Remembering those whose lives were lost
By: Tzali Reicher, Rochel Horowitz, Mordechai Lightstone & Menachem Posner
During the early-morning hours of June 24, 2021, while most residents were asleep, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside, Fla., partially collapsed, leaving more than 100 residents and guests missing beneath the rubble.
In the hours and days that followed, the world was both united in grief for those who perished and galvanized into action for those who might be saved, as desperate search and rescue efforts began. When the efforts came to an end on June 26—more than a month later—98 people had been declared dead. Four people were rescued from the rubble in the days after the collapse, but one died of injuries shortly after arriving at the hospital
(Comprehensive news coverage and articles about the tragedy and the Surfside Jewish community can be found at a special section here.)
The following are obituaries of some of the victims, which Chabad.org published a year ago.
May the memories of all who lost their lives be a blessing.
Tzvi Ainsworth, 68, and Itty Ainsworth, 66: Devoted Parents and Chabad Community Pillars
Modest and dignified, Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth were beloved by all who knew them, and were noted for their generous hospitality and devotion towards helping others in need. Friends note how Tzvi Ainsworth would arrive each day without fail at the Chabad center in Double Bay, Australia, tefillin in hand, and would assist people in performing the mitzvah. In their quiet and unassuming manner, the Ainsworths touched many lives with their sincere desire to spread goodness and kindness to those around them. They were identified on Monday, July 5, as victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Fla.
Tzvi Ainsworth was visiting family in Montreal, where he was introduced to Itty Fellig more than four decades ago. The two married and settled in his native Sydney, Australia. In recent years, the Ainsworths moved to Florida, where several of their adult children had settled. There, they doted on their grandchildren and enjoyed spending time with many of their extended family members.
Leah Berger, a longtime family friend of the Ainsworths, told Chabad.org that the couple was loved by all and served as a source of strength for those around them. Having spent a few months with the Ainsworths in Israel recently, she was a firsthand witness of their love and dedication towards one another, and their strong sense of belief and trust in G d. “They were always laughing and joking together,” said Berger. “They had a hilarious sense of humor.”
“Every person she encountered, ever in her life, became her friend. Everyone was treated as equals,” wrote her daughter Chana Wasserman in a Mother’s Day blog post. “The guy at the laundromat, the guy working at the fruit market. … I know I will never be able to match my mother’s pure enthusiasm for life but it’s inspiring to watch,” wrote Wasserman.
Though Itty Ainsworth suffered from chronic pain, her condition didn’t hold her back from spreading her warmth and love with those she met. A strong proponent of positive thinking, she constantly looked at the bright side of life celebrating life’s small joys. “At times when she was struggling herself, she was giving others strength,” said Berger. “Everyone who knew Itty felt like her best friend.”
“Tzvi and Itty’s children and grandchildren were their world,” said Berger. Even as the days wore on since the tower’s collapse, their children told news reporters that they were holding tightly to the faith that their parents were still alive. We are believers, sons of believers; we believe in miracles, we believe in G d,” they said.
“And that’s exactly what their mother would say,” said Berger.
The Ainsworths’ son and daughter-in-law welcomed a daughter into the world on June 24, the day of the collapse.
Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth are survived by their children: Mendy Ainsworth; Dovy Ainsworth; Shmuly Ainsworth; Zalman Ainsworth; Nussen Ainsworth, Chana Wasserman, Levi Ainsworth, and many grandchildren.
Tzvi Ainsworth is also survived by his parents, David and Yehudit Ainsworth, and by his siblings: Esther Feiglin of Melbourne; Devora Moss of Sydney; Shoshana Deitz of Sydney.
Itty Ainsworth is also survived by her mother, Miriam Fellig, and by her siblings: Rabbi Yaakov Fellig of Coconut Grove, Fla.; Hershy Fellig of Montreal; Mendy Fellig of Miami; Chana Silverman of Hallandale, Fla.; Goldie Tennenhaus of Hallandale, Fla.; Shulamis Lurie of Hallandale, Fla.; Shneur Zalman Fellig, of Miami; Shlomo Fellig of Miami; Ouli Fellig of Miami.
The funeral took place Tuesday in New York, passing Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, followed by interment at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.
Michael Altman, 50: Loving Father and Accountant
The penthouse floor apartment in Champlain Towers South had been in his family for almost four decades by the time Michael Altman moved in back in 2015. Michael was one of the earlier victims of the building’s devastating collapse identified by recovery teams.
