When an old high school friend lost a long battle with COVID-19, Jay Kleiman went from Puerto Rico to the condominium where he grew up, north of Miami Beach, for the funeral.
But hours before the ceremony, the high-rise building in the affluent neighborhood of Surfside collapsed, leaving more than 100 people missing. Now Kleiman may be dead, along with his mother and brother, who were staying at the apartment.
“It is so tragic that he flew for a friend who died from COVID complications and ended up there,” said Mark Baranek, who coached both Kleiman and the friend, George Matz, on a flag football team as part of their synagogue.
Kleiman, 52, is part of a growing list of missing people, along with his brother Frankie Kleiman and his mother, Nancy Kress Levin. For the family and their friends, the tragedy of the building collapse comes on top of the devastation the pandemic has already brought.
The family’s roots in the Miami area go back decades. Like many others in Miami, Kress Levin fled the Cuban Revolution in 1959. First she settled with her husband in Puerto Rico. In the 1980s, she moved as a single mom with her two boys to Surfside. There, they lived in a building, new at the time, that was popular with Hispanic Jews mostly from Cuba.
As an adult, Kleiman moved back to Puerto Rico to work with his father in the garment industry. He was used to hard times; the business suffered with the financial crisis there and from Hurricane Maria in 2017. But they pulled through.
He and Matz, the friend who died from COVID-19, grew closer after they became parents, according to another friend, Justin Gould. Their children also became friends through sleepaway camps and activities for the Jewish community.
Matz had battled COVID-19 since March, before the state expanded eligibility for the vaccine to people 50 and older.
“He was a couple of days away from getting the vaccine,” Gould said.
At the funeral, the rabbi asked the congregation to pray for the people at the destroyed condo building.
Lauren Miller, a close friend of Kleiman who said he was her first love, had seen her father die in January. Kleiman and his mother had checked in on her every day since, she said.
On Thursday, Miller saw the news that the Surfside building had collapsed.
“I saw the building, and I remembered the shape of the building, and I knew that was it,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s a building I had been in many times as a teenager.”
“I called him 17 times. And I called his mother. And I texted his mother.”
She heard nothing. When she talked on the phone Friday to the AP, she whimpered, her voice breaking at times.
Miller said Kleiman’s mother “was everything to him.” She and Kleiman had met at a summer camp in Barryville, N.Y., when she was 15 and had kept in touch over the years.
“He was just always in my heart,” Miller said. “Jay was not family. … But he was the family I chose for myself.”