On the ground in Surfside

When a condo building collapsed in Surfside, Fla., burying over 150 people, we in Israel knew we wanted to help. At the organization I work for, United Hatzalah, it was decided that the best assistance could provide would be to send our Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU), which focuses on treating people who are suffering from acute stress reactions due to having witnessed traumatic incidents. 

As a member of the PCRU, and as the organization’s spokesperson, I was asked to be a part of the delegation. It would be my first international relief mission. 

Our work began during the flight over: we met the delegation from the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command and began coordinating our efforts. Upon arrival in Surfside, we touched base with local relief organizations spearheaded by the Jewish Community Services and the Red Cross. 

Members of Israel’s United Hatzalah at the site of the collapsed building in Surfside, Fla. (Credit: United Hatzalah)

When our team arrived at the family assistance centre, we could feel the tension in the room drop by about 50 percent. People felt supported just by our presence, even before we began our work. 

One man, an Israeli-Floridian and former IDF veteran, lived in the next building over from the collapse site. He was suffering from emotional stress and was unable to find his bearings due to being displaced and the tragedy of what he witnessed. When he came to us, he said he felt that he had to maintain a “tough guy” persona for those around him.

Our psychologist told him even tough guys need to cry sometimes. The man said that he felt comfortable enough to show emotions because the therapist had an Israeli flag on her shirt and spoke to him in Hebrew. The two of them proceeded to cry together for nearly 15 minutes. 

Florida police officers meet Lucy, United Hatzalah’s therapy dog and her handler, Batya Jaffe, at the site of the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. (Credit: United Hatzalah)

One day I found myself, together with a local clinician from the Miami-Dade Fire Department, talking with the parents and brother of one of the missing residents. After seeing visible signs of distress, we approached them and asked if they wanted to talk. The family members, who had emigrated from India to the United States, had come from all over the U.S. in search of answers to what had happened to their missing loved ones. But they weren’t sure who to connect with.

The clinician and I referred them to a Jewish Community Services of South Florida social worker and she connected them with other local services, including the Red Cross. The family thanked us and mentioned that they felt comfortable talking to us because I wasn’t a local, either. It made them feel less out of place. 

As more people searched us out for assistance and counselling, the Red Cross contacted me and asked for advice on cultural sensitivities when dealing with members of the Jewish community. What words of comfort could they use? How would it be best to approach a Jewish person in grief, when most often those people would prefer a Jewish counsellor, chaplain or clergy? After providing them with some basic pointers, I connected them with the local Chabad rabbi and the JCS. 

Our animal-assisted therapist, Batya Jaffe, and her therapy dog, Lucy, were caught on TV during their work at the family assistance center and at the collapse site. They became overnight media sensations and multiple local and foreign TV stations asked them for interviews. As a result, Batya and Lucy would get recognized time and again, walking down the street or at the family assistance center, by police officers, firefighters, search and rescue personnel, and family members of those missing.

A displaced family interacting with Lucy at the community center. (Credit: United Hatzalah)

They would all open up to Lucy and Batya because they felt touched that the pair had flown to Miami from Israel to offer help. They identified with that and were more open to receiving this help. Media exposure actually aided our relief efforts and people were more willing to receive assistance from someone they felt that they had a connection with, even if it was just having seen them on TV.

From the moment we left Israel for Surfside, I’ve been asked over and over again, “Why is United Hatzalah of Israel sending a team to assist? Doesn’t the United States have enough trained people to cope with the disaster?” Those questions have been posed to me by journalists, people within the Jewish community and people outside it. 

But one thing I noticed in Surfside was that not a single person there ever asked the question. They knew the answer. They needed all the help that they could get, and they needed to know that the people of Israel cared, and the more than 6,000 volunteer first-responders at United Hatzalah of Israel not only cared—but would do everything we could to assist them in their time of need. 

Raphael Poch is a former Torontonian, an EMT, a member of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit and the international media spokesperson for United Hatzalah.