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Puerto Rico’s tight-knit Jewish community battered but united after Surfside tragedy

The Champlain Towers South building collapse killed three generations of a Puerto Rican Jewish family. Those who remember them want "to honor the memory and the legacy of the people we lost."
Richard Kleiman, second from left, with his friend Jay Kleiman, second from right, at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, New York in the early 80s. Jay died in the Surfside condo collapse.
Richard Kleiman, second from left, with his friend Jay Kleiman, second from right, at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, New York, in the early 1980s. Jay Kleiman died in the Surfside condominium collapse.Courtesy Richard Kleiman

Some of Richard Kleiman’s fondest memories growing up in Puerto Rico are of Highland Gardens, the neighborhood where his good friend Jay Kleiman lived.

They would play touch football on the street in the tropical heat, and attend twice-weekly Hebrew classes, along with other children from the island's tight-knit Jewish community.

He chuckled remembering their annual trips to Jewish summer camps in North Carolina and upstate New York.

“We would get there, and they would say, ‘Oh, the Puerto Ricans are here!’ We were the life of the party,” Kleiman said, remembering how they would speak in Spanish so the girls they liked wouldn't know they were talking about them.

While both friends shared the same last name, they weren’t related. But their friendship was so strong, they were “like brothers,” Richard, 52, said. “It was never like just friends. We were always together.”

The close group of Puerto Rican Jewish families whose relatives migrated to the U.S. territory over half a century ago were dealt a devastating blow recently, one that put in focus the ties that feel more like family in the island archipelago.

On June 22, Richard, who had recently moved to Miami, called Jay from his son’s bar mitzvah in the Bahamas to touch base, never imagining that would be his last conversation with him. Jay had just flown to Surfside, Florida, from Puerto Rico to attend a funeral service and was staying at the Champlain Towers South condominium tower where both his mother and older brother lived.

Jay, 52, held up his “cool dad” reputation when he answered Richard’s call with a funny, “Whazz up!” Richard recalled, adding Jay always had a smile on his face.

The building where Jay was staying partially collapsed two days later killing him, five of his family members and at least 92 other people. The Surfside building collapse has been deemed one of the deadliest structural building failures in American history.

The tragedy reverberated across Puerto Rico’s Jewish community as the devastating news came that several generations of Jay's family were missing.

The body of Frank Kleiman, 55, Jay’s older brother, was found in the rubble a few days later alongside the remains of Frank's newlywed wife Ana Ortiz, 46, and his stepson Luis Bermudez, 26; both were not Jewish. The following week, authorities recovered Jay’s body, as well as the remains of his mother, Nancy Kress Levin, 76, and his younger cousin, Deborah Berezdivin, 21.

Puerto Rico, an island of 3.2 million people, is home to more than 1,500 Jews. Despite its tiny size, it is considered the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the Caribbean, according to the World Jewish Congress.

"It’s one big family and people marry friends,” said Joni Azulay, a Jewish Puerto Rican who now lives in Florida. “We’re talking about three generations of people that are interconnected.”

Kleiman Family
Top row, from left: Frank Kleiman, Nancy Kress Levin, Jay Kleiman. Second row, from left: Deborah Berezdivin, Anna Ortiz with Luis Bermudez.Family photos

The Cuban roots of Puerto Rican Jews

The history of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico mostly traces its origins to World War II, after European Jews fled Adolf Hitler’s Nazism and the Holocaust. Many Jewish families from Poland and Turkey had settled in Cuba, according to Diego Mendelbaum, a religious leader and community director at the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico.

Kress Levin and her sister, Diana Berezdevin, were among the new generation of Cuban Jewish children. Richard said his mother used to sit next to Jay and Frank's father, Saul, in school in Cuba.

The sisters, as well as Richard's parents, were part of a group of Jewish families who left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, settling in Puerto Rico. Many were young adults who settled in newly built suburbs like Parkville in the town of Guaynabo, and had children who were born in the island.

