On Tuesday Israeli Col. Golan Vach worked alongside local rescue teams to locate the bodies of a Jewish couple buried in the pile of rubble where the Champlain Towers South Condo once stood.
Vach, who heads a specialized search and rescue unit of the Israel Defense Forces, started to gather personal belongings near the couple, mostly shreds of paper, notes and books. He noticed that many books were texts from the Talmud, a compilation of Rabbinical discussions, debates and the teachings of Jewish religious law.
Someone, Vach doesn’t remember who, snapped an image of Vach in an orange helmet and red gloves, handing the small stack of dark blue books to a South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team member.
The image went viral on American Jewish social media and WhatsApp groups, with commenters from around the word marking the symbolism of rescuers giving as much care to holy texts as they do to the victims of the collapse.
“It was special in this event to do your holy mission to get these things back to their families,” Vach told the Miami Herald.
He noted that under Jewish law, religious texts are not to be discarded. If they are damaged beyond repair, they are buried with the same care as a person.
“We are doing this with very much dignity, very much respect,” he said. “We are trying to do this mission the best we can.”
The books, as well as all items recovered from the rubble, are put into boxes and taken to a warehouse to be inspected by detectives for evidence of what may have caused the collapse, which killed at least 46 and left 94 missing. After they are inspected, they will be released back to the families, Vach said.
Bal Harbour Mayor Gabriel Groisman, who tweeted the photo, said the photo represents the homes people built in the Surfside building and the loss they suffered when it collapsed.
“Everybody at some point is missing the physical items that they’ve lost in addition to the people they’ve lost,” he said. “In the Jewish religion, we keep these books in the house. When you fill your house with Jewish text, your house becomes a home. To see those in the rubble is symbolic of the lives lost.”
Raphael Poch, one of the responders from Israeli group United Hatzalah, said uncovering the books is “very, very significant.” Books gained even more importance during the Holocaust, he said, when Jewish texts were burned. Now, after fires in synagogues or homes, Jewish books are often the first things people try to rescue.
“These are books Jewish people carried with them for thousands of years,” Poch told the Miami Herald.
Kevin Morrisey, a program manager with the Urban Search and Rescue New Jersey Task Force 1, said similar personal effects are being found in the rubble and handled with care.
Morrisey, who has been on the rubble pile, said rescuers have been taught how to sift through rubble and set aside personal items they find.
“As they’re going through the debris, they’re finding family heirlooms, personal effects,” he said. “It’s kind of like you’re steeled to it, because you’re mission-driven, you’re goal-oriented and as you get through you simply move it aside, you save it, because you know you’re preserving a piece of somebody.”
Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report