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New Zealand quake kills Israeli, destroys Chabad house

The Chabad House in Christchurch, New Zealand, before it was devastated by an earthquake on Feb. 21, 2011, had the city's only kosher cafe.

SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — For the Jewish community, the devastating earthquake that hit New Zealand struck close to home.

An Israeli backpacker is believed to be among the 65 people killed in Tuesday’s quake, and the destruction in Christchurch on the country’s South Island included the city’s Chabad house. Another Christchurch synagogue reportedly suffered damage but was not destroyed.

The Israeli, who was not immediately named by Israeli Embassy officials, was in a car with three other Israelis when a building collapsed on them during the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that ripped through the city around lunchtime, according to Rabbi Shmuel Friedman, a Chabad rabbi in Christchurch.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee who escaped Europe to England on the eve of the Holocaust, said the quake could turn out to be his nation’s “darkest day.”

Israel offered to send food and medicine to help. With hundreds of Israeli backpackers visiting New Zealand each year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said there could be up to 150 Israelis in Christchurch.

With phone lines down and power lines cut, communications have been limited. Wellington-based David Zwartz, a former president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, said he received a text message from Bettina Wallace, the immediate past president of Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, the main synagogue in the region.

The text message read: “Shul damaged but fixable.”

Friedman, a New York native who came to Christchurch three months ago to do Jewish outreach work, was inside the offices of the Chabad center with an Israeli backpacker when the first tremor jolted the city just before 1 p.m. local time.

“All of a sudden walls, ceilings started coming in on us, the shake was shifting us side to side,” Friedman said.

“We just ran. I have no idea no idea how we managed to get out of there,” he said. “There were many people in the street in panic and shock; it was not a pretty scene. There were people running out of buildings, a lot of screaming, damage, smoke.”

Amid the chaos, Friedman was unable to assess the damage to the building but said it was unlikely to have survived the many aftershocks. Later in the day, Chabad announced that the building, which also housed the city’s only kosher cafe, had been toppled.

The body of the Israeli who was killed in the quake could not be retrieved immediately.

“The body is still in the car where the building collapsed,” Friedman said Tuesday. “Emergency crews are still working on people who can be saved.”

Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, the chief rabbi of Chabad in New Zealand, said he had spoken to Shemi Tzur, Israel’s ambassador in New Zealand, and Yuval Rotem, Israel’s ambassador in Canberra, Australia.

Goldstein said he was frantically fielding calls and e-mails from worried parents in Israel. Tzur has asked all Israeli nationals to leave the devastated city, which has been declared a disaster zone.

“We’ve asked them to take a car and drive as far away from here as possible,” he was reported as saying.

Friedman said many of the Israelis helped in the rescue effort.

“A group went in to help evacuate people in buildings which were collapsing; they were experienced from the army,” he said.

Tuesday’s quake came less than six months after the last tremor rocked the city last September, which was higher in magnitude but did less damage.

Of New Zealand’s 7,000 Jews, about 2,000 live in Christchurch, with the majority in Auckland and Wellington on the North Island.