Surside, Florida (GTA) – It was not Nahman Shai’s first visit to the United States as Israel’s new minister for diaspora affairs under normal circumstances.
“In hard times, in times of disaster, we have to stand shoulder to shoulder with Americans,” he said in an interview Sunday at The Shul, the Chabad-Lubavitch Synagogue located about a mile from the crumbling remains of the Champlain Towers building. Here he left more than 150 people missing.
Shay, 74, was once known as the quiet, calm and collected IDF spokesman during the 1991 Gulf War who served to comfort anxious and grieving Israeli families. So it made sense that he immediately began looking for local Jewish families to talk to upon landing on Sunday.
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He also met with Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniela Levine Cava and US Senator Rick Scott of Florida.
“This is an American tragedy,” Shay said. “And then when we have Florida, and then we have the Jewish community, so in all circles, we felt there was an obligation to come and help come and express our solidarity and our sympathy, and do our best to ease a little bit of the pain and grief that Americans are facing.”
Shay’s other mission is to mend the fraught relations between Israel and the American diaspora. For many American Jews, these ties were weakened by the government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The feud between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel is a serious national crisis,” Shay said June 12 on Twitter in his first post comment. “I will be interested in working through the national responsibility to reconnect the diaspora to Israel.”
Netanyahu has strained relations with the majority of liberal American Jews in the diaspora by failing to fulfill his promises to raise the profile of the non-Orthodox denominations, through his closeness to President Donald Trump and angering the Democratic Party with a series of partisan moves.
Jacob Solomon, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, said Shay, who for years ran the Israeli arm of the Organization of North American Jewish Federations (then called United Jewish Communities), is familiar with American Jews. Prior to serving as a spokesperson for the Israeli army and the Jewish Justice Committee, he was press secretary for the Israel delegation to the United Nations in New York.
He joined Israeli politics as part of the center-left Kadima party in 2009, and was elected to parliament this year as a member of the Labor Party. Party leader Merav Michaeli Shai was appointed to the post.
“Minister Shay is a good friend of the community and he is well suited for this role,” Suleiman said in an interview.
Florida residents, particularly the Jewish community, enthusiastically welcomed Shay and his team, which included a group of Israeli lifeguards.
“The delegation includes 10 experts who can help the American rescue teams,” Shay said. “We have some experience, unfortunately, from previous situations like this.”
Israeli rescuers, trained in search and rescue in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, have over recent decades become a first call to disaster countries.
“Jews all over the world look to Israel as a source of support, sometimes as a source of coming and saving them,” Shay said.
“But it’s not just about the Jews,” he added of the Surfside tragedy. “I have to make sure this is fully understood. It is about humans, or a national tragedy.” PJC