Miracles Amid the Destruction
We arrived in C-C, New Zealand just two and a half months ago but my personal involvement with the city began nearly five years ago. That year I was studying for smicha at the Machon HaSmicha in Melbourne, which is nearby. A few weeks before Pesach I got a phone call from R’Aharon Cohen, who worked in the city at the time. He asked whether I was willing to go with some other bachurim to organize a seider there for Israelis. The Israelis used C-C as their base from where they went out on long trips in the south of New Zealand.
I was happy to do it. He promised to take care of the financial end of things and our responsibilities were the spiritual/Chassidic part. Another bachur joined me and we went. We advertised the event throughout the city, in hotels and other places where Israelis congregate. We bought huge quantities of matzos, vegetables, and wine. We had about 200 Israelis joining us and they stayed late into the night as we recounted the story of the Exodus.
A short while later, Rabbi Mendy Goldstein from Crown Heights went to C-C as the permanent shliach. He first went to another city, where we met; I wished him success in his challenging shlichus so far away.
Four years later he had accomplished a tremendous amount with the local community as well as with the many Israelis who visit. He was ready to bring another shliach to help him. I had gotten married in the interim and had one child. Mendy called me and urged me to join him. “You’ve got to come back,” he said.
After receiving the Rebbe’s bracha we decided to do it. His plan was to open another Chabad branch due to the large amount of work with the local community and the tourists. My shlichus was mainly with the tourists.
Unlike other locations, most of the tourists that come to us are from kibbutzim or people who are very far from observing a religious life. For many of them, the Chabad house is their first encounter with religious Jews and with authentic Jewish values.
I often hear tourists talk about how turned off they are by Judaism as it is presented back home but the truth is, aside from the fact that they are educated not to like religious Jews who are different than them, they are completely ignorant of Judaism. Part of our work is to serve as a bridge for them, so that when they return to Eretz Yisroel they will look at things more objectively and with less suspicion and even revulsion.
The Chabad house is open to tourists at all hours of the day and night. They can enter at any time, have something to eat, use the Internet, and of course – read Jewish books and put on t’fillin. Since I’ve been in the city on a permanent basis, I know of dozens of girls who lit Shabbos candles for the first time in their lives and dozens of men who put t’fillin on for the first time and had an aliya to the Torah.
Just three weeks ago, at the end of the Shabbos meal, a tourist came over to me and said he wanted to speak to me privately about something that bothered him all his life. Now, after the meal, he said his view had changed.
He told me, with tears in his eyes, how throughout his life he recoiled from religious Jews. There were times he opted to cross the street when he saw one of them. He told me in a voice choked with emotion that this was the first time he was participating at a proper Shabbos table and he was astounded by the beauty. This was the first time this young man felt a real Jewish atmosphere devoid of stereotypes. He sang with us and even took an active part in the minyan. “This is an experience I will never forget,” he said. “My entire outlook has changed.”
He said he had been raised on a kibbutz and had never put on t’fillin. They had not taught him that it’s necessary to keep Jewish tradition. We arranged to meet on Sunday before he went off hiking and that’s when he put on t’fillin for the first time in his life. Judging by how excited he was, I am sure that wasn’t the last time.
The Shabbos before the earthquake, someone who had served as deputy minister in Shamir’s government joined us. Instead of my talking about the Rebbe, he did. He told about fascinating yechiduyos that he had and about the Rebbe’s prophetic vision and the people around the table loved it.
When the Earthquake Hit
Every day we had dozens of people at the Chabad house. Many of them put on t’fillin and learned. There were regular shiurim on a level that enabled anyone to participate. What interrupted all this was an unanticipated earthquake.
Miraculously, unlike a typical day, there were only two people in the Chabad house at the time of the quake when we normally had dozens. It was just I and a tourist by the name of Tom. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him. We were in the middle of an intense conversation when suddenly, at one in the afternoon, the earth began to shake with no prior warning. All the chairs and tables began moving and we were terrified. The building began to shake like a lulav. We slid from corner to corner. Rocks crumbled from the ceiling and the walls began to break. Cracks appeared and within seconds the walls began to fall.
Instinctively, I began running for the exit but it wasn’t easy since the tremors thrust us back into the room time after time, and it was only by a miracle that we managed to reach the door from where we jumped to the stairs outside the building.
Tom, who just a few moments earlier had been deep into questions about faith, began screaming the Shma. Even when we were outside, he continued screaming Shma. For the first time I saw the power of the Jewish soul. I have no explanation for how we emerged alive and well, without even a scratch except for shluchei mitzva einam nizakin(emissaries to do a mitzva are not harmed).
Out on the street the scene was frightening. I was very worried about my wife and baby. If the Chabad house had collapsed, my own home could have fallen apart too. I ran towards the house.
All phone lines including cell phones were not working and you couldn’t call anyone. Tom went along with me. Outside there was destruction and mayhem as though someone had dropped a mighty bomb on the city. All the roads and cars were obstructed by cement blocks. Parts of buildings were strewn about. People were screaming which is so uncharacteristic of New Zealanders.
