Rabbi Shmuel Friedman was stopped by Christchurch police as he tried to reach his stricken Chabad House following last week’s earthquake….but the officer heeded his pleas to recover the two Sefer Torahs and carried out the recovery himself.
Yesterday, accompanied by Israeli backpacker Noam Diamant, Rabbi Friedman headed towards the Christchurch city centre where what is left of Chabad House is located. Detective Chris Bell was manning the barricades and told the two hopefuls that there was no way he could let them into the CBD as the entire are was cordoned off. “I pleaded with him”, Rabbi Friedman told J-Wire. “I explained how the Torah was hand-written on special parchment and that it was the Jewish bible and how much importance was attached to them.”
The detective heeded their please and took them in a police car to what is left of Chabad House. Rabbi Friedman said: “It was a five minute drive…but it was a horrifying experience. The entire block which houses Chabad House is red-tagged and will be totally demolished. I didn’t recognise the street. When we reached the building , the detective told us that there was no way we could enter the building as it had been officially blocked from entry and was too dangerous. I pleaded with him again.”
Detective Bell said nothing. He headed for his car, donned a safety helmet and work gloves and headed into the remains of Chabad House. A few minutes later he emerged carrying both Sefer Torahs under his arm. Rabbi Friedman said: “He looked like a fireman rescuing a baby from a blazing home. Thee two Torahs will form an integral part of the rebuilding of Chabad House in Christchurch.”
Rabbi Friedman was in Chabad House with one Israeli backpacker last Tuesday when the earthquake hit. He told J-Wire what happened. “There are usually about twenty Israelis in Chabad House at any given time. They use it as a social and networking centre and we are of course happy to accommodate them. It was a miracle there was only one with me at the time. I don’t know how would could have got twenty out. The whole building started shaking and we could see the walls beginning to separate from the ceiling. There was no way of making a quick exit. It was more a matter of stumbling our way to the staircase and clambering down the stairs from first-floor building. When we made it into the street, it was like entering a war zone. There was masonry everywhere and we could see cars buried under rubble. People were running in panic. My initial reaction was to get to my apartment two blocks away where my wife Tzippy was at home with our 12-month-old baby Moshe. Our apartment is on the 4th floor but had not been damaged. I grabbed the two of them and headed to what I believed would be the safety of nearby Latimer Park. I then called all the Israelis whose numbers were registered on my phone and told them to head towards the same park. After about fifteen minutes, more than 60 Israelis had joined us. I had asked the ones I knew to contact all their friends to head for the park also. The Israelis immediately started calling home to Israel to let their families know they were OK and I gathered their official IDs to let the Israeli Embassy know who was accounted for.”
J-Wire asked Rabbi Friedman how long the earthquake itself lasted. “About thirty seconds” he replied. “But it seemed an eternity.”
Today, according to Rabbi Friedman, all Israelis have left Christchurch as have many of the cities 80 resident Jewish families. He said: “Many of them have lost homes and businesses. We said prayers last weekend…but we did not have a minyan. This coming Shabbat we are again unlikely to have a minyan…but we have our Torahs and we will hold a service in someone’s home.”
Three Israeli backpackers lost their lives in the earthquake, Ofer Mizrahi, Ofer Levy and Gabi Ingel. Two other remain unaccounted for but officials believe they may be travelling elsewhere in New Zeealand. Rabbi Friedman said: “One of them I know contacts home only every couple of months and has been travelling for two years.”
In Christchurch itself, an Israeli Disaster Victim Identification team continues its gruesome task of helping New Zew Zealand authorities identify the remains of those who lost their lives in the earthquake. The death toll has reached 160 and a third of the city still has no water supply.