Some of the children, like Jay, then raised their own families in Puerto Rico. In Jay's case, he had returned to the island though he had moved to Miami in his teens.

“People came to Puerto Rico to live, as a haven,” Azulay said. “Remember that they have these commonalities and ties together, so once the first family gets here, then they help the second one that comes in, and then everybody just helps each other.”

From left, Jay Kleiman, Marcos Flores and Richard Kleiman in Madrid in August 2019.
From left, Jay Kleiman, Marcos Flores and Richard Kleiman, all friends from Puerto Rico, in Madrid in August 2019.Courtesy Richard Kleiman

“The Jewish Community Center, also known as the Shaare Zedeck Synagogue, already existed for several years. But the institution acquired its character with the arrival of the Cuban Jews,” Mendelbaum said in Spanish.

A number of the families opened retail stores which became well-known businesses, including some owned by the Kress Levin and the Berezdivin families.

Diana, who lost her granddaughter Deborah in the collapse, is well known as a pillar of the community and for her influential support of the Jewish Community Center. She's one of the founders of the Young Judaea chapter in Puerto Rico, which became a central part of Jewish life on the island, organizing the summer camps that children and teens attended in the U.S. mainland.

Deborah, the youngest of the extended family to lose her life in the collapse, had become a popular counselor at one of the Jewish summer camps in North Carolina, showing that “the founding work of Diana, and her contemporaries, goes on and has inspired many generations, including Deborah’s generation,” Mendelbaum said.

‘My parents are Cuban, but I’m Puerto Rican’

Tommy Babil, 48, who was also born and raised in Puerto Rico to Cuban Jewish parents, lived across the street from Jay and Frank in Highland Gardens. They grew up building makeshift backboards onto palm trees to play basketball and eating “limbers,” or Puerto Rican popsicles.

“We all grew up in the same type of background,” Babil said, explaining that their parents “definitely made an extra effort to instill, and to teach us, what was our religion.” 

Richard Kleiman, left, and his friend Jay Kleiman, right, with Tommy and Michael Babi, both sitting, in Dorado, Puerto Rico, around 1985.
Richard Kleiman, left, and his friend Jay Kleiman, right, with Tommy and Michael Babil, both sitting, in Dorado, Puerto Rico, around 1985.Courtesy Michael Babil

Like other Puerto Rican Jews of his generation, Babil said it's not where his parents or grandparents grew up that he identifies with and calls home.

“It’s funny, people ask me, ‘So what, do you feel you're Cuban or Puerto Rican? Your parents are Cuban, so you must be Cuban,'" Babil said. "But I say I’m not Cuban, I’ve never been to Cuba. I think about Cuba, my parents are Cuban — but I’m Puerto Rican.”

Babil attended college in the U.S. and ended up settling in Florida, like many other Puerto Ricans who have moved north. He had recently met up with Frank and briefly met Ana, and they had promised each other they would get together.

Days later, Babil, Azulay, Kleiman and many other Jewish Puerto Ricans living on the island and in Florida attended the burials of those who lost their lives in the building collapse.

Azulay estimates that about 1,000 people attended in-person and countless others did it virtually via Zoom.

“You could hear a pin drop in the room,” she said. “Everybody knew somebody in that building."

“Of course, that the grief of the family is 10 times more than that of anybody else,” Azulay said. “But it really is like a tree with many branches. It really extends out way beyond the family.”

People visit a makeshift memorial where the partly collapsed Champlain Towers South building stood in Surfside, Fla.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

Accompanying the community in their grief, amid the burials in Florida and now back in Puerto Rico, was Rabbi Diego Mendelbaum.

“The absence of these loved ones as well as sadness and discouragement has made our community more active,” he said.

Amid the collapse's devastation, they were there for each other, as the families have done through generations and migrations across continents and islands.

“I think that’s the best way," Mendelbaum said, "to honor the memory and the legacy of the people we lost."

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