Tragedy on the Lake

Boruch Hashem, they found the body a short while ago.

Tranquil water, clear blue skies, and clean air, all but an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. The beauty of the place clashed so ironically with the grim task of our visit to Lake Piru. For a week now, we had been coming. Some for four hour shifts in various watercraft, others digging in for eighteen hours at a time, or an entire Shabbos. From all parts of the city, and from all walks of Jewish life. We are not there to catch some rays, but to snatch a body from the lake that took life from it. We would have liked to still believe in some miraculous outcome, but we were prepared for the worst as well. We were not prepared to allow life to go on as usual while a young family sat in anguish that we did not want to contemplate. And we refused to abandon the friend we loved and admired to the whims of the lake without struggling with it, without being there to honor him at the first available opportunity.

So we continued to come in small convoys, with binoculars, sunscreen, water and pizzas, coordinated by the indefatigable volunteers of Hatzolah and some other heroes.

Naftoli Smolyansky cut an imposing figure. Tall, energetic, always seen smiling. A successful businessman, other projects occupied much more of his time and energy. He spent the mornings learning in the beis medrash where I daven. He wasn’t just important in outreach to Jews from the old USSR, he essentially coordinated most of it, from planning events, to sitting new faces around his Shabbos table, to finding members of the frum community to help out individuals who came under his wing.

He had five young children, the latest born a few weeks before Pesach. One of those late summer family outings took him to Lake Piru, on a boat with three of his children. All the kids wore life vests, and they rented a pontoon boat, the largest and most stable. Naftoli’s wife waited on shore, taking in the nachas of the enjoyment of her growing family. No one could think of anything going wrong.

Something did. Somehow, the five year old fell overboard, and Naftoli jumped in after her, by protective instinct coupled with his huge devotion. He was fully clothed. Late afternoons, the winds sometimes pick up, raising whitecaps as high as two feet, turning a placid lake into something closer to a churning ocean.

Naftoli got to his daughter, and managed to struggle with her in tow to the boat that was drifting away. But only barely. He was winded and exhausted, and could not get her quite into the boat. She clung to the side, and he felt himself going under. Reportedly, he told his children that he was not going to make it.

Those who know him can only imagine him accepting the realization of what was going to happen with strength, rather than horror. He had decided to put his daughter out of danger, and so be it.

Some people in a nearby boat witnessed it – the struggle, and Naftoli going under. They did not see him resurface. They rushed to the boat, and helped the five year old in. We had been looking for Naftoli ever since.

The local authorities have been stunned by the community reaction, and reacted with incredible cooperation. They claimed that prior to last week, the most devoted vigil they had witnessed to a drowning was one family that came back every day and sat on the lake till they recovered the body of their loved one. Hatzolah was there in about an hour, and got to work. For a while, the effort included hikers combing the surrounding shoreline and hills, looking for a stunned survivor. The other possibility, R”L, gradually loomed larger, and it too was dealt with.

People and organizations with political connections sprang into action, and found huge sympathy. In the next days, the Sheriff’s Departments of three counties, Park Rangers, and Water Management officials all pledged personnel, and made good on the promises.

Piru has about one drowning a year; standard procedure is to send divers for about a week in a sustained effort to retrieve the body from the depths where visibility is about three inches because of the loose silt at the bottom. One official said that divers might as well be blind. Their work was mostly in groping with their hands.

Even Homeland Security had a role, sending in side-radar, developed after 9/11 to look for bombs submerged at the base of bridges.

The local authorities made room for hordes of intruders, giving up their offices, and eventually dedicating an entire structure as a command post for Hatzolah, where teams of searchers were sent out each day, food and supplies were kept, and minyanim held three times a day.

Members of the community came from dawn to dusk. Most came to participate in the search. Some made special contributions. One person sent his boat, to add to those that can be rented from the concession there, but only if others have not already reserved them. One rented a helicopter, equipped with a different radar unit. Some organized supply runs, of everything from pizzas to snack food for the search parties. A chiropractor offered free relief to all those who suffered from the strain of four hours of bending over the side of a boat or kayak, looking for something unusual in the water. From the first hour, groups gathered in the city, first at one location and then at others, to say Tehilim. Every day, sometimes several times a day. Thursday, there was not one, but at least three Yom Kippur Katan minchas. They were packed, and they were emotional.

We came back to the lake because we had no choice, while conscious of how little we could do. We maximized our devotion, our tefillah, and the chesed that we hoped would redound to his merit. In all other regards, we waited.

None of us had any power to speed things up, bederech hateva. Ironically that only applied to the humans. Our hopes for a while centered on a dog, a brown Labrador retriever.

Amir Findling lives in central New York, and trained the dog. Rescue is not what he does for a living, but he is prepared to help out when needed. He was involved in the Toronto lake tragedy, which is how someone thought of calling him. He picked up his survival skills, as he calls them, in the IDF; he learned about rescue dogs in the US. His dogs pick up the scent of humans, even under water. I did not ask for an explanation.

