Israel Sends Help to Florida After Hurricane Ian

The Consul General of Israel in Miami returned to his Miami home at 10 p.m., Oct. 3, after taking supplies to Hurricane Ian hard-hit areas of southwestern Florida and didn’t expect to return the next day, on the eve of Yom Kippur. But Consul General Maor Elbaz-Starinsky said he was headed to the lunch at the Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida, before he returned home to his five children for Yom Kippur.

The lunch, for first responders and survivors, was one of thousands of kosher meals provided after the Hurricane struck the day after Rosh Hashanah. But this lunch was going to be different. “I invited everyone to lunch,” specifically mentioning the Jewish Mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava.

Also attending was Florida’s First Lady, Casey DeSantis. Greeting the dignitaries was Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz, director of Chabad of Southwest Florida and brother to Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz of Chabad of North Fulton, and Rabbi Peretz Meir Simcha Minkowicz, assistant rabbi at Chabad of Southwest Florida and Yitzchok’s son. Eran Hazan, of Yedidim USA, was responsible for setting up the whole food operation that provided the hot meals for the community.

According to Elbaz-Starinsky, the team of Israeli rescuers representing United Hatzalah emergency response organization, who had arrived in Florida days earlier, were also represented. That team included members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit as well as emergency medical technicians. They arrived in Florida to provide psychological first aid and emotional stabilization, according to Hatzalah, an all-volunteer non-profit emergency medical service.

As Elbaz-Starinsky explained, this organization differs from the Israel Defense Forces National Rescue Unit that sent a search and rescue team to Florida after the partial collapse of a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside on June 24, 2021.

Nearly 100 people died in the collapsed Champlain Towers South, many of whom had friends and relatives in the Atlanta area. Elbaz-Starinsky remembers that disaster well. He started his position as consul general four days before the Surfside tragedy. “I brought the search and rescue team to Florida,” he recalled. “I’ve gone from disaster to disaster.”

According to estimates published in the 2020 American Jewish Year Book, the Fort Myers metro area, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian, has approximately 7,500 Jews. The Times of Israel reported that the Jewish community in southwest Florida is relatively new compared to other areas of Florida.

But the Israeli teams brought to Florida to assist after these disasters don’t come just to help the Jewish community. “We do whatever we can do to alleviate suffering for everyone, not just Jews,” said Elbaz-Starinsky, although acknowledging the large Jewish and Israeli communities in the area. “The U.S. has no better friend than Israel and Israel has no better friend than the U.S. These are our shared values.”

United Hatzalah sent its team to Florida not long after another team was sent to Puerto Rico to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. “When we saw the level of damage caused by Hurricane Ian and the fact that millions of people were forced to evacuate and suffered losses and damage, we knew we had to help,” said Gavy Friedson, director of International Emergency Management for Hatzalah.

“This is our fastest turn-around time ever for separate missions,” said vice president of operations of United Hatzalah Dov Maisal. “It makes me proud of all of our dedicated volunteers.”

Friedson, who was an EMT in Israel with the organization, now lives in Washington, D.C.

The Florida mission is his third hurricane relief mission, and his second in Florida, after having also been a part of the relief team that was sent to assist after Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017.

Just before the team left for Florida, Maisal explained that “We’re going because people are in need of help and we can’t sit idly by when this level of disaster strikes.”