The disaster has rocked Surfside’s Jewish community, a cohesive and interconnected group mirrored in just a few places in the United States.
“It’s three degrees of separation,” said Surfside resident Leon Weinschneider. “Everybody here is pretty close, Jew and gentile alike.”
Casualties have been disproportionately Jewish because about a third of Surfside residents are Jewish.
According to Ira Sheskin, a professor in the geography department at the University of Miami who has done 50 demographic studies of U.S. Jewish communities, the four towns that make up the North Beach Zip code 33154 (Surfside, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands and tiny Indian Creek) have a total population of about 14,600, of which 5,000 are Jewish. He says 34 percent of that number describe themselves as Orthodox, 24 percent as Conservative, 18 percent as Reform and 24 percent as “just Jewish.”
“Only between 2 and 3 percent of Americans are Jewish,” Sheskin said, “and nationally only 9 percent of Jews are Orthodox, so 34 percent is a very high figure.”
Some of this, he said, is because of chain migration, the process by which migrants from a particular place follow others from that place to a new destination: Sheskin says 30 percent of the area’s Jews are Hispanic, most from Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.
But this is just part of the story.
When his family was relocating to South Florida in 1996, Leon Weinschneider knew he wanted to be within walking distance of a synagogue.
In Surfside, a town of about 5,600, he found a home right across the street from one. The oceanside community is home to more than 10 kosher restaurants, six synagogues and a kosher grocery store all within a few walkable blocks. Its community center, a beachfront facility with a water park, has kosher food service.
“It’s utopia here,” said Weinschneider, a real estate agent who is Orthodox. “It’s a garden of Eden.”
The walkability is crucial for religious Jews, who abstain from work and technology from sundown Friday to after dark on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest called Shabbat. They avoid activities including handling money, preparing food, using electrical switches and driving.
Surfside is built to accommodate those practices, with restaurants serving Shabbat meals prepared and paid for in advance. Multiple buildings are equipped with elevators that operate automatically, allowing for their use without electrical switches.
And for Orthodox Jews who want to leave their homes on the Sabbath, there is something called an Eruv, a ring of string that demarcates a neighborhood and represents a symbolic extension of the home. The Eruv in Bal Harbour includes a walking path in Surfside where Orthodox Jews can carry things on the Sabbath.
In short, said Sheskin, “there’s the Orthodox infrastructure.”
Perhaps the most important piece of this is the residents themselves, many of whom live in high-rise condos and apartments. Sixty percent of Jewish people in that Zip code live in buildings five stories or more — a fact that augurs greater connectedness and interdependence.
“You see people on the elevator, you know your neighbors,” Sheskin said.
This was evident in the hours just after the collapse. Surfside resident Marie Hamaoui, a physics teacher at Stanford University’s Online High School, awoke at 4 a.m. June 24 to the sound of helicopters.
“I texted Bianca Senker, the president of the sisterhood at Young Israel of Bal Harbour, [one of Surfside’s Orthodox synagogues], and they had already started to make lists and establish chats to make it easy to spread news,” she said.
Since then, Hamaoui has worked at the community center sorting and organizing donations of food and clothing. Orthodox women who escaped the collapse or were evacuated from their homes were in their nightgowns and not wearing their wigs or headscarves — they do not show their hair in public — so even these intimate needs have been met by donations.
The area’s young people have also banded together. About a week before the collapse, Svia Bension, Efraim Stefansky and Zushi Litkowski — who met through the Shul of Bal Harbour — had started a young professionals organization called EZS Events. A group chat of members began lighting up within minutes of the building’s collapse.
“We were seeing what we can do to get people to wake up, get people involved,” said Litkowski. Soon, their organization had a completely different mission than what they’d imagined just days earlier, when they focused on planning Shabbat meals and other social events.
Working with Hatzalah of South Florida, an organization many call “the Jewish 911,” they launched a fund for those affected, miamitragedyfund.com, which pulled in $1.2 million in its first week. They worked almost around-the-clock, sleeping only a couple of hours a night and gathering for midnight meetings at a hotel where survivors have been staying.
From the shul, they’ve helped distribute food, clothing and necessities to the building’s residents — including special religious items needed by some in the Jewish community.
“It broke all of us,” Bension said of the collapse.
“Everybody knows somebody in that building,” added Litkowski, whose cousins were among those who escaped. Among the donations to the fund, multiples of one figure keeps popping up: 18. Each letter has a numerical value in Hebrew, and 18 is the numerical value for life, Bension noted: “Eighteen means life.”
“We believe in living, we believe in the future, we believe [that] the next day is going to be better,” Stefansky said.
Sheskin says 29 percent of those in the Surfside Zip code are 65 and older, and many rely on medications. Joseph Dahan, who grew up in Miami and now lives in Aventura, is the co-founder of Hatzalah of South Florida, the volunteer emergency medical service organization mostly serving areas with Jewish communities around the world. He says his organization has been on the scene since the very beginning, working alongside Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
He said his team quickly became aware that displaced people had left their medications behind. He realized this would likely create additional emergencies if not addressed quickly, so the team brought in two doctors to get survivors the prescription refills they needed.
The pharmacists at Publix pharmacy agreed to help too. The “pharmacists said just bring them in and we’ll process them as fast as possible,” Dahan said. “We wrote several hundred prescriptions and turned them over to Publix.”
He says Publix took them and was ready to give steeply discounted prices at which point the Israeli Consulate swooped in to foot the bill.
Dahan and his team also put together a “task force” to connect survivors with their medication. He says they rounded up volunteers and cars and began chasing down patients and delivering their prescriptions.
“Whenever tragedy happens, it brings the bond of family unity together,” Weinschneider said. “You thank God you have each other.”
His grown daughter, Blima Friedman, said she recognized her high school math teacher among those missing from the building. She had struggled with how to answer her 9-year-old child’s questions about the tragedy unfolding blocks away.
“I asked my sister first,” Friedman said. “I’m like, ‘What do I say?’ She said, ‘Just tell him there was an accident that happened in a building and some people got hurt.’ “I said that to him. He said, ‘Did anybody die?’ ”
At synagogue in the days since, Weinschneider has said prayers for the people affected by the collapse. He has not been near the fenced-off perimeter around the site.
“It’s something that unless it happened to you personally you can’t begin to fathom the pain,” he said.