Born in Costa Rica, Michael moved to the United States when he was a toddler. He was an accountant by trade, and was remembered by his son Nicholas as a fighter with a keen sense of humor.
“Always smiling, he was very fun and loved to tell jokes,” Nicholas Altman told the Miami Herald. “He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top. He always inspired my brother and I to be successful in life.”
Michael is survived by his sons Nicholas and Jeffrey, and his parents Alan and Anita Altman.
“He was a great father, and a great son to my grandparents,” said Nicholas.
Deborah Berezdivin, 21: Student and Volunteer
Friends describe 21-year-old Deborah Berezdivin as an “old soul,” passionate about friendship, art, conversation, life, and Jewish observance. A native of Puerto Rico, she was in Florida with her boyfriend, Ilan Naibryf, attending the funeral of a family friend who had died of COVID. She was identified as a victim of the Champlain Tower collapse on July 9.
Mushka Lipskier, co-director of Chabad at Tulane Undergrad, where Berezdivin had been an architecture student, describes her as being “super kind and warm to people around her.”
On her first day at Tulane, Berezdivin and her parents, Jeff and Clara, visited the Chabad House and requested a mezuzah for her dorm room.
Throughout her time in Tulane, Berezdivin attended Shabbat at Chabad on a weekly basis, lighting candles and enjoying the company of her fellow Jews, especially the many Spanish-speakers among them, whom Lipskier describes as a “family unit.”
According to Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico, her paternal grandparents are among the founders of Jewish life in the territory, steeped in Jewish tradition, values, and generosity. On her mother’s side, her grandparents are pillars of Judaism in their home country of Costa Rica.
An active volunteer, she would often be found at Chabad on Thursday nights and Fridays, baking challah, preparing salads, and plating food for as many as 300 students who would show up on a Friday night.
Just before the onset of the COVID lockdowns, she and her friend Rebecca Lubin were active in arranging an intergenerational event connecting local Holocaust survivors with students, in tandem with Chabad and the local JCC. The event never took place, and Berezdivin soon transferred to GWU in the fall of 2020.
Yet, even after she left Tulane, the two continued to study Torah with Lipskier over Zoom.
Estelle Hedaya, 58, Jewelry Executive: 98th and Final Victim of Surfside Condo Collapse
More than a month after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., Estelle Hedaya, 58, has been identified as the 98th and final victim of the tragedy.
Hedaya worked in the jewelry industry in New York for more than 25 years before moving to Florida, making countless friends along the way. Many had flooded her social media pages after news of the tragedy broke—first with prayers for her wellbeing and safety, and in recent weeks with the hope that she identified for the sake of her grieving family and loved ones.
A Brooklyn native, Estelle’s mother worked in New York’s competitive jewelry market, where Estelle worked hard and made a name for herself. In 2015, she was recruited to work at Continental Buying Group and Preferred Jewelers International in Florida, and relocated to Surfside, where she lived on the 6th floor of the Champlain Towers South condominium.
A passionate traveler and foodie who loved to try new things and just have fun, Estelle ran a blog called followthetoes.com, where she shared her adventures, feelings and advice. Her friend Mindy Beth Silverman told the Miami Herald that Estelle was full of life and devoted to her Judaism, with a deep and abiding love for Israel and her fellow Jewish people.
Dr. Brad Cohen, 51: Orthopedic Surgeon and Devoted Torah Student
A gaping hole was torn in thousands of hearts after news spread that Dr. Brad Cohen was missing in the piles of rubble in the Surfside condo collapse. An orthopedic surgeon in North Miami and Miami Beach, Cohen was spending time with his brother, Dr. Gary Cohen, in a condominium on the 11th floor of Champlain Towers South at the time of the collapse. Dr. Brad Cohen was identified as a victim of the tragedy on July 16. His brother was identified a week earlier.
In addition to his loving family and grateful patients, Cohen was treasured by the Miami Jewish community. He was said to have loved nothing more than to share his Torah studies with others, refining his understanding through hearing others’ perspectives.
“It all began one day in the bank 25 years ago,” recalled Rabbi Yaakov Saacks, who directs the Jewish Chai Center in Dix Hills, N.Y., where Cohen grew up. “His mother, Deborah, whom I had never met before, came over to me and told me that her son Brad was finishing medical school in Cincinnati. During that time, he had befriended an Orthodox medical student, she said, and was interested in deepening his Jewish knowledge and observance.”
