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Home US In Surfside, Age-Old Jewish Traditions Bring Comfort Amid Grief

In Surfside, Age-Old Jewish Traditions Bring Comfort Amid Grief

For 18 long days in Florida, the Spiegel family waited for news of their beloved matriarch, Judy. With her husband traveling for work, she had been home alone on the sixth floor of Champlain Towers South when the building collapsed on the night of June 23.

In Jewish tradition, the period between a person’s death and burial is known as aninut. It is a state of intense grief and limbo, when survivors have lost their beloved but are not yet formally designated as mourners.

Aninut is intended to be brief. Burials and funerals take place as quickly as possible, ideally within 24 hours. But the Spiegel family was forced to wait what seemed like an eternity after the collapse. As rescue crews combed the site for signs of life, Ms. Spiegel’s husband and three children tried to stay hopeful. She was the “keeper of the family,” her daughter, Rachel, recalled recently; they had not imagined their lives without her. They were not yet mourners.

The seafront community of Surfside has had a robust Orthodox Jewish community for decades. Many of the 98 victims of the condominium collapse were Jewish, including Estelle Hedaya, the final victim to be recovered, whose remains were identified on July 26. But the brute facts of the tower’s collapse made many Jewish laws and customs about preparing bodies for burial and the period of mourning challenging to follow. It took more than a month to recover the remains of all those who were killed — and many bodies were not intact. Still, those rules, improvised where necessary, helped bring comfort to dozens of families coping with nearly unspeakable grief.

When the news finally arrived that Ms. Spiegel’s body had been recovered from the tangle of concrete on Collins Avenue on July 9, the family moved quickly. They turned to Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the founding head of a large Orthodox shul in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement less than a mile north of Champlain Towers. The Spiegels are not Orthodox, but they wanted “everything done traditionally,” Rachel Spiegel said.

That tradition says bodies must be guarded, prayed over, washed, wrapped in a white linen shroud, and buried in a plain wooden coffin. They must be buried not just quickly, but as intact as possible, returning the body to the ground in as close to its complete original state as possible: no cremation, no embalming, no autopsies.

“With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom,” the Book of Genesis says. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

“The only space we truly own in this universe is the space in which we’re buried,” Rabbi Lipskar explained. “We want each person to have the dignity of having their own space.”

When a Jewish person dies, the job of preparing the body for burial often falls to a local chevra kadisha, or holy society, whose volunteers are summoned to funeral homes and even to the scenes of death. According to the Talmud, the responsibility for burying any Jewish person is shared by the full community.

In Surfside, the Florida chapter of a New York-based organization called Chesed Shel Emes took on many of these duties, beginning with round-the-clock prayers at the site of the building collapse. On Zoom and WhatsApp, other Jews prayed through the Psalms as a kind of digital vigil: “I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?”

Working closely with local rabbis, the police and medical examiners, Chesed Shel Emes ensured that every body discovered in the rubble was handled according to Orthodox standards, at least until a determination could be made about whether the person was Jewish.

“We figured there was no stricter law than ours,” said Benjy Spiro, Chesed Shel Emes’s West Coast director. “We do it because we care about Jewish ritual law, but we care about everybody.”

The organization’s name can be translated from Hebrew as “the truest act of kindness.” Accompanying a body from death to burial is seen as the highest and purest act of charity, since the recipient can never acknowledge or return the favor.

Typically, the group interacts with families after a known death. Their tasks are discrete: Clean up the scene, prepare the body for burial. In Surfside, the scene of death was a heavily restricted disaster area, there were dozens of bodies, the timeline was unclear, and families had questions about how to proceed with funerals and mourning before all the remains had been found.

“We had to rewrite the way we do things because this was not normal, it is unprecedented,” said Mark Rosenberg, chaplain to the Miami-Dade Police Department and director of Chesed Shel Emes of Florida.

Small modifications may be undertaken in response to unusual circumstances. If a body has not been discovered intact, for example, PVC pipes are sometimes inserted into the grave, so that smaller remains can be added quietly after the official burial.

Judy Spiegel was buried in Miami about 48 hours after her body was identified. Chesed Shel Emes had ensured her body was prepared according to custom, and Rabbi Lipskar led the service.

“It was very comforting,” Rachel Spiegel said. “Through our faith we had these resources we trust. We knew she was being handled carefully.”

There can be also comfort in the specificity of law even under extraordinary circumstances. Some Jews study the entire text of the Talmud on a set cycle that lasts seven years. On July 5, in a grim coincidence, the assigned reading addressed how and when to search for victims and declare death in the case of a building collapse.

Frequently Asked Questions

It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Surfside, Fla., building collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential reasons for the disaster, including design or construction flaws. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned.

Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to convince residents to pay for needed repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 because of their frustrations. In April, the new board chair wrote to residents that conditions in the building had “gotten significantly worse” in the past several years and that the construction would now cost $15 million instead of $9 million. There had also been complaints from residents that the construction of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower next door was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Entire family units died because the collapse happened in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping. The parents and children killed in Unit 802, for example, were Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a fan of the rock band Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who found astronomy and outer space fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor look at the victims shows the extent of the devastation.

“If a person is buried under a collapsed building, until what point does one check to clarify whether the victim is still alive?” the text asks. Until one reaches the victim’s nose. “All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life,” the Book of Genesis says.

“The Torah, I don’t think I appreciated it before, there’s very detailed guidance one all of this,” said Dovy Ainsworth, who lost his parents, Ingrid (Itty) and Tzvi, in the collapse. “You really have to confirm death before you start the mourning process.”

The Ainsworths’ bodies were identified on July 5, and they were buried next to each other in Queens the next day.

Dovy Ainsworth’s wife had given birth to their fourth child just hours before the collapse. They named the baby Itta, or Itty, after her grandmother. Her naming ceremony took place during the shiva period, a seven-day span after the funeral in which the mourning family receives visitors and sits at home with their grief.

After shiva comes shloshim, a period of less intense mourning in which observant Jews leave the home but continue to observe some restrictions, like avoiding music and dancing. Some wear a black ribbon or a torn piece of clothing to signify their ongoing mourning.

The month of shiva and shloshim is a liminal time, said Anita Diamant, the author of “Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew.” Mourners gingerly re-enter the world, but are still marked as set apart, and supported by a community that acknowledges their grieving.

“It’s a psycho-spiritually wise tradition,” Ms. Diamant said. “At the core, it’s this notion of walking through time: acknowledging you are changed and the world will never be the same.”

The kaddish prayer, traditionally recited for 11 months after death, contains no mention of death. It is a prayer of praise, and a wish for peace. “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel.”

The official mourning period lasts until the first anniversary of death. That means the families of Surfside have only just begun.

Mark Abramson contributed reporting.



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