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.