“We get hugs from people. They say, 'Thank you for coming from Israel to help us. We appreciate you very much.” Itzik Itach shares the warm reception he and his fellow Israeli rescue workers have received over the past few days in Surfside, Florida, where authorities are still sifting through the rubble of the Champlain Towers. Approximately 140 are still trapped underground and unaccounted for. To date 18 bodies have been pulled out of the rubble.

In the days after the catastrophic collapse of Champlain Towers, rescue workers began a frantic search for survivors. The situation has been gut-wrenching for families waiting to hear news.

Israel has a long record of sending experts to aid in disaster situations, and several Israeli organizations quickly assembled teams to help with the rescue operation in Florida. Israel’s military dispatched a team of expert searchers from their National Rescue Unit, where they are aiding Miami-Dade Fire Rescue teams as they search for survivors. The operation is called Yad Achim – Helping Hand for Brothers.

Itzik Itach at the site of Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida

A number of Israeli volunteers also raced to Florida to try to help. Among them is Itzik Itach, an undersea rescuer from Israel’s volunteer medical group Hatzalah, who travelled from his home in Jerusalem to Surfside, Florida, to aid at the scene. In an Aish.com exclusive interview, he explained how he’s been able to provide some help and comfort to families waiting for news of their loved ones.

“I'm part of the delegation from SSF – Rescues Without Borders. a rescues organization working with Magen David Adom first responders that travels to help with disasters worldwide,” he explains. A few days ago he was told he had just moments to travel to Ben Gurion airport in Israel in preparation for a rescue mission in Florida. Itzik said goodbye to his wife and four young children and raced to board his flight, determined to help any way he could. He joined four other SSF volunteers, all with extensive medical and rescue experience, including in counseling people experiencing trauma and stress.

An expert in solar energy, Itzik recalls deciding to train as a paramedic five years ago after witnessing a car accident in Jerusalem. He was so upset at not knowing what to do to aid an injured person, he resolved to learn how to be a medic so that he could help people in the future. Since then, Itzik has worked to help victims of scores of natural accidents and terror attacks in Israel and abroad.

Golan Vach, Commander of Israel Defense Forces’ National Rescue Unit

While search and rescue teams continue to hunt underneath the rubble for victims, Itzik and his fellow SSF volunteers have been working with the families of people who are still unaccounted for. “They show us pictures of their loved ones and say ‘Maybe you saw them?’ It’s so sad...and we really share in their pain and try to give everything we can.”

He’s noticed that the presence of so many Israeli volunteers from various organizations has boosted the morale of some of those who are waiting for word about their loved ones. Some family members have commented to him that they felt a new sense of urgency and hope when the Israelis arrived. “Israel has great technologies in disaster relief due to our extensive experience. It’s in the excavations, in manpower, in professionalism.”

For Itzik and the other SSF volunteers, trauma counseling has been a major need. “The families are craving information about their loved ones." He and his fellow SSF volunteers are there to spend hours sitting with families, listening to their fears and sharing their pain.

It’s been a terrible time. Relatives are in torment, not knowing whether their loved ones might still be alive underneath the collapsed tower. Itzik describes the need for help and support as acute. “With a strong hug, with loving actions, we are showing them that there is somebody there with them,” he explains.

Some of the SSF volunteers in Florida

The alacrity with which Israelis have rushed to Florida has a wider message for the Jewish world, Itzik observes, quoting the famous statement by the Jewish sage Rashi that all of Israel stood k’ish echad b’lev echad – One man with one heart (Rashi, Exodus 19:2). “We want to show solidary with our fellow Jews in Florida and around the world."

Itzik notes that whenever there are disasters in Israel, American Jews step up to help the Jewish state. “If something happens in Israel, you are coming all the time, we see it,” he explains. “Now something happened here, so we come. Whatever happens to one Jew, all the other Jews come and help him – this is the important thing.”

With the search and rescue operation continuing, Itzik sees his mission helping comfort the families continuing. Despite the difficulty of this work, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be right now than helping aiding his fellow Jews and others. “The role of the people of Israel is to help each other anywhere in the world.”