Tragedy In Surfside

Tragedy In Surfside

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Toco Hills.

Most of the Jewish world, in fact most of America is in shock following the disastrous collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo apartment building in Surfside Florida. As I write this, 90 have been confirmed dead and 31 are missing. A good many of the residents of this building I am told by my son Rabbi Joshua Kunis, are Cuban Jews—several regulars in his congregation in Miami Beach! They bravely risked their lives to escape Castro and the tyranny of his communist regime, only to die in a pile of rubble here in America!

The building codes in southern Florida are very strict, so how could this happen? “Buildings like this do not fall in America,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. “This is a 3rd-world phenomenon, and it’s shocking!” He said the collapse looked a lot like the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. “There used to be 12 feet between the balconies and now there’s about 14 inches!” Who could imagine?

In 1976 my parents bought a condo just a few miles north, straight up Collins Ave which turns into S. Ocean Dr. in Hallandale. It was a building not much different from this, just a little older. I went to visit them several times a year with the family. My son took his kids to see them every week. The frightening thought is that it could have been me or my family trapped in the wreckage!

On the day of the collapse, my son officiated at a funeral. Missing were 3 generations of one family from that building who were planning on attending! My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson said at “ground zero,” that there were at least 7 of his members missing. As soon as he heard the news he helped organize an emergency phone tree to reach residents of the building and their family members. Some members of his congregation survived the collapse and were rescued by 1st responders.

Yes, it was “like” 9/11, except that this time it doesn’t look like terrorism was involved, but this time most of the victims are Jews. Just when the world—after a year and a half of a Covid pandemic—is beginning to get back to some sort of “normal,” something like this happens to remind us of how fragile life can be.

You might ask: “How can we gather in our synagogues and pray for life?” Life is not a bargain. Life is pain; life is rejection. Just when you think you’ve accomplished something, your world gets turned upside down. The longer you live, the more life becomes a story of things being taken away.

Nearly 3,000 people went to work on 9/11 and never came home. Whole families and communities were devastated. It happened in New York, and we felt it even here in Atlanta with the recognition that it could happen here as well, Gd forbid! Early that Thursday morning, more than 100 families went to sleep, secure in their Surfside condos, worrying only about their bills, their doctors’ appointments or how in the world did the Miami Heat lose to the Milwaukee Bucks. Now their world is completely overturned. How could Gd allow this to happen?

Part of the answer, I think is found in a famous Talmudic story (Kiddushin 39b). Rabbi Yaakov tells of a man who sends his son up a ladder to fetch eggs for him from a bird’s nest. The son climbs up and in so doing, he is fulfilling 2 positive commandments from the Torah: honoring his father and chasing away the mother bird before you take the eggs. These are the only 2 commandments where the Torah tells us the reward, and in both cases, it is length of days. But lo and behold, as this child climbed down the ladder with the eggs in his hands, he slipped and fell and died!

The rabbis were terribly upset by this and tried to explain what went wrong. One suggests: “Maybe the story never really happened.”

“Impossible,” says Rabbi Yaakov, “I witnessed it.”

Well then, another rabbi suggests, “Perhaps this child was thinking evil or even idolatrous thoughts.”

No, that can’t be the reason, says Rabbi Elazar, because he was on his way to doing a mitzvah and that would have shielded him from harm.

And then the Talmud gives the real reason why the child fell. Listen carefully: “He fell because it was a rickety ladder!” That’s why he fell. It wasn’t because he did anything wrong!

Rabbi Joshua Kunis wrote something profound in an email to me: Gd might seem absent from this tragedy, but He is not. You see him when firefighters and police EMT’s risk their lives to help rescue those in danger. I saw Gd today in the dozens of volunteers at the family reunion center volunteering to hand out food, blankets and sleeping bags, the friends and family who came out to support the families, and the rabbis, priests, and social workers who were there to console them. I saw Gd in all of the kosher food that has been donated to the families by our local kosher restaurants. We see Gd in the abundance of donations being collected by our local Jewish institutions.

Soon we should learn why this condo in Surfside collapsed. I heard that it was getting ready for its 40-year inspection and some heavy equipment was placed on the roof that might have put too much pressure on the building. A 2018 engineering reported, “major structural damage” on the concrete slab that it was resting on. It is unclear if the damage observed could be responsible for the collapse. Right now, no one knows.

What we do know is that 20 years ago, the Versailles wedding hall in Israel collapsed during a wedding celebration—killing 22—not because there was mixed dancing as some have suggested. No, it collapsed because of faulty construction! What we do know is that innocent Israelis have been killed for more than 70 years because of Palestinian terror attacks, and not because Israelis have done anything to provoke it. What we do know is that road accidents take place because of reckless drivers!

Gd has chosen to give us free will and to ensure that free will He has chosen not to interfere. But know that when terrible things do happen to us that we do not deserve, our tradition tells us that Gd is faithful and will be there to comfort us if we but let Him in, and that He is faithful to make it up to us as well.

We say in our holiday prayers, Umipney chataeynu galinu meyartzeynu, (Because of our sins we were exiled from our land). But who are we to dare say when something tragic happens to people that it was because of their sins? Yes, we should use every tragedy as an opportunity for introspection and self-improvement. But let’s not allow the tragedies in life to cause guilt feelings and second guessing.

We are now in the midst of the 9 days of our mourning for all the great tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av —from the tragedies of destruction of both Holy Temples through and including the Holocaust. As we contemplate the terrible tragedy of the Surfside condo, may these be days of introspection and soul searching, and doing acts of chesed (kindness and compassion) for each other, for this is the proper Jewish response to tragedy.

My friends, the Jewish people—along with the rest of the world—have not had an easy year. If we try to learn from our hardships, perhaps Gd will bless us in the New Year ahead—yes, Rosh Hashanah is only two months away—with a year that will be a Shana Tova U-m’tukah (a good and sweet year). We can sure use it.

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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