In Surfside: Processing Communal Grief

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 Rabbi Sholom Lipskar listens as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Shul of Bal Harbour on June 14 in Surfside, Florida.Joe Raedle/Getty Images via JTA.org

By Shira Hanau

If there’s one thing Rabbi Sholom Lipskar wants to remember from the aftermath of the Surfside condo collapse in June, it’s the small cards that he distributed to the first responders and search-and-rescue teams working at the site.

Inscribed with Psalm 23, a psalm often recited in times of trouble that begins with the words “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” the cards were meant to protect and inspire those charged with extracting survivors and, later, recovering bodies.


Lipskar estimated that he gave out as many as 800 of the cards and recalled meeting a firefighter who kept his tucked into his hat.

“This card became something that everybody wanted,” said the rabbi, speaking from his office in the Chabad synagogue he runs just a few blocks away from what was once Champlain Towers South.

For Lipskar, the cards epitomize his efforts, sometimes onerous, to keep sight of the positivity that came out of the Surfside collapse, in which 97 people were killed.

“Sometimes from tragedy, from darkness, you can bring out a sense of humanness and decency,” he said. “The nations of the world, their objective is to create a civilization, a moral, ethical civilization. It’s the objective of the Jew to infuse that civilization with holiness, with divinity, with purpose, meaning.”

The cards also reflect the significant role that Lipskar and his synagogue, The Shul, played in the community both before and after the collapse. Days before the collapse, the synagogue hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he signed two bills that Lipskar and his community had backed. In the moments and days after the building fell, the synagogue emerged as a hub for first responders and families of the missing while they waited for news about their loved ones.

And in the weeks that followed, as the community continued to process its grief while the rest of the country moved on, Lipskar worked to come up with High Holiday sermons that would help them wrest meaning from the disaster — without trying to offer a theological explanation for it.

“If anybody gives me a reason except for God Almighty himself, they’re idiots. They’re making up stories. They have no idea,” he said. “There’s no question [that] only He can give me the answer. But I’m not going to continue to base my life on a question.”

Instead, Lipskar planned to use his Rosh Hashanah sermon to share a message advanced by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad movement who died in 1994.

“The Rebbe said no, you don’t talk about the past as negative,” Lipskar said.

“There’s a Rosh Hashanah prayer that you begin the prayer with, you know, ‘Goodbye to the past year that was filled with difficulty and challenges, and hello to the new year, that it should be with blessing,’” he added. “We say thank you Hashem [God] for allowing us to live through that challenge and for giving us the strength to be where we are today so we can face the next year.”

For Lipskar, the challenge began in 1982 when Schneerson tasked him with starting a community in Bal Harbour. At the time, the wealthy beachside resort town was known for being inhospitable to Jews. Housing deeds in the town specifically barred homes from being sold to Jews, and prior to a discrimination lawsuit brought in 1982, the Bal Harbour Club did not allow Jews or Black people to join.

But the town was a magnet for wealthy and influential people from around the world, and Schneerson hoped that a successful synagogue there could pave the way for others in similar locations.

“I was not excited about it,” Chani Lipskar, Lipskar’s wife, told Chabad.org about the move. “The thought of leaving everything we knew behind and moving to this place that is so not welcoming to Jewish people was not something that I was looking forward to. But we wrote to the rebbe and the rebbe wrote back, ‘nachon hadavar,’ it’s the right thing to do.”

Putting up the town’s first public menorah for Chanukah — a hallmark of Chabad outreach in any community — was an ordeal, Lipskar recalled.

“They made me give them drawings for the menorah that had to be hurricane-proof,” Lipskar said, even though he was only planning to display the menorah on a seasonal basis and hurricane season ended before the holiday began.

Forty years later, a visitor to Surfside and Bal Harbour might find it hard to believe that the area once had no public menorah — or was unable to support a single kosher deli.

Today, vacationing Orthodox Jews from across the country flock to the towns for their numerous upscale kosher restaurants just a few minutes from the beach, and the multitude of prayer services available nearby on Shabbat and throughout the week. And The Shul has grown by leaps and bounds, having announced a major expansion in 2016 that would double its size and add a glass-walled social hall for seating an additional 600 to 700 people. The Shul has approximately 700 member families, but counts several hundred non-member families among its community.

“He doesn’t do anything unless, like he says, it’s ‘over the top,’” Gabe Groisman, mayor of Bal Harbour, said about Lipskar. “Really what it means is, he’s always 100% invested in the person that’s in front of him.”

In the days after the collapse, the synagogue’s large and still unfinished social hall expansion was turned into a distribution center for getting essential goods to those who had lost their homes. Everything from underwear to computers to toothbrushes were stored at The Shul. To feed the families of the missing people and the search-and-rescue teams that descended on the building site, The Shul worked with local chefs to organize thousands of kosher meals each day. Even though many of the people in need of food were not Jewish or observant, all of the food was made to strict kosher standards.

Those meals went on for weeks as the search-and-rescue teams continued to scour the site for signs of survivors.

A social hall under construction in The Shul, a synagogue in Surfside, Florida, is piled high with donations for homeless families less than 18 hours after a nearby building collapsed on June 25. Photo by Ron Kampeas via JTA.org

Through it all, Lipskar was thinking about the dozens of members of his community who died in the collapse, like Frank Kleiman, who’d recently gotten married and started a new company, and Harry Rosenberg, who’d moved to Surfside just a month before the collapse to start over after his wife died of cancer.

That individual attention was nothing new. According to one account, when Lipskar visits the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Queens, he brings the entire list of his synagogue members with him, reading through the list and picturing each member as he prays for them.

To Lipskar, mourning and joy, too, each have equal roles to play.

“Each day starts again,” Lipskar said, launching into a summary of his Rosh Hashanah sermon comparing the sun, which does not change, to the moon, which appears to change throughout the month. To Lipskar, the sun represents continuity and the moon represents change.

“There’s the benefits of continuity, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. But there’s also the recognition of renewal of new. That’s why the day consists of sun and moon, of continuity and renewal,” Lipskar said. “That’s our opportunity after this.”

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