In Surfside, age-old Jewish traditions bring comfort amid grief

By Ruth Graham

For 18 long days in Florida, the Spiegel family waited for news of their beloved matriarch, Judy. With her husband traveling for work, she had been home alone on the sixth floor of Champlain Towers South when the building collapsed on the night of June 23.

In Jewish tradition, the period between a person’s death and burial is known as aninut. It is a state of intense grief and limbo, when survivors have lost their beloved but are not yet formally designated as mourners.

Aninut is intended to be brief. Burials and funerals take place as quickly as possible, ideally within 24 hours. But the Spiegel family was forced to wait what seemed like an eternity after the collapse. As rescue crews combed the site for signs of life, Spiegel’s husband and three children tried to stay hopeful. She was the “keeper of the family,” her daughter, Rachel, recalled recently; they had not imagined their lives without her. They were not yet mourners.

The seafront community of Surfside, Florida, has had a robust Orthodox Jewish community for decades. Many of the 98 victims of the condominium collapse were Jewish, including Estelle Hedaya, the final victim to be recovered, whose remains were identified on July 26. But the brute facts of the tower’s collapse made many Jewish laws and customs about preparing bodies for burial and the period of mourning challenging to follow. It took more than a month to recover the remains of all those who were killed — and many bodies were not intact. Still, those rules, improvised where necessary, helped bring comfort to dozens of families coping with nearly unspeakable grief.

When the news finally arrived that Spiegel’s body had been recovered from the tangle of concrete on Collins Avenue on July 9, the family moved quickly. They turned to Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the founding head of a large Orthodox shul in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement less than a mile north of Champlain Towers. The Spiegels are not Orthodox, but they wanted “everything done traditionally,” Rachel Spiegel said.

That tradition says bodies must be guarded, prayed over, washed, wrapped in a white linen shroud, and buried in a plain wooden coffin. They must be buried not just quickly, but as intact as possible, returning the body to the ground in as close to its complete original state as possible: no cremation, no embalming, no autopsies.

When a Jewish person dies, the job of preparing the body for burial often falls to a local chevra kadisha, or holy society, whose volunteers are summoned to funeral homes and even to the scenes of death. According to the Talmud, the responsibility for burying any Jewish person is shared by the full community.

In Surfside, the Florida chapter of a New York-based organization called Chesed Shel Emes took on many of these duties, beginning with round-the-clock prayers at the site of the building collapse. On Zoom and WhatsApp, other Jews prayed through the Psalms as a kind of digital vigil: “I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?”

Working closely with local rabbis, police and medical examiners, Chesed Shel Emes ensured that every body discovered in the rubble was handled according to Orthodox standards, at least until a determination could be made about whether the person was Jewish.

“We figured there was no stricter law than ours,” said Benjy Spiro, Chesed Shel Emes’ West Coast director. “We do it because we care about Jewish ritual law, but we care about everybody.”

The organization’s name can be translated from Hebrew as “the truest act of kindness.” Accompanying a body from death to burial is seen as the highest and purest act of charity, since the recipient can never acknowledge or return the favor.

Typically, the group interacts with families after a known death. Their tasks are discrete: Clean up the scene, prepare the body for burial. In Surfside, the scene of death was a heavily restricted disaster area, there were dozens of bodies, the timeline was unclear, and families had questions about how to proceed with funerals and mourning before all the remains had been found.

“We had to rewrite the way we do things because this was not normal, it is unprecedented,” said Mark Rosenberg, a chaplain with the North Miami Beach Police Department and director of Chesed Shel Emes of Florida.

Small modifications may be undertaken in response to unusual circumstances. If a body has not been discovered intact, for example, PVC pipes are sometimes inserted into the grave, so that smaller remains can be added quietly after the official burial.

Judy Spiegel was buried in Miami about 48 hours after her body was identified. Chesed Shel Emes had ensured her body was prepared according to custom, and Lipskar led the service.

“It was very comforting,” Rachel Spiegel said. “Through our faith we had these resources we trust. We knew she was being handled carefully.”

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