery personnel and support towards the ongoing recovery efforts.
The writing of the Sefer Torah was initiated on July 6, 2021. The scribe will be reciting all the names of the lost and missing victims of the tragedy daily upon as he continues writing the Torah. The completed Torah will be kept in The Shul of Bal Harbour, where it will be routinely used at The Shul, but also used wherever Hatzalah volunteers would be deployed for large scale emergencies.
It is the fervent wish of all that the families find consolation from their devastating losses, and may our community never know tragedy again.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.