People were concerned about their dear ones and they looked in shock. I ran home, jumping over rocks and being careful not to get hurt. What normally took a short time, took a long time to traverse. You had to be alert, looking down for rocks and cement that filled the streets and looking up in prayer that nothing fell on you. I kept hearing the sound of things falling and breaking.
My Wife and Child Were Waiting
Here and there I continued to see big cement beams continue to fall from buildings, and people running in fear for their lives. I finally got home and was relieved to see that my wife and son were fine. The building was badly damaged but had miraculously not collapsed. I immediately took them out of the building, fearful that it could collapse at any minute.
My wife was in a state of shock. She told me that the baby had been sleeping when the earthquake began. When the building began to shake she wanted to get to his room but could not. It was only after the tremors stopped that she reached his room and found him awake, not making a sound but holding out his arms to be picked up. She picked him up and was rushing to leave when I came in.
Without anyone telling us what to do, we rushed to distance ourselves from the more developed areas. In the center of the city are many tall buildings and any minute a slight wind could bring them down. It was at this point that I realized that I had a shlichus to do, to take care of Jews. We sat down in a small park on the edge of the city, not far from my house, and I decided to make a list of the Israelis who were in the city in order to keep track of where everybody was. Word spread quickly that we were in the park and the Israelis flocked to us. I wrote down each person’s name and the number on their identity card.
This is how I found out about something amazing that a group of Israelis, who had been in combat units and were trained as medics, did. Minutes after the earthquake, they burst into buildings, putting themselves in danger, and saving the lives of many people. Word of their daring deeds got around and made a big Kiddush Hashem. Many people owe them their lives.
They told me about some of the people they rescued who, if they had not applied a tourniquet, would not have survived more than a few minutes. Unfortunately, Israelis are experienced in situations where speed is the name of the game. Over here, the rescue teams work slowly and methodically, afraid of making a mistake.
As time passed, more and more Israelis gathered in the park. At first I called (when service was restored) all the Israelis who were in touch with the Chabad house and checked that they were okay. For a few hours I felt relieved, thinking we had emerged intact, but that proved to be a mistake.
Due to the huge volume of cell calls it was hard to get through and every call I was able to make, made me happy.
I slowly became cognizant of the miracles. Whoever was in the center of the city during the earthquake and emerged alive, is a walking miracle. Even the locals realize that the tragedy could have been a lot greater, although the prime minister called it the greatest tragedy in the history of the country. More and more Jewish tourists came to the park, all of them talking about the devastating quake. By nine that night there were nearly ninety Israelis there.
Many parents back home began calling me to find out if I knew where their children are. I told them what I knew, based on my list. The list was constantly updated and it was given to the embassy and from there it was sent to the situation room in the Foreign Ministry. That was a smart thing we did, because many Israelis had no way of calling. Internet connections were down and most of them don’t have mobile phones. Those who did have phones lost them in the commotion. Many of the women were traumatized and just wanted to return home and they needed to be calmed down, as did the rest of the crowd.
In the evening, two girls and a guy showed up, all of them sobbing. They were new tourists who had recently come to the city and hadn’t yet visited the Chabad house. They said they were in a van during the earthquake but their friend, 23-year-old Ofer Mizrachi from Kibbutz Magal, who was the driver, screamed that they should get out of the van and find shelter. He intended on getting out of the van too but although they were saved, he was buried under a chunk of cement that fell from a building on the front of the van where he sat. He was killed in an instant. They didn’t stop crying. A trip that was supposed to have been fun and full of adventure had turned into a painful tragedy.
They kept repeating that he saved their lives when he realized the danger but he had not saved himself. That is when I realized that we had sustained losses too and it was very painful. It was hard to face the pain of these young people whose good friend had perished before their eyes. We all shared the pain even though none of us knew Ofer. We tried supporting one another and at some point, some of them opened sifrei T’hillim and together, we began reading p’sukim in the merit of those who were not yet found so a miracle would happen and they would all emerge safely.
At night, the police took us to a large “refugee camp” that had been built in one of the city’s big parks. The city center was closed by the police and military forces. Nobody could go in or out. Rescue forces worked even more slowly fearing that more buildings would collapse.
Huge tents were erected in the makeshift camp and they brought food and drinks, mattresses and blankets. We stayed there that night. Small groups of tourists stayed in other camps that were built near the airport. On Wednesday morning they flew all the Israeli tourists as well as local residents to a northern island far from the city center which was still a danger zone.
My wife and I remained in the city in order to be able to continue looking for Israelis and to help the Mizrachi family release the body of their son and enable him to be buried as soon as possible. In the meantime, the ambassador and the consul arrived and we began working together – they, on the diplomatic front and me, on the practical front.
