‘We’re all in it together’: Rabbi offers support after Surfside building collapse

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Rabbi Yossi Harlig’s work continues a year after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

Harlig, of the Chabad Center of Kendall & Pinecrest, is one of the 10 chaplains who serve with the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“Everyone is dealing with it differently ... Some family members I’ve talked to now tell me it’s getting more difficult,” Harlig said. “One person said that, actually, he feels bad that he doesn’t have the pain that he had a year ago. He misses that pain.”

Amid the tragedy, the department called him out to the scene in the early morning hours of June 24, 2021.

”I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing a part of a building completely down,” Harlig said.

While processing what was happening himself, families began seeking him out.

”A man is standing there crying to me and he says his son, is 21 years old, and he just went to that building that night because he was going to a funeral the next day,” Harlig said. ”He’s crying to me, ‘My son is trapped. My son is trapped. I want to go in, take him out, take him out. I was just holding him and hugging him.”

Over the next 30 days, Harlig split his time in Surfside between first responders and families. The scale of the tragedy had him and the other chaplains taking on a new responsibility.

”Your role is to be there for the police officers, usually there for the police officers,” Harlig said. “Here we got involved with the families.”

Chaplains became a source of comfort and guidance for the panic-stricken families, who were anxiously awaiting any word of their loved ones.

”When the tragedy is so great, there are no words you can say,” Harlig said. “There is no words. You don’t say anything, and just sit there with them and listen to them and give them a hug. They say, ‘This person is with me.’ And that’s all we did.”

Just two days after the collapse, officials made a difficult decision. Families were growing frustrated with the search, so families boarded a bus and traveled to get a close look at the site.

”And as soon as they came on, still remember until today, a lot of family members are screaming,” Harlig said. “So you have to understand the last time they spoke to the family members was the day before, right and 1:20 they are all sleeping in bed, and at 1:23 they are in a pile.”

He praises the decision made, saying afterward there came an understanding. Families saw what first responders were up against.

”At that point forward, the energy in the room was we’re all in it together.” Harlig said.

Over a 30-day period, Harlig helped first responders identify religious items and made sure bodies were recovered according to Jewish beliefs.

”We were there to make the prayers and we were there to kind of guide them how you treat it,” Harlig said.

He was also there for family notifications.

”These are things you can’t redo a second time,” Harlig said. “To do it the right way ... To do a funeral the right way.”

Now a year later, his relationship with several of the families, first responders, and even government officials remains. He said there is a special bond.

”You realize it’s important that not only to be there for them when you know this tragedy is happening that month, but these people need maybe even more help throughout the year to be the support and love.”

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Graphic: The aftermath of the collapse

About the Author:

Eden Checkol co-anchors Local 10's 10 p.m. weeknight newscast on WSFL and also reports on WPLG newscasts. She’s a Minnesota native who is thrilled to leave the snow behind and call South Florida home.