As the search and rescue operation entered its third full day on Sunday, rescue crews continued their desperate search for survivors of the collapse early Thursday morning of a 12-story oceanfront condominium in Surfside, Fla., just north of Miami Beach.

Officials said nine victims have now been found, as prayers and good deeds for the missing continued. More than 150 people remain unaccounted for.

Israel’s National Rescue Unit arrived in Miami Sunday morning to assist the emergency search and rescue efforts. There will be a special prayer service at 3 p.m. in the main sanctuary of The Shul of Bal Harbour, which has been at the epicenter of relief and comfort for the now-homeless survivors, including the injured, as well as family members flocking to the town in the hopes of a miracle.

“The families still have hope, but, obviously, as every day goes on they realize more and more the need for a great miracle,” said Rabbi Yossi Harlig, co-director of the Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest, who was helping to comfort people affected by the building collapse. Having the Israeli rescuers onsite, is a comfort because “they want to know that every stone was turned over” and everything that can be done is being done.

Harlig pointed out that one of the Israeli searchers now on scene had found, 10 years ago, a man alive in the rubble of a deadly earthquake in Haiti after more than 100 hours. “A Jew never gives up hope,” said Harlig. “On the other hand, you will also need a miracle. Continue praying.”

Sunday afternoon’s prayer service will be held in conjunction with the commemoration of the solemn fast day of 17 Tammuz. There will be special prayers for miracles and healing for all those individuals and families affected by the tragedy for the safety of the rescue teams. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” read an announcement of the event. “May Hashem [G‑d] comfort and console them at this sad time.”

The special service is only one of many activities on behalf of the victims and their loved ones since the collapse.

Search and rescue teams at the scene continue to hunt for possible survivors.
Search and rescue teams at the scene continue to hunt for possible survivors.

There are three centers of activity in Surfside. There is the site of the devastation, where search and rescue teams have been gingerly working since Thursday evening; the Family Relocation Center, which since Friday afternoon has been at the Grand Beach Hotel; and the sprawling Shul of Bal Harbour, the Miami-area Chabad-Lubavitch center opened by Rabbi Sholom and Chanie Lipskar in 1981. It was the Lipskars who founded Jewish life in the area, and the Shul has been the epicenter of the community since its inception.

In person and on national television, Lipskar has echoed the words of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—who rejected any and all explanations for tragedy. In the aftermath of a 1956 terror attack in Kfar Chabad, Israel, the Rebbe insisted that while “we should not allow ourselves to” sink into depression or helplessness, there were no words, spiritual or otherwise, that can give reason to the loss. Instead, the Rebbe pointed to the reaction of Aaron the High Priest to the death of his two sons: silence.

After the news broke around the world, the Shul became inundated with calls from fearful family and friends seeking information about their loved ones—calls that continue to pour in.

“Our emergency hotline has transferred to ... 305-868-1411,” the Shul’s homepage currently states. “If you have already left a message with names, you will be contacted with updates as they become available. If you have a new person to add to the list, please include their name, age and apartment number, as well as your contact information. ... Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. May Hashem comfort and console them at this sad time.”

Also guided by the Rebbe’s lessons is Harlig, who noted that whenever people with challenges came to speak with the Rebbe, they always felt that he was really listening to what they had to say.

“The Rebbe always taught us ahavat Yisrael (love for one’s fellow) and being with people in good times and in challenging times. [Meeting with the families] you have to stay focused on being there for them. Nothing I can say will give them comfort, but just knowing that someone is listening to what they need to say, that will.”

“You also have to be there for the police, the fire fighters, the people in rescue,” he continued. “This is a very challenging time for them because they feel like they are rescuing their own families. You want to encourage them to keep going. … Everyone may wear different uniforms, but everyone is in this together.”

The Miami Tragedy Central Emergency Fund has been created to disburse help directly to families. As of Sunday afternoon, more than $1 million had been raised.

The Shul on Collins Avenue, only a few blocks north of the disaster site. (Map: Directory)
The Shul on Collins Avenue, only a few blocks north of the disaster site. (Map: Directory)

An Outpouring of Support

The outpouring of love and support from the area can perhaps be seen nowhere more vividly than inside the Shul itself. The massive shul complex, built in 1987, is nearing completion of a $20 million expansion and stretches a block—to 125,000 square feet. As Shabbat approaches, local Jewish community members have filled it with an endless amount of items, including mattresses, tablets, board games, phone chargers, fresh and frozen food, clothing and even microwave ovens—anything and everything to make life a bit easier for those affected by the tragedy.

Both survivors and families flooding into Surfside have come in and out of the Shul for the past two days to pick up items as needed. The Red Cross has also been making use of the copious supplies stockpiled at the Shul, regularly picking up necessities for victims being housed and cared for at other sites.

The Shul has also been the base for Hatzalah emergency responders and grief counselors.

In addition to fielding calls, the Shul’s staff has been working overtime to arrange emergency housing for those displaced from their homes and for families who have been arriving in Surfside before Shabbat as the search for the missing continues.

The Shul hosted 350 people for Shabbat meals, both on site and at two nearby kosher restaurants (kosher restaurants are closed for Shabbat; they are being used as dining rooms).

Food and supplies from the Shul are also being delivered hourly to the Surfside Community Center, a municipal complex with a public pool and other amenities, where emergency services, volunteers and family members were gathering until now. All of that aid has now been directed towards the Grand Beach Hotel, where crews and volunteers are continuing to assist families looking to locate their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the Champlain Towers complex is cordoned off for blocks, and aside for the search-and-rescue teams, the only people on site are members of Chesed Shel Emes, a Jewish rescue team, and area Chabad rabbis, whose community members are among the missing.

A team of IDF search and rescue specialists arrived from Israel on Sunday to help in the effort.
A team of IDF search and rescue specialists arrived from Israel on Sunday to help in the effort.

The dozen or so Chabad rabbis at the Shul of Bal Harbour have gone from one location to another, bringing with them tefillin for prayer and warmth in their hearts.

“There isn’t anything to share,” an area Chabad rabbi said as he headed back to the site of the tragedy on Friday. “All anyone can do at this time is show empathy, to show people that they’re not alone in the world. Because that’s what this feels like for them, a terrible loneliness. We need to really be there with them.”

There is a request that Tehillim (Psalms) Chapter 20 and Chapter 119 continue to be said for those unaccounted for. The following names have been received thus far:

Ariel Leib ben Ita

Chaim ben Sarah

Devorah bat Chaya

Esther bat Linda

Frankie ben Nancy

Gavriela bat Sarah

Ilan ben Kalman

Ita bat Miriam

Jay ben Nancy

Leible ben Feiga Rivka

Leib ben Shoshana

Lein ben Ilana

Malka bat Sarah Rochel

Michoel ben Hans

Moshe ben Toba

Moshe ben Shoshana

Nancy bat Sofia

Nicole bat Andrea

Ruth bat Sarah

Sara bat Ida

Tzvi Daniel ben Yehudit

Yehuda Aryeh ben Freida Rivka

Yisroel Tzvi Yosef ben Toba