SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) – Looking at the mountain of rubble that had buried her father, uncle, and dozens of others, a 12-year-old girl walked away from her family, sat down on her own, and stepped outside his telephone. She opened a book of Psalms and began to pray.
Elisheva Cohen’s moment of reflection at the site of a Florida condominium collapse captivated the mayor of Surfside and led to an introduction to President Joe Biden, who asked to meet with her on Thursday when he arrived to console families affected by the disaster.
For days, families were kept away from the site of the collapse, deemed dangerous. Then earlier this week, relatives were taken there briefly. Some shouted the names of loved ones and friends, hoping to hear their pleas for help. Others were crying.
Elisheva sat alone, away from her mother and brother, and began to read the prayers.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett quickly noticed her. He knelt down next to her to ask her if she was okay.
“Yes” the girl told him.
“And that really made me understand,” Burkett said. “She wasn’t crying. She was just lost. She didn’t know what to do, what to say, who to talk to.
Just six months ago, Elisheva celebrated her bat mitzvah with her mother and father, Dr Brad Cohen, one of some 120 people missing under the rubble. The year before the religious ceremony involves intensive study of Hebrew, the Bible, and history.
That night, Dr. Cohen was proud. Her youngest daughter was growing up and reasserting her Jewish identity. Her father instilled a love for teaching in Elisheva and her teenage brother.
Before Dr. Cohen completed his medical residency and internships, he had spent weekends with his mentor Rabbi Yakov Saachs, still desperate to learn more about his faith.
On his long journeys, he played cassettes, eager to learn the teachings.
“Even though he was tired of the dog, it was a priority for him to try to glean as much information as possible,” Saachs told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
At Brad Cohen’s request, the whole family became “more attentive,” the rabbi said, following the custom of not driving or doing business on the Sabbath.
The day before the collapse, his mother texted Cohen with a selfie Elisheva took in front of a mirror. She was wearing a pink T-shirt with a high ponytail. They lived in separate houses.
“Look how pretty it is,” the post read.
She was wearing the same outfit the next morning when her mother “frantically woke her” to tell her about the collapse.
For several days, Burkett shared the story of Elisheva in the distance. After the news of Biden’s visit, the girl’s mother, Soriya Cohen, bought him a new blue and white dress for the occasion. His teenage brother was the first of the family chosen to meet Biden. He had rushed home from a kibbutz in Israel as soon as he heard of the collapse.
But the teenager had already arranged to have a class with a rabbi in Miami when the president visited.
“He said, ‘I’ve already made a commitment,’” Saachs said. “So he said no.”
The mother also skipped the meeting with Biden, saying she felt the president’s visit was a diversion from research efforts. Elisheva went with another family member.
The mayor said the most emotional moment of Biden’s visit was when he shared Elisheva’s story with the president.
“I wanted him to know and see the face of this little girl who prays for her father in front of the rubble,” he said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Would you bring him to me right now?’ “
The police went to look for Elisheva. Biden approached her and they kissed.
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida also contributed to this report.