(RNS) — The Shul of Bal Harbour is less than a mile from the Champlain Towers condo building that partially collapsed last week in Surfside, Florida. And the residents of the building — not only the Jewish ones — almost certainly had come in contact with the bustling Chabad-Lubavitch congregation on Collins Avenue.
The synagogue, which takes up nearly an entire city block, is led by entrepreneurial Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, now 74. He founded it 40 years ago and is largely credited with its outsize stature in the beachside community.
Chabad-Lubavitch synagogues, like The Shul, are renowned for their outreach to Jews, especially less religious or secular Jews, as part of a larger mission to draw them into a strictly observant Orthodox Jewish life. They are part of the Hasidic tradition, which seeks a direct experience of God through ecstatic prayer and other rituals.
The movement has outposts across the world and on many college campuses. Jews in need — regardless of whether they belong to a synagogue or even engage in any kind of Jewish observance — know they can turn to Chabad for help with everything from kosher meals to ritual ceremonies to death and bereavement services.
Since the collapse Thursday (June 24) of the Champlain Towers South, The Shul has taken on a massive relief operation to help the mostly Jewish families whose homes — and in many cases, lives — were turned to rubble. The Shul is also providing meals for the rescue crews.
Lipskar, who was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and ordained in the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn in 1968, is assisting the families alongside eight other rabbis and dozens of others who work under him at the sprawling synagogue.
While recovery efforts continue, the death toll from the building’s collapse rose to 16 on Wednesday. At least 50 of the 149 people still trapped in the condo collapse are likely Jewish. Surfside’s population of 5,700 is one-third Jewish.
Among the known victims were several Jews: Leon Oliwkowicz, 81, and his wife, Christina Beatriz Elvira Oliwkowicz, 74, immigrants from Venezuela; and Stacie Fang, 54, the mother of a teenage boy who survived. All three were buried earlier this week. On Wednesday, authorities identified the body of Frank Kleiman, 55. His brother, Jay, and mother, Nancy Kress Levin, are still unaccounted for. The family is part of the Jewish Cuban diaspora, though the two sons grew up in Puerto Rico.
And while only a dozen or so of the Champlain residents were formal members of The Shul, many others had some kind of connection to it.
Religion News Service talked with Lipskar on the phone at his office at the synagogue. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
What’s your life been like since the collapse of the Champlain condo?
It’s been 24/7 of having to deal with a multitude of issues. I got a triage of tragedies. From one perspective, life is lost, which is the ultimate tragedy. From another perspective, you don’t know 100%, so there’s a little bit of hope. There are the raw emotions of people living in a bizarre state of twilight. At this time, leadership is a kind of burden because you’re empathizing with so much pain that you find it hard to maintain composure, which is so necessary to sustain the kind of feelings you want people to have. Then there’s the practical logistics — making sure the families and volunteers and first responders have proper food and drink. So there are a lot of factors to put together.
What kind of Jewish teachings are you leaning on?
This may sound esoteric, but one of the main objectives of Chabad Hasidism is to bring the world to a state of being able to live a messianic life, which is peacefulness, kindness, gentleness and everything that comes with it. A prerequisite of that is bringing forth the wellspring of Hasidic thought. It is concentrated on spirituality, on God, on the soul, on an inner being. To recognize that aspect is a solace in this situation. Many in our community have been exposed to the spirituality of Judaism in such a vital manner that it has been extremely beneficial in creating a bedrock or foundation, where there’s some sustenance, there’s life that’s able to move amid challenges and difficulties. When the physical is challenged to such a degree, there’s still that spirituality we can hold onto.
One of the most important elements we’ve found — together with the kindness and outpouring of love and empathy and unity and camaraderie — is the spiritual side of this. It’s a reality of knowledge that the human being consists of a body and a soul. One family member wanted to pray to the soul of their beloved. We stood there in the midst of 150 people and put on tefillin (a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah) and prayed. It made them feel closer to their relatives. There’s something about it that we cannot deny the reality of its power.
How has your staff been deployed?
Our rabbis are with the families counseling them, talking with them, getting people what they need. We’re arranging housing. We’ve had to find homes for these people because they don’t have a home anymore. They don’t have clothes. There’s also the families in the adjoining building. Everyone was evacuated. There’s another 110 apartments there.
Right now we have not canceled prayer services. We haven’t canceled camp. Many of the families, in order to function, they need a place for their kids. We have some 300 kids in day camp. We also have our regular classes. Our entire staff is engaged. We have eight rabbis and a staff of 35 people. We have four minyans (or services) in the morning. We have approximately 40 classes a week.
I know a lot of people who seek out The Shul are not members. Tell me about your outreach.
The Shul consists of about 700 families or 3,000 people. Another 1,000 participate. It’s an open door.
We have a program called a block program. Our community is four little townships in 4 square miles. We have about 6,000 residents. On each block we have people who live on the block who volunteer to be responsible for all the Jewish families on their block. Through that program we interact with people at least five times a year. In many cases, they will become more involved. We’re not promoting The Shul, but Jewish concepts. You don’t have to be a member to participate in any program. About 50% of people who come to The Shul are not members.
Why do you do that?
No Jew is left behind. Every Jew is critical and important. Biologically and conceptually we are family. There’s a large non-Jewish community here and we have incredible relationships with them, too. The Shul is like a lighthouse for the community.
How do you understand the afterlife?
Simple physics tells us that nothing disappears in the universe; mass to energy, energy to mass, it just changes form. Even sound travels up in the stratosphere and it’s around somewhere. Nothing gets lost. What happens to that life force, that soul? There’s some aspect that’s somewhere. It’s going to another space, a dimension. I do believe 100% there is an afterlife and the afterlife is eternal, as God is eternal.