LOS ANGELES (JTA) — I left Santiago, Chile, with my wife and four children exactly two months before the massive earthquake hit on Feb. 27. My wife and I had founded NCSY in South America (Chile and Argentina) seven years ago while living in Chile.
Earthquakes were a topic of conversation in my eight years in Chile. Those who experienced the last major earthquake in 1985 — now it sounds minor — could never forget the sound and terror. There was always talk of another impending quake.
We heard of the 8.8 magnitude quake as Shabbat ended here in Los Angeles, nearly an entire day after it happened. We started speaking to friends and former students immediately after Shabbat.
Their stories were the same:
"We woke up at 3:34 Shabbat morning as our beds began to shake. Everything shook tremendously for 90 seconds, but it seemed like forever. We made our way to what we hoped was the most secure part of the house and said Shema Yisrael.”
In the words of Rabbi Efraim Sauer, director of the very successful Morasha outreach kollel (institute for advanced Jewish studies) and a close friend, "Everyone I have spoken to — friends, students, everyone — said the Shema during those 90 seconds."
Efraim’s wife, Chava, describes a flurry of activity — hiding, praying, children running. Most people ended up in the streets in their pajamas until they could work up the courage to go back inside their homes.
Looking at videos online of the destruction in Chile paints a picture of a desperate situation. Speaking to close friends creates a different feeling.
During the Musaf service of Yom Kippur we pray, regarding the earthquake-prone Sharon Valley of Israel, that “their homes should not become their graves.”
The Jewish community of Chile is located almost entirely in the newest part of Santiago. Leaving the question of why aside for a moment, it appears that the Jewish community of Chile escaped, at least physically, nearly unscathed. Some 185 miles from scenes of desperation and despair, the Jewish community began immediately to play the role of helper instead of victim.
Another close friend, Rabbi Chaim Waissbluth of Aish Hatorah in Chile, is leading one campaign. The community is being urged to bring clothing, pillows, blankets, medicine, food and water to the local Aish center. At the same time, the community gathers together to say tehillim (psalms) on behalf of the rest of Chile.
Further south, the brother of a close friend awaits reinforcements on their way from Santiago. He lived in a port town that was destroyed by the quake and the rising tides that followed. Instead of heading back home to Santiago, he has chosen to stay put, to help recovery efforts while Jewish university students are recruited to drive his father’s truck to him with supplies and reinforcements.
True to our increasingly well-known nature, the Jews of Chile look outward to see who and how to help.
There is a more difficult side to talk about. The livelihood of many Jews who live in Santiago comes from businesses located in some of the hardest-hit regions. I have many friends, for example, who work making kosher wines in the Maule Valley of Chile. Others own businesses in or near Concepcion, the area hardest hit by the quake.
At this point it is hard to know what will happen to these family businesses, which are an integral part of the Jewish community.
I have said many times that there is something special about the Jewish community of Chile, which according to estimates runs from 12,000 to 15,000, most of whom live in Santiago. There is an incredible amount of Torah learning and mitzvot performing growing exponentially each year.
So it’s not surprising to me that an integral part of the community’s response to the tragedy and challenge of the quake would revolve around spiritual growth.
Chana Bengio, who took over operations of NCSY in South America, explained the contrast between how the Jewish community dealt with the quake during the first hours.
Chana also teaches in the religious day school, and after asking the non-Jewish secular studies teachers about their first post-quake day she said, "Their entire day was running to the car trying to find a radio signal to hear what was going on, while we said ‘Baruch Hashem, we are OK,’ the men went to shul and it was Shabbat."
NCSY in South America works predominantly with students who attend Jewish community schools that lack any serious Torah curriculum. Karen Brilovich, an 11th-grader with whom my wife and I remain very close, told me the following story:
She was in Vin del Mar, a popular vacation site on the Pacific Coast 75 miles northwest of Santiago. It was Friday night, and she and her boyfriend felt bad about joining her friends for a typical night of dancing at the local discos on the beach. For some reason she was brought to tears by the thought that she was at a club on Shabbat.
Karen and her boyfriend decided to return to the condo where she was staying to salvage what was left of erev Shabbat, to create some semblance of the Shabbat that is becoming an increasingly important part of her life. She remembers leaving the front door open because she and her friend were alone together in the house, and she wanted to keep the laws of proper behavior while waiting for her friends at the club to come home.
At 3:34 the house began to shake. While the condo shook, they said the Shema with an intensity reserved for such moments. As soon as the shaking stopped, they ran out the open door and found their way downstairs to the lobby of the condo, where others now gathered. Karen remembers hearing soon after that many people were trapped behind doors that would not open as she conveys her conviction that her concern for Shabbat and the laws of behavior helped her through this situation.
Her thoughts quickly turned to the friends she left at the club near the beach. There was little else to do but wait. They wandered outside and happened across other friends, but there were no sign of the ones she left behind. Finally they arrived after walking all the way.
Karen remembers their first words as they reunited: “They said they thought of me the whole time, that they should have left the club with me, and that they never want to go out to clubs again on Shabbat. They said that they feel that God touched them from above showing that He is in complete control."
While I and my family are now physically thousands of miles away, emotionally we are with the incredible Jewish community of Chile — our students and dear friends. We pray that they continue to find the strength to reach out and help each other and the general community of Chile, and that those whose livelihood has been affected, with the help of God, find an abundance of blessing and success.
(Rabbi Shimon Vinger, director of the West Coast region of NCSY based in Los Angeles, formerly was the director of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s international youth program, in Chile for seven years.)