Surfside Disaster Hits Home
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Surfside Disaster Hits Home

Grief and relief leave local Jewish community reeling.

Aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed in Surfside, Fla. Photo by Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
Aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed in Surfside, Fla. Photo by Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Playing Jewish geography – figuring out who knows whom in the far-flung Jewish world – suddenly stopped being a game after the June 24 partial collapse of a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami, Fla., suburb of Surfside. Inevitably, the tentacles of that tragedy reached into the Atlanta Jewish community. Relatives and friends of Atlantans were among the approximately 100 killed in the overnight disaster, as well as among those who miraculously survived.

Weeks later, while not all the people thought to be in the collapsed Champlain Towers South had been accounted for, authorities reported no survivors had been found since the day of the catastrophe. The seven members of Israel Defense Forces’ National Rescue Unit, who had arrived at the site three days after the building collapsed to assist in trying to locate survivors, went home.

IDF National Rescue Unit members were thanked as they left Surfside. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP)

But the reverberations of the disaster continue to spread as the shock and loss are absorbed, both on the individual and communal level. The Jewish community is especially impacted. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Surfside is one of four cities that comprise the north end of Miami Beach, which is more than one-third Jewish. Several Jewish congregations, of all denominations, are located within blocks of the 40-year-old condo complex.

On a personal level, a number of Atlantans and former Atlantans contacted by the AJT were not yet comfortable speaking about their losses, although social media was an outlet for some. For many, grief was delayed until the unstable half of the building that remained standing could be demolished to allow rescue workers to discover more bodies.

Among those first uncovered subsequently in the piles of cement, steel and rubble were Tzvi and Ingrid “Itty” Ainsworth, 68 and 66 years old, respectively. The couple, who had moved to Florida about four years ago, are survived by seven children, many grandchildren and numerous close friends.

Rabbi Yossi New lost a friend of more than 50 years and the man’s wife.

Chabad of Cobb Rabbi Ephraim Silverman was a nephew. Although he declined to speak about his mother’s late sister, a close friend of the couple’s, Rabbi Yossi New, agreed to talk to the AJT from Sydney, Australia, where the rabbi was in quarantine for two weeks before visiting his family in Melbourne. New, who is the regional director of Chabad of Georgia and the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, had known Tzvi Ainsworth for more than 50 years. Both men were born in Australia.

“Although Tzvi was a few years older, I knew him when I was growing up,” New said. When New went to study in a yeshiva in Montreal, he contacted Ainsworth, who had married a local girl. The couple often invited New for Shabbat meals. New continued to visit the Ainsworths when they moved to Australia and later in Florida.

“I spoke to him a week before he passed away,” New recalled. Knowing that New was about to visit Australia, Tzvi had asked him for a favor, to bring back to the United States an etz chayim, wooden poles of the Torah scroll that had been written for his grandfather years ago. Ainsworth’s mother had donated the Torah to Ainsworth’s synagogue in Florida.

New noted that it took several days after the building collapsed for the Ainsworths’ bodies to be found. “It was eerie. In some of the pictures of the building, you can see their apartment. Half of it had collapsed, but in the half that was still there, you could see Tzvi’s jacket, tallis and tefillin on his chair in his office.”

The couple had just celebrated the birth of another grandchild days earlier and New said they had considered staying with one of their children the night of the condo’s collapse.

Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth bookend a wedding couple at a family celebration.

Recalling his friends, New described Tzvi as “unassuming, very loyal, a good friend and devoted to Judaism. Itty had a charismatic, outgoing and warm-hearted personality who would go out of her way to cheer people up.” Tzvi was also very devoted to his wife, who had chronic health issues. “He literally worshipped the ground she walked on.”

The international ramifications of the building collapse reflect the fact that the Jewish people live all over the world. Former Atlantan Sara Nir lived with her two children in a ground-floor condo at Champlain Towers South. The Israeli native told CNN that she had been checking her emails when she heard knocking sounds. One of her daughters was in the shower, but Nir immediately ushered her children out of the building and told them to run. The three survived.

The sister and brother-in-law of Atlantan Esther Lubel, who lived on the 10th floor of the ill-fated condo complex also survived. Betty and Jimmy Coiffman had fortunately lived in the section of the building that didn’t collapse, although was later demolished. Lubel said she awoke at 3 a.m. and saw the news about the 1:30 a.m. disaster on her telephone screen.

From that moment until 6 a.m., Lubel said she stayed on the phone with her eldest sister “to make sure she was okay.” According to Lubel, the Coiffmans were night owls and were just closing the blinds on their condo windows when they heard what sounded like a thunderstorm and the building shook. They put on their tennis shoes, got dressed and grabbed his wallet and her purse and fled.

“They went down the cracking stairs to the second floor and then to the garage where cars were flipped and there was water and rubble,” Lubel said. Rescuers helped them climb on top of cars and used a ladder to escape the crumbling building.

“Our [Columbian] parents had been visiting until the Tuesday before the disaster,” said Lubel, who had also planned to visit at the time. The Coiffmans had rented the condo just two weeks before the collapse, to be near their daughter. “Now they won’t rent anywhere near the beach,” said Lubel, who expected to visit her parents in Colombia within days.

Betty and Jimmy Coiffman soon after the condo collapse with one of their granddaughters, Yael.

Unlike Lubel’s family, the alumni of Camp Judaea mourned the loss of two of their own. In an announcement published on Facebook, the community stated, “We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of camp alumni and former camp staff Deborah Berezdivin and Ilan Naibryf, who were among the victims of the Surfside building collapse. … Deborah and Ilan were two very special young people who will always be part of the Camp Judaea family.”

The daughter of Atlanta criminal defense attorney Esther Panitch declined to be interviewed for this story about her camp friends. Miriam and her friends were in Florida at the time for a funeral. Miriam had been staying in another part of the condo complex the night of the disaster.

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