That day we still had about thirty names of Israelis who had not made contact. Many of them were hiking and hadn’t even heard about the earthquake and didn’t think of calling their parents. It was only when they came back to civilization and found out what happened that they contacted us, and every day our list shrank. By Friday there were only two names left of people we knew had been there during the earthquake and we feared for their lot.
Friday morning my wife left on a flight to Melbourne to recover from the terrible experience and in any case, there were no tourists left in the city. It was still dangerous and we don’t recommend that anyone visit here in the upcoming months until everything returns to normal.
I spent Shabbos with a local Jewish family. It was a sad and quiet Shabbos, not the kind I was used to with a hundred guests and lots of simcha and divrei Torah. I felt lonely. Some other Jewish local families came to the house to be together at this time. It was consoling that nobody had been hurt within the local Jewish community.
There is not a building or house that did not sustain at least some cracks and some of them had walls collapse. You can literally see the miracles. In other countries, after an earthquake like this you would hear about tens of thousands of killed and many wounded. This time, despite the sorrow over the tourist who was killed, the vast majority was alive and well.
On Shabbos I met Mrs. Chana L. She and her husband Avi live here and are members of the local community. She asked me to accompany her to her home since she wanted to show me something. When we got there, I saw a demolished house. The walls of the kitchen had collapsed and everything was in a shambles. You couldn’t live in this house any longer. I looked around and asked her to tell me how she survived.
It turned out that shortly before the earthquake she decided, completely unexpectedly, to visit a pregnant friend who has several children and was having a hard time managing. In addition, the woman’s husband was out of town. She decided to surprise her friend and prepare food for her and the kids.
During the earthquake she wasn’t at home and when she returned to see what had happened to her house, she couldn’t believe her eyes – it was completely destroyed. She could well imagine what would have happened if she had remained at home.
Everybody here has a story of their own personal miracle.
The Chabad House is Still Close
C-C is the main city in the southern island and that is where tourists go. The Israelis land here, get hold of a car, and spend weeks driving all over the gorgeous country. They leave from here, from the Chabad house, and return here. At the Chabad house they meet to ask questions and exchange information about where they should go next. A few weeks before the big trip they are in the city making arrangements and some of them work to earn some money. Before they return to Eretz Yisroel they stay here too and visit the Chabad house every day. I know all of them by name.
The airport was closed because of the earthquake and the hospital was emptied because of fear of collapse but later on it reopened. Phone lines were destroyed and water pipes burst, flooding the streets. Many cars were buried under the rubble. The local electric company said that in the most hard-hit areas it would take at least two weeks to restore service. Many people had been stuck in office towers and firemen had to use special extended ladders to extricate them from the roofs of buildings.
It was first on Shabbos that I began to realize how everything had come to a stop. On Motzaei Shabbos we went back to review the lists with the people from the embassy. At first we had 85 people who had not made contact and then it was done to two: Ofer Levy and Gabi Ingel, 22 year olds from Rechovot [ed. whose bodies were subsequently identified]. We went to all the hotels, hostels and places where Israelis go; we went through lists of thousands of names in order to find the names of Israelis that we were missing. It was hard work but we had a sense of mission.
At this point, we are working on getting Ofer’s body released [ed. It was subsequently released and he was buried in Eretz Yisroel]. The bureaucracy is difficult but we know that the sooner he is buried, the better for his neshama. At the beginning of the week, volunteers from the IDF’s Rear Command who specialize in searching for missing people under rubble came to help out but the local government did not allow them to operate and we are working on this too, together with the embassy.
Everything moves slowly. Just now, nearly a week after the tragedy, the government began asking for help from foreign countries. It asked the Israeli government to help with sanitation, water purification and mobile structures so they can deal with the tremendous damage caused to the city. Until it’s all over, we are not thinking of the next stage. Our thoughts are focused on finding Israelis and then we’ll see what we’ll do next.
You still can’t enter the Chabad house as the entire area is closed off. I keep on writing to the Rebbe in my mind and asking for him to guide me and help me in this trying situation. One of the most difficult times for me, when I turned to the Rebbe, was at the Friday night meal.
We are used to simcha and dancing with our guests and there I was, making Kiddush for a few people and I felt that everything had collapsed and whatever we had built up had to be started over again from zero whether in relationships with people or in terms of a well established Chabad house, and who knows when it can reopen and when tourists will show up again? Will we yet sit with dozens of tourists, sharing a Shabbos meal together?
A few weeks before the earthquake, the shliach Mendy Goldstein went to Australia to fundraise for the mikva we planned on building. There is no mikva anywhere on the southern island. We were supposed to sign a contract on a piece of land where a big, beautiful Chabad house would be built. The contract was going to be signed on the eve of the day the earthquake took place and now all our plans were down the drain.
But it must be said loud and clear, despite the sadness over the loss of lives and property, we know that great miracles took place here. Fortunate are we that we are Chassidim. We remain unfazed by the difficulties. We are shluchim and as long as we need to be on shlichus, we will carry it out. I have no doubt that all the events taking place in the world are paving the way for the Rebbe’s hisgalus. May it happen immediately.