On June 24, tragedy hit the town of Surfside, Florida. A building collapsed overnight without any warning, prompting a search and rescue operation. At the moment I am writing this, 78 people have been killed and approximately 62 are still unaccounted for. It’s not not only a domestic tragedy, many of the victims were from around the world, the majority from across Latin America, among them at least thirty Jewish victims. This is reflective of Greater Miami’s large Hispanic/Latinx community, where a third of the area’s Jewish population is Hispanic, most coming from Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.
I grew up in South Florida and I’m very familiar with the area. I once had the opportunity to attend Yom Kippur services at The Shul of Bal Harbour, just steps away from the Champlain Towers. This is a unique Jewish community unlike any other in the United States. In the past two decades, Jews from Latin America have immigrated to the Greater Miami area due to political persecution, economic reasons, and even antisemitism. This is a Spanish-speaking and immigrant community.
There are over 250,000 Latin American Jews today. A community with lots of history. From the first synagogues in the Caribbean to communities in Argentina that found refuge after World War II. Latin American Jews are not homogenous, but diverse. Today, the Greater Miami area has become home to thousands of Latinx Jews, some with strong ties to Latin America. Miami Jews have become part of the ethnically diverse character of South Florida.
While I personally did not know anyone that lived in Champlain Towers South, I encountered social media posts from my friends, my alma mater Hillel, and Jewish community leaders desperately looking for information of those missing. This tragedy has not only brought awareness of this community, but it has united the Jewish community like never before. The Jewish community across the spectrum has rallied behind those affected by distributing food, clothing, medicine and necessities to the building’s residents, their families, and those being displaced. Jewish unity has played a major role in the community response to the crisis. Even a team of Israeli rescue workers flew to Surfside, not only to help the rescue efforts, but also to share their knowledge on how to care for Jewish victims in the disaster zone.
As victims are identified, we are now learning their stories. I was particularly touched by the story of Leon Oliwkowicz and Christina Beatriz Elvira, a Venezuelan Jewish couple that were among the first victims of the Chaplain Towers disaster to be identified. They had recently moved to Florida to escape the growing political and economic crisis in their home country. They are remembered for the generous and tremendous contribution not only to their local Jewish community, but beyond. In 2019, the couple donated a Torah scroll to the Jewish community in Chicago.
I invite others to learn more about this diverse Jewish community and support the Surfside relief efforts as victims continue to be missing. To learn more about relief efforts, visit the Greater Miami Jewish Federation website https://jewishmiami.org/