I left LA at 5:30 AM last Thursday, to take part in the earliest shift. It was the first turn for the dog, and he let it be known that he had picked up something, and everyone else took orders from the dog. The divers then concentrated on the area indicated, while the rest of us rerouted our searches to avoid interfering with their work. We were conscious of the fact that the dog could make a contribution that we couldn’t.

I could not help but thinking of the gemara in Kesubos. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai found a woman searching for undigested kernels of barley in the dung of donkeys during the famine that accompanied the Roman siege of Yerushalayim. He recognized her as the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion, one of the richest citizens of the city. He cried out, “Ashrechem Yisrael – fortunate are you, O Israel! When you follow the Will of your Creator, no nation has power over you. When you do not, you have no place in the natural order at all. (So explains the Maharal, in the fourth chapter of Gevuros Hashem.) You are therefore placed beneath the lowest animal of a lowly people.”

Like R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, we had much to cry about. Within that cry, however, was an Ashrechem Yisrael, for understanding responsibility to a chaver and responding to it in an instant, for its achdus and devotion and love.

May it serve as a nechama to the family to ease the pain that is still so raw and fresh.

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4 comments to Tragedy on the Lake

  • SM

    What a touching article and how well balanced in terms of the efforts made and the tragedy suffered. HaMakom yenachem…

  • Harry Maryles

    Now that he was found the mourning can begin in earnest. My heart goes out to his wife, Leah, and their 5 children.

    I met Naftoli when his wife Leah introduced him to me. She lived in Chicago then. Her story and that of her entire family is an inspiring one.

    Her trek toward observance begins in the Former Soviet Union.

    Leah Kigin (her maiden name), her parents, and two twin sisters, Jackie and Marina were among the many Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States in the eighties after the FSU loosened their reins on Jewish emigration. They settled in Milwaukee and were not religious in any way.

    It was through an NCSY Kiruv effort that the two twins became religious. Her parents though not religious themselves were totally accepting of their daughters’ new ways and fully accommodated them. They are truly amazing people. Leah had no interest at that time in a religious life.

    Meanwhile the twins had wanted to go to a religious high school. They both moved to Chicago with Jackie attending Hanna Sacks Beis Yaakov and Marina attending the co-ed Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

    With her parents being the loving people they are, their father quit his job and moved to Chicago. He eventually got a job here. Jackie was a close friend of my daughters Sari and Rivkie and she became a regular guest in my home – eating over on many a Shabbos. She rarely ate at home on a Shabbos because she wanted a Shabbos environment.

    Both young women continued to grow in their Judaism . Marina soon after her year in Israel met a wonderful young man from Edmonton and got married. Jackie and Leah remained single. Leah saw the tremndous growth of her sisters and became more attracted to a Torah lifestyle.

    Before too long she enrolled in Neve Yeurshalayim in Israel. There she grew to be quite a Bas Yisroel – having had one of the best teachers ever to grace this earth, Rabbi Yaakov Levi. He was a Shaliach of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz – originally sent to Detroit. He was my seventh and eighth grade Rebbe there – and later switched to teaching the girls. Ultimately he made Aliyah and now works in Neve. He is a man who I venerate to this day. A man who was Mekarev more Jews – men and women – than anyone I know. Leah, flourished.

    She returned home to Chicago after a year – never looking back at her previous lifestyle. But she was still not married. One of her younger twin sisters was already married with children. At age 29 – a Baalas Teshuva who was a bit taller than average – there weren’t too many prospects available. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that this beautiful young woman who had come so far now had to face a growing Shiddach crisis in the Torah world.

    But then very soon along came Naftoli and swept her off her feet. My family and I were so happy for her. We were all thoroughly impressed at his commitment to Torah and his commitment to being a good provider for his family. She got a really great guy.

    Leah is a Russian immigrant who loves America so much that she lost her Russian accent entirely. But she loved Judaism more. And she found a young man, tall, handsome, and committed to her religious values.

    They got married, moved to Los Angeles, and had five children – the latest born a few weeks before Pesach. He was successful and they lived their lives committed to Torah. Meanwhile her parents decided to become observant too. Jackie soon after married a wonderful young man from Evanston.

    That entire family of assimilated Jews from Russia were now all observant American Jews – married with children. A very happy family: The twins – the parents – and Leah Kigin Smolyansky. Until last week’s tragedy.

    HaMokom Y’Nachem Eschem BeSoch Shar Avelei Tzion V’Yerushalyim.

  • Yerachmiel Zidele

    This was a tragedy in every sense. I feel compassion for the family and share their sadness. However, it is difficult to resolve how Hashem runs the world. This must be proof that there is life after one’s earthly life. We all know that “Olam Chesed Yiboneh.” Naftoli died a tzaddik and he is alive right now and always will be. I wish the family the best and may they go on M’Maleh L’Maleh and have only happy occasions and much Nachas.

  • la costa

    as has oft been said before, the community is greatly united during times of tragedy. maybe the geula won’t come until the unity is there before the tragedies, r’l…