SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — An Israeli backpacker was among dozens killed in an earthquake that devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand and destroyed its Chabad center.
At least 65 people are reported dead and many buildings toppled, including the city’s Chabad house, in Tuesday’s temblor, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.
The Israeli, who has not yet been named by his country’s embassy officials, was in a car with three other Israelis when a building collapsed on them, according to Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Friedman.
At least 100 others were believed to still be trapped in buildings Tuesday night in what Prime Minister John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee who escaped Europe to England on the eve of the Holocaust, said could be the nation’s “darkest day”.
Israel, which has hundreds of nationals trekking in New Zealand every year, offered to send food and medicine to help; Magen David Adom is assessing the possibility of sending rescue personnel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry believes there could be up to 150 Israelis currently in Christchurch.
Friedman, a New York-born emissary at the Chabad House in Christchurch, was inside with an Israeli backpacker when the quake jolted the city just before 1p.m. local time.
“All of a sudden walls, ceilings started coming in on us, the shake was shifting us side to side,” said Friedman, who has been in the largest city on the South Island for less than three months. “We just ran. I have no idea how we managed to get out of there.”
The Chabad House had the city’s only kosher cafe.
Friedman said he gathered about 60 Israelis, including the three survivors from the car, in Latimar Square in downtown Christchurch, where he offered counseling and support.
“A group [of Israelis] went in to help evacuate people in buildings which were collapsing. They were experienced in the army,” he said, adding that some came out bloodied with scratches and wounds.
Wellington-based David Zwartz, a former president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, said he received a text message from Bettina Wallace, the immediate past president of Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, the main synagogue in the region, reading “Shul damaged but fixable.”
The quake came less than six months after the last tremor rocked the city inSeptember. Although it registered higher on the Richter scale, it did less damage, with the Chabad House and the main synagogue surviving intact.
Of New Zealand’s 7,000 Jews, about 2,000 live in Christchurch, with the majority in Auckland and Wellington on the North Island.