Brad soon became a regular participant in Saacks’s classes and programs. As his appreciation for Shabbat grew, he began spending every Shabbat in the Saacks home, drinking in the tranquility of the weekly holiday and enhancing his understanding of Jewish family life.
“He always asked great questions in class,” says Saacks. “He loved learning. Even as he was spending the lion’s share of his waking hours doing clinical rotations, he carved out time for Torah study. With audio cassettes and CDs, he made sure that his daily commute to and from the hospital were productively spent on Torah.”
When he married his wife, Soraya, Cohen established a fully observant home, passing on his passion for Judaism to his two children, Avi and Elisheva. In time, his passion for Judaism spread to his parents, Morton and Deborah Cohen, and to his elder brother, Gary, a physiatrist who relocated to Alabama, living in Birmingham and practicing in the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.
The family came to national attention when 12-year-old Elisheva Cohen was seen standing near the site of the tragedy in Surfside late one night reading Psalms on her phone when Surfside mayor Charles Burkett came over to her.
“I had seen this little girl before, and I know because we had talked,” the mayor later shared. “She was sitting in a chair by herself with nobody around her, looking at her phone, and I knelt down and I asked her, so what are you doing? Are you OK? She was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site where one of her parents presumably is. And that really brought it home to me. I am going to find her, and I am going to tell her that we are all here for her.”
Dr. Gary Cohen, 58, Dedicated Physician and Torah Student
The tight-knit Jewish community of Birmingham, Ala., has been united in grief upon learning that Dr. Gary (Tzvi Nosson Hakohen) Cohen had died under the piles of rubble in the Surfside condominium collapse.
A consummate student of Torah, he loved nothing more than to share his studies with others, refining his understanding through hearing others’ perspectives.
A physiatrist who was originally from Dix Hills, N.Y., he had relocated to Alabama, living in Birmingham and practicing in the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.
Inspired by his younger brother Brad, as well as the rabbis and congregants at Chabad of Alabama, he had embraced more and more Jewish practice, all the while deepening his knowledge and understanding of Torah.
“In recent years, Judaism has taken an increasingly central place in the lives of Gary and Mindy Cohen,” says Rabbi Yossi Friedman, program director at Chabad of Alabama. Dedicated to keeping Shabbat, and determined not to drive on the sacred day of rest, they either observed it alone at home, which is too far to walk to the Chabad center, or with friends, who live closer to Chabad.
Obtaining kosher food is also quite challenging in Alabama, a state with a tiny observant population and no kosher dining options, yet the Cohens gladly kept a kosher home.
“Gary was always coming over to me and sharing what he learned online or had read,” says Freidman. “With a unique persistence, he would always probe, ask, debate and discover. He was not shy about sharing his understanding, but he was always willing to listen to others and concede to them when he thought they were right. It was amazing to watch him grow and learn.”
In Florida to visit his parents, he was spending time together with his brother in a condominium on the 11th floor of the Champlain Towers South at the time of the collapse. Gary’s remains were discovered in the rubble on Wednesday, while Brad’s fate is still unknown.
In addition to his wife and brother, Gary Cohen is survived by his parents, Morton and Deborah Cohen, and sons, Jarred (Stephanie) and Seth Cohen.
David Epstein, 58, and Bonnie Epstein, 56: Real Estate Investors
David and Bonnie Epstein were snowbirds in early retirement with a passion for watersports, including kite surfing and jet skiing, who purchased a second home in Surfside after a long career in real estate investing in the Northeast.
After hearing the news of the tragic destruction of Champlain Towers South—where the Epstein’s lived on the 9th floor—their cousin, Joey Feldman, spoke about their small, warm family. They were the proud parents of one son, Jonathan, 26, of Brooklyn.
Bonnie Epstein was identified as a victim of the tragedy on Friday, July 2. Her husband, David, was identified a few days later, on Sunday July 4.
Richard Oller of Philadelphia, a friend and business partner of David Epstein for 30 years, told the Miami Herald that the couple was eagerly planning a trip up north very soon to see their son
On learning of their passing, Jonathan Epstein posted a tribute to his parents on Facebook: “… my parents were amazing people and would be touched by the outpouring of love and support we’ve received.”
Obituaries of the many of the victims and articles about the response to the tragedy by the Surfside Jewish community and the outpouring of good deeds and help from around the world can be read at the Chabad.org special section on Surfside here.