Hatzalah relaxes after a long week at a kumsitz for first responders – the forward

SURFSIDE, Fla .– Volunteers dragged themselves to the front door of the mansion with their heads covered, most wearing the same navy T-shirts they had been wearing all week, their uniforms.

It was about four hours to eight full days since the men in Hatzalah, South Florida, answered a call about a building in Surfside that had collapsed. When the Orthodox emergency response volunteers received a note from their dispatcher, they did not know how big the building was or how many people were there. They had no idea they were heading for one of the deadliest collapses in the country’s history. All they knew was that they were on their way.

Since that call, Hatzalah volunteers have been present at the scene of the disaster, assisting in a search and rescue operation that had not found any survivors since dawn of the first day. Many men said they got no more than a few hours of sleep throughout the week. Others said they barely ate.

Thursday night, they were heading to the waterfront mansion a few blocks from Champlain Towers South, the collapsed building, to take their first real break.

Inside the house, which is owned by a member of the Surfside Jewish community, a local leader named Steve Eisenberg had organized a kumsitz – a sort of Jewish bribe, with live music and a sumptuous spread offered by a local barbecue restaurant, Mendel’s Backyard. About half of Hatzalah’s 70 volunteers who had worked on the job over the past week showed up to relax.

They devoured hot dogs and burgers. They blew cigars. They caught up. They looked at the water.

Eisenberg invited me on the condition that I do not do any interviews and do not record the event. I had traveled to town to cover the aftermath of the collapse. But I was at kumsitz both as a journalist and as a Jew happy to shake hands with these volunteers.

Since arriving at Surfside on Wednesday morning, I have spent the vast majority of my waking hours in the blocks surrounding the site, from the synagogue to the kosher establishment to the media center. Constantly moving made the tragedy difficult to break down. Eighteen people died. Some 140 other people are still considered “missing” or “missing”, hiding their fate, which seems almost sealed.

While I kept a certain professional detachment from the tragedy, I was struck by its Jewish side. It was a distinctively Jewish tragedy – a local rabbi estimated that more than 50 Jewish people were among the missing – but also a distinctly Jewish response. It started when Hatzalah from South Florida arrived at the scene, and continued with the arrival of an IDF search and rescue team and a United Hatzalah group – also from Israel – who brought Cavalier King Charles Spaniel therapy to comfort families.

But I also felt like an outsider, even as an Orthodox Jew in Orthodox Jewish spaces. At the Shul in Bal Harbor, where I’ve been davening chaharit every morning I am viewed with suspicion by armed guards. I’m wary of being pushy, doing “parachute journalism” or exploiting other people’s personal devastation for clicks. So at the kumsitz, I personally thanked a few volunteers and heard some of their stories, but mostly kept my distance.

After a Hatzalah frontman appeared in front of the group to congratulate the men on their selflessness and hard work, a Hasidic singer named Yehudah Green, who came from New York for the occasion, took the microphone. We are within the three weeks of the Jewish calendar between Tammuz 17 and Tisha Be Av – fast days that mark the fall of Jerusalem – a period in which Orthodox Jews do not listen to live music. But Eisenberg said for these Orthodox Jews, making an exception was not only allowed, it was imperative.

Green started off with a ballad, Avinu malkeinu – our Father, our King – urging the group to join him. They bellowed the familiar air loud enough to be heard from the street, and probably from across the water. Then Green pivoted into something more upbeat – a chant that made the men smile, arms folded, dance and scream, “Moshiach! Moshiach! Where are you?”

A rabbi who helped with spiritual support leaned over, and over the deafening speaker, shared a rendition of “mashiach” which is less of an individual than an idea – the pursuit of perfection. He said the Machiach is about looking to the future, trying to improve, not dwelling on the past. And that after every major tragedy in Jewish history, the people of Israel always came back stronger.

I was talking to someone in the kitchen later that evening when I heard a call and a response from the other room. What I thought was after-meal grace was actually the start of maariv, evening service. I walked over to my car to pick up my prayer book, and by the time I got home the men were already reciting the central Amidah prayer, around a table that carried framed thank you letters from the County Government of Miami-Dade.

There is an opportunity at the end of maariv, for latecomers to say the line that starts the service, and when the final kaddish was over, I let it go: Barchu and Hachem Hamevorach – Blessed be God the blessed. And they replied: Baruch Hashem Hamevorash leolam va’ed – Blessed be the God blessed forever.

Most of the volunteers got into their cars to go home. A few have returned to the site.

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