The Tragedy and the Unity

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Volunteers in the search operation on Sandbridge Beach last Thursday. (Hamodia)

For five days, Jewish communities throughout the Northeastern United States mobilized a massive search effort for Rabbi Reuven Bauman, a Rebbi in a camp in Norfolk, Virginia, who had been swept into the Atlantic Ocean by a riptide while rescuing a child who himself had been dragged into the current.

Throughout the world, fervent tefillos were recited for Reuven Tzvi ben Esther Baila — first in hopes of his being found alive, and later, as it became apparent that the search had moved into recovery mode, for the body to be found quickly, and bring a measure of closure to an almanah and five yesomim.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, the body was found, enabling Rabbi Bauman to be brought to kevuras Yisrael, and his family to mourn him by sitting shivah.

Rabbi Bauman, 35, who had dedicated his life to teaching Torah, was a source of monumental achdus and kiddush Hashem in death, as locals marveled at how the Jewish community mobilized in the aftermath of the tragedy.

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Rabbi Reuven Bauman, z”l. (Toras Chaim Day School)

Immediately after Rabbi Bauman was swept out to sea last week Tuesday at Sandbridge Beach, just south of Virginia Beach, rescue authorities — from the Coast Guard to local police, as well as volunteers from the local Norfolk Jewish community — began searching for him in helicopters, boats, and on foot along the shoreline.

Achiezer Community Resource Center, based in Far Rockaway, New York, headed by Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, with experience in mobilizing various rescue and relief operations, began coordinating the search effort.

On Wednesday, six volunteers from Misaskim of Maryland and Baltimore Shomrim arrived with one boat and rented another to participate in a sea search under guidance from the Coast Guard, while other volunteers walked up and down the beach front, scanning the shoreline.

Two volunteers from Toms River, New Jersey, came with jet skis.

“When Klal Yisrael is in need, we mobilize to help each other out,” Aryeh Leib Freedman, President of Misaskim of Maryland, told Hamodia during the search. “Most of us do not know Rabbi Bauman or his relatives. But all Jews are one large family. And when a family member is in distress, we all do whatever we can to help them.”

While the Coast Guard had called off its search by Wednesday morning, police boats continued their operations, along with a strong effort by Jewish organizations and communities. Misaskim remained on the water until nightfall Wednesday.

Chai Lifeline sent counselors to help the Norfolk community cope with the tragedy.

While Jews never give up hope of a miracle, it had become apparent by this time that the effort was likely transitioning from rescue to recovery.

On Thursday morning, members of Chaveirim of Rockland, joined by this reporter, assembled in the Sandbridge Beach parking lot at 5:00 a.m. to renew the search.

Led by Coordinator Yossi Margaretten, Chaveirim took took direct charge of overseeing the search activities, while Achiezer maintained overall coordination of all facets of the entire operation, as the command post for the searchers, the volunteers, and whatever assistance was needed for the community in Norfolk.

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Chaveirim sending up a drone. (Hamodia)

Five boats were out on the water Thursday — three with Chaveirim members, and two from Maryland Misaskim — covering all possible areas.

Volunteers planned to search until 2:00 p.m., when a thunderstorm was forecast for the area.

Chaveirim was equipped with two drones to scan the beach area. The members, as well as many volunteers from the local Jewish community, and from Monsey-based COMMSAR (Community Search and Rescue), also walked the beach for hours, in temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

Sandbridge Beach, part of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, is generally used by a few fishermen and hardly anyone else. Even on a hot, clear summer day, the beach is virtually empty, unlike nearby Virginia Beach.

Authorities, such as police and park rangers, as well as some beach residents, have permits to drive motorized vehicles on the beach, and these are the only such vehicles allowed there. Several Chaveirim members managed to obtain bicycles to use in the search as well. All who were on the beach were requested to keep an eye out for the body of the missing person.

Chaveirim, as well as a young man from Norfolk who was a major player in coordination and volunteer efforts — but who asked to remain anonymous — were in close contact throughout the operation with the Coast Guard, police, park rangers and other authorities, to discuss the appropriate plans of action for the recovery operation. Police boats searched the waters as well, and one resident volunteered use of his helicopter for the search.

“The amount of support, in tefillos and manpower, has been incredible,” the young man from Norfolk told Hamodia. “It is heartwarming to see Klal Yisrael joining together in this eis tzarah.”

Early Thursday afternoon, some volunteers switched duties from the morning, changing from beach-walking to boating, or vice versa. Several took the opportunity afforded by the brief break to put on tefillin, as their work had begun early in the morning, before the zman.

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Fortunately, while a thunderstorm was still forecast for Virginia Beach, the forecast for Sandbridge Beach suddenly changed; no storm was predicted until evening, and so the search continued throughout the day.

In the afternoon, some volunteers doing beach searches switched places with those doing boat searches. Several people on the boats experienced seasickness, but still they pressed on with the singular focus of their chessed operation.

