Leo Soto, who created this memorial with grocery stores donating flowers and candles, pauses in front of photos of some of the missing people that he put on a fence. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

A devastated Jewish community in Surfside, Florida, begins burying its dead

As the search for missing people trapped in the rubble of a Surfside, Florida, condo building continued, the town’s large Jewish community buried its first victims on Monday and Tuesday.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 81, and his wife, Christina Beatriz Elvira Oliwkowicz, 74, were among the first apartment dwellers identified after the 13-story Champlain Towers South collapsed in the middle of the night last Thursday.

The couple immigrated to the United States from Venezuela and were members of the large Orthodox synagogue in Surfside known as The Shul of Bal Harbour. The couple were known for their generosity and once donated a Torah scroll to an Orthodox Jewish high school in Chicago.

Stacie Fang, 54, was buried in New York City, on Tuesday in a private Jewish funeral. Her 15-year-old son, Jonah Handler, was dramatically rescued from the rubble on Thursday. Fang died of her injuries at Aventura Hospital and Medical Center shortly after the collapse.

More than 150 people were considered unaccounted for as the rescue mission continued into its sixth day. Eleven people have been confirmed dead. Over the weekend, a rescue team from the Israel Defense Forces arrived to help with recovery. Another Israeli rescue group is sending a team from its psychotrauma unit.

Surfside is a diverse community of many faiths, but the town has a large Jewish presence. At least 50 of the total trapped in the collapse of the Champlain condo are likely Jewish, according to various lists that have been collected among Miami Jewish organisations.

Much of the Jewish life in Surfside is centred on The Shul. The thriving Chabad congregation – its name comes from the Yiddish for “synagogue” – takes up nearly a block of Collins Avenue, and many businesses, schools and restaurants catering to the Jewish community have grown up around it.

While The Shul has about 700 member families, many other Jews have ties to the congregation, even if they attend services elsewhere, said Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for the Chabad Lubavitch movement headquartered in New York City. They may send their kids to preschool or camp through the synagogue or attend adult education classes there.

Read the article by Yonat Shimron in Sight Magazine.