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'All One Family.' Miami-Dade Police Chaplain Guided Responders, Families in Surfside

 Miami-Dade Police Department Director Alfredo "Freddy" Ramirez III hugs Police Department Chaplain and Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest Rabbi Yossi Harlig in Surfside, Fla.
Courtesy of Rabbi Yossi Harlig and the Miami-Dade Police Department
Miami-Dade Police Department Director Alfredo "Freddy" Ramirez III hugs Police Department Chaplain and Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest Rabbi Yossi Harlig in Surfside, Fla.

Rabbi Yossi Harlig is a chaplain with the Miami Dade County Police Department and director of the Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest who spent weeks in Surfside, working with police officers and rescue workers — and helping families of victims.

During that time, his role as chaplain evolved given some of the particular factors involved in the disaster of the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse.

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The response involved deferring to — and supporting — first responders as they grappled with the weight of their work and also taking care to preserve and respect religious customs, and to preserve sacred religious items as part of the response.

Harlig talked with WLRN’s Veronica Zaragovia about how his duties changed over time and how "two different worlds" became like a "family."

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Rabbi, what do you remember about June 24? You got a call in the early morning, you rushed there. Can you share what it was like when you got there?

HARLIG: We got a call at 5 a.m. from the head of the chaplains program, saying please come on the scene. There's a building collapse. Originally I thought it was a building under construction. So when I showed up to the building, the first thing you see is that the road is already closed. Fire trucks, ambulances. People running around. I remember meeting a first responder from the fire department who was the one who took out [Jonah Handler]. One passed away [Stacie Fang] and one child survived.

Then I was standing next to the collapsed building and you're shocked. You can't believe how this looks. I remember one particular father whose son didn't live in this building, he happened to stay in this building because he was staying with his girlfriend in order the next day to be at [a] funeral. It also wasn't his girlfriend's building, they were staying at a family member's apartment. He was standing there and he was crying to me, "Why did my son have to stay there?" He was completely inconsolable. Then I remember another family member of a loved one that just arrived from New York Wednesday night, at 9:30 at night. And four hours later the building collapsed, and completely distraught.

We started seeing family members, friends crying, "Oh my God I have a family member there. Are they alive?" We started sending family members to the Surfside Community Center, on 93rd Street, to go there and that's where they'll start having answers.

But one of the challenges that most people had at that time, the first responders, they had no idea who's in the building. There's no list. It's not like a plane crash, God forbid, you know who's on the plane. So we as chaplains, I knew like 20 people in the building because the Jewish community is very tight knit so everyone said, "Oh, this couple lives in the building, that person's in the building." The first responders and every level of government, their goal was to save lives. No one was even thinking about bodies.

So as a chaplain for the Miami-Dade Police Department, how are you trained for a disaster like this? How were you able to bring calm those first few days amid so much panic?

So I'm a rabbi for Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest. I also run a friendship circle. But one of the other honors I have is being a chaplain for the Miami-Dade Police Department. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who's the founder and spiritual leader of our movement, always taught you have a responsibility to be there for everyone in the community, at any moment. For good times, challenging times. To always be there. Not just for Jewish officers, for everyone.

So up 'til June 24, 2021 as chaplains, you give benedictions, invocations for memorial services, you do ride alongs. You give them spiritual guidance. You give them inspiration. You are there at the hospital if they're sick.

But what happened on June 24 was very, very different for all of us. Here you're dealing with police with great responsibility. So we played a big role in helping the police officers and hugging them and talking to them, giving them encouragement. We got very involved with the first responders in fire to help them, to be there for them. There was a feeling in the beginning, like we are the families and you are the first responders and we're like in two different worlds.

So the fire and police asked us if we could be at the family briefings in order that people feel more comfortable seeing that there's a rabbi, there’s a spiritual leader that's part of the police, that has access to everything, that we will be a voice for the people, too.

How do I have experience doing it? You don't. Meaning, when this happens, you kind of turn off a part of you because you focus more — what can I do at this moment? I do know that I had a very hard time being in my office doing other work because I said if I can be somewhere else helping on so many different fronts, I should be there. It must have been all of my years of being there for people that maybe helped me then. But we didn't train for such a thing.

What were your first thoughts about what would need to be done for Jewish victims?

As soon as someone passes away, the first responsibility is to give the highest respect and honor to our loved one. The body is very holy. The number one thing is to put the body back in the ground as quickly as possible.

In typical times, you bring the body to the funeral home, you have the ritual cleansing, you put on the shrouds and you bury them.

So we were speaking to the first responders, and to homicide, that once they bring the body out of the pile and they run the DNA and they do all the testing to call us down, we could do prayers over the bodies. For Jewish people, every part of the body is important. We did prayers for everyone. We don't know if it's Jewish or not Jewish.

There's another thing that we were dealing with, is the holy religious items that were found. That means when they take something out of the pile, they put it in boxes and then we go through it with them at the site. We notice if something is a tallis or a prayer shawl. There’s also shabbos [Shabbat or Sabbath] candle holders.

Their holy books are holy items. If my Bible is ripped, I don’t throw it in the garbage. I bury it because we consider that something very holy.

So we're there — as we speak, we're doing it right now. I'm actually heading there next, to the off site [facility], because we're going through the items with them — "This is a Talmud, this is a prayer book" and I can read a Hebrew name. And then they put it in the bag and they put the person's name. And however the system they figure out to return it, they'll return it. A lot of these items are passed on generation to generation.

And people from other religions could have their items that are important to them, that if it could be salvaged and be brought back to the families, that’ll be something very, very meaningful to them.

How do I have experience doing it? You don't. Meaning, when this happens, you kind of turn off a part of you because you focus more — what can I do at this moment?
Rabbi Yossi Harlig

How does a chaplain trained in one faith go about helping people through trauma like this when they belong to other faiths?

When you're a chaplain, you’re religious leader, what's your role? Your role is number one is to be a good listener and be trained to know how to be with people in the moment. We don't really talk about our particular religion.

Like, for example, I had a Catholic family that needed a church. I helped them find the church that will do a service for them. So we're also trained that if someone wants particular needs for a different religion — if they’re the Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, we will then reach out to someone from that religion and say, "They would like to have a particular service."

It was very sad. Towards the end, you see like only three or four families still left in the room and [you] did everything you can to be there for them and tell them that no one's giving up.

Two weeks after they switched from search and rescue to search and recovery, they asked us to lead a service. And the reason they wanted the service is because of the, you know, first responders are working so hard to save lives and now they're moving from saving lives to recovering. So it's also difficult for them. They wanted to so badly to have one good story, two good stories, 10 good stories, and didn’t have one story to share of, actually, besides the first kid the first night. So they needed some type of prayer, some type of strength to go on.

I stood next to the holy pile, and they had all the first responders surround the whole building. And I got up and I said that, you know, you're the first responders, you're the holy people. We did Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 and we prayed together.

I said on our radio and went out to everyone's radio. And you can see in their eyes they had this great burden and responsibility to bring the loved ones out of the pile back to the family members.

And then the next day, I was also able to do a service with the families at the site. I asked them to close their eyes and please think about happy moments with your loved ones here. And then I said, open your eyes. I said, "the house may have collapsed, the home can never collapse. And that love and that care and that great times you had together, that will always remain."

We did a prayer together, which was very moving, and at the end of the service, that prayer, you saw all the family members hugging the first responders that were there. Because, really from the first few days, it went from two different groups to all one family. And we felt it and saw it.

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.