Though the Coast Guard had officially called off its search Wednesday morning, a Coast Guard chopper was once again scanning the waters Thursday afternoon, at the request of community activists.

The volunteer boats returned to shore by 7 p.m. Thursday.

For two more hours until nightfall, Chaveirim members stayed on the beach, watching the waters, before finally leaving.

The search itself brought great comfort to a grieving Norfolk Jewish community, and was the source of a kiddush Hashem acknowledged by local residents and governmental authorities alike.

“The community really appreciates the efforts of volunteers who came from near and far,” Rabbi Gavriel Rudin, Director of Community Development and Programming at B’nai Israel Congregation of Norfolk, told Hamodia during the search. “And we are very inspired by the way Jews all over the world responded with davening. We really feel like we’re part of a larger Jewish family.”

“The entire community is sad,” Amy Levy, president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, Virginia, told Hamodia during the search. “We are a small, close-knit community. In addition to the efforts being made by those in our community, I am especially touched to see the outpouring of support from organizations from New Jersey, New York and Baltimore. When Jews anywhere are in trouble, Jews everywhere feel the pain and run to assist, and that is heartwarming.”

The outpouring of help and support did not go unnoticed by the local Virginia Beach community, either. On the drive from the beach to the marina, this reporter and several volunteers stopped at a gas station convenience store on Thursday afternoon, to purchase some much-needed cold hydration.

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(Misaskim of Maryland)

“You’re not from around here, are you?” the clerk asked.

“No, we’re from New York.”

Told why they were in Virginia Beach, the clerk said, “I figured; some guys with yarmulkes were in here earlier.”

When the group brought a bag of ice to the counter, she refused to allow them to pay.

“This store is donating a bag of ice to you guys, out of respect for what you do,” she said.

Upon hearing the previous day that the Coast Guard was giving up the search, her reaction had been, “I don’t understand how you can give up a search.” When she told her colleague the purpose of our visit, his answer had been, “That’s nice. At least somebody will give the family closure.”

A fresh crew of four volunteers from Misaskim of Maryland headed to Virginia at 3:00 a.m. on Friday. They began the search bright and early that day, walking eight miles in the blistering sun, scanning the beach, then headed out for a boat search.

Freedman, the Misaskim president, flew down from Baltimore in a private plane owned by a member of his community, conducting a search from the air, and arriving back home Friday evening just half an hour before sunset.

The plane stopped along the way at a small airport to refuel. Another pilot there chatted with them, asking what they were doing there. “It turned out he was a Coast Guard pilot, and had been participating in the search as well,” says Freedman. “He told us how impressed he was with the community’s volunteer efforts.

“So many people we met felt this way,” says Freedman. “The captains of the boats we chartered gave us reduced rates. They were inspired by what we were doing, and wanted to contribute to the effort.”

Chaveirim of Rockland arranged for boats piloted by non-Jews to continue the search over Shabbos.

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Searching the coast from a private plane donated to the operation by a member of the Baltimore community. (Misaskim of Maryland)

On Motzoei Shabbos, another 11 volunteers from Baltimore headed to Virginia to continue the boat searches. Several volunteers were professional bicyclists, who rented special flat-tire bikes for easy beach-riding.

And Chaveirim members, who had gone back home for Shabbos, were on the beach once again, first thing Sunday morning, to coordinate operations, with assistance from Misaskim of Greater Washington, Lakewood Chaveirim members on jet skis, and others. A plane from Lakewood and a local chopper would be in the air as well.

With planes, bicycles, boats, feet, drones, walkie-talkies, binoculars, heart, willpower and bitachon, the operation pressed on.

Finally, around 1:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon, the news Klal Yisrael had been dreading yet hoping for finally arrived, as the body of Rabbi Bauman was located a mile north of the North Carolina border, around eight miles south of the place where he had drowned and 300 feet off the shore, by a boat of volunteers from Misaskim of Maryland.

Freedman, the Misaskim president, says that the men on that boat had been on the search Wednesday and Thursday, arrived back in Baltimore Thursday night, then left immediately Motzoei Shabbos back for Virginia.

“It was a grueling search for them,” Freedman told Hamodia on Sunday. “At times they felt like giving up — yet there was no way they would actually give up. That’s what being brothers is about.”

Agudah of Maryland/Mid-Atlantic quickly intervened with the medical examiner to ensure prompt kvod hameis.

The levayah was held in Norfolk Monday morning. Kevurah was in the KAJ section of the King Solomon Memorial Park cemetery in Clifton, N.J.

Hatzalah Air, which had coordinated the air search effort, flew the niftar and aveilim to New Jersey.

The feeling among the volunteers was one of both profound sadness yet relief for the family.

“This is a terrible tragedy, but even in the midst of something so awful, we saw chassadim from Hashem,” says Freedman. “And we saw how, even in its most heartbreaking moments, Klal Yisrael is mekaadesh shem Shamayim.”

A Charidy campaign has been set up for the family at