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Tuesday, October 3, 2023 - 18 Tishrei 5784
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Miracles in New Zealand
by Rabbi Shmuel Friedman

I had only been living in New Zealand as a permanent Chabad Shliach for two-and-a-half months before the earthquake, although my relationship with the city goes back five years, when I used to visit as a rabbinical student. Our main work is with young Israeli tourists who come to explore the beautiful countryside.

Every day we had dozens of people at the Chabad house and offered regular Torah classes. What interrupted all this was an unanticipated earthquake. Miraculously, unlike a typical day, when we normall had dozens, there were only two people in the Chabad house at the time of the quake. Just me and a tourist named Tom.

We were in the middle of an intense conversation when suddenly, at one in the afternoon, the earth began to shake with no prior warning. Rocks crumbled from the ceiling and the walls began to break. Cracks appeared and within seconds the walls began to fall.

Instinctively, I began running for the exit but it wasn’t easy since the tremors thrust us back into the room time after time. Finally we managed to reach the door, from where we jumped to the stairs outside the building.

Tom, who just a few moments earlier had been deep into questions about faith, began screaming the Shma. For the first time I saw the power of the Jewish soul.

The scene on the street was frightening. I was very worried about my wife and baby. If the Chabad house had collapsed, my own home could have fallen apart too. I ran towards the house and Tom followed.

Outside there was destruction and mayhem as though someone had dropped a mighty bomb on the city. All the roads and cars were obstructed by cement blocks. Here and there I continued to see big cement beams continue to fall from buildings, and people running in fear for their lives.

I finally got home and was relieved to see that my wife and son were fine. The building was badly damaged but had miraculously not collapsed. I immediately took them out of the building, fearful that it could collapse at any minute.

My wife told me that the baby had been sleeping when the earthquake began. When the building began to shake she wanted to get to his room but could not. It was only after the tremors stopped that she reached his room and found him awake, not making a sound but holding out his arms to be picked up. She picked him up and was rushing to leave when I came in.

Without anyone telling us what to do, we rushed to distance ourselves from the more developed areas. We sat down in a small park on the edge of the city, not far from my house, and I decided to make a list of the Israelis who were in the city in order to keep track of where everybody was.

Word spread quickly that we were in the park and the Israelis flocked to us. I wrote down each person’s name and the number on their identity card. I found out that a group of Israelis, who had been in combat units and were trained as medics, had burst into buildings minutes after the earthquake, putting themselves in danger and saving the lives of many people. They told me about some of the people they rescued who, if they had not applied a tourniquet, would not have survived more than a few minutes.

I slowly became cognizant of the miracles. Whoever was in the center of the city during the earthquake and emerged alive, is a walking miracle.

Many parents back home in Israel began calling me to find out if I knew where their children are. I told them what I knew, based on my list. The list was constantly updated and was given to the embassy. From there it was sent to the situation room in the Foreign Ministry.

In the evening, two girls and a guy showed up, all of them sobbing. They were new tourists who had recently come to the city. They said they were in a van during the earthquake but their friend, 23-year-old Ofer Mizrachi from Kibbutz Magal, who was the driver, screamed that they should get out of the  van and find shelter. The passengers were saved, but just then a chunk of cement fell from a building right on to the front of the van, where Ofer sat. He was killed in an instant. They kept repeating that he saved their lives when he realized the danger but he had not managed to save himself.

The next day all the Israeli tourists cleared out, but my wife and I remained in the city in order to be able to continue looking for Israelis and to help the Mizrachi family release the body of their son and enable him to be buried as soon as possible.

Friday morning my wife and baby left on a flight to Melbourne to recover from the terrible experience. I spent Shabbos with a local Jewish family. It was a sad and quiet Shabbos, not the kind I was used to with a hundred guests and lots of joy and words of Torah.

It was consoling that nobody had been hurt within the local Jewish community. There is not a building or house that did not sustain at least some cracks and some of them had walls collapse. You can literally see the miracles.

On Shabbos I met Mrs. Chana L. She and her husband Avi live here and are members of the local community. She asked me to accompany her to her home since she wanted to show me something. When we got there, I saw a demolished house. The walls of the kitchen had collapsed and everything was in a shambles. She told me that shortly before the earthquake she decided, completely unexpectedly, to visit a pregnant friend who has several children and was having a hard time managing. In addition, the woman’s husband was out of town. She decided to surprise her friend and prepare food for her and the kids.

During the earthquake she wasn’t at home and when she returned to see what had happened to her house, she couldn’t believe her eyes – it was completely destroyed. She could well imagine what would have happened if she had remained at home.

Everybody here has a story of their own personal miracle. Right now our Chabad House is in shambles, but with the power of the Rebbe, who sent us, we hope to be back in business soon, bigger and better than ever.


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