, Fla. (AP) — Looking at the mountain of rubble that had buried her
father, uncle, and dozens of others, a 12-year-old girl moved away from her relatives, sat alone, and pulled out her phone, opening a collection of Psalms and starting to pray.
's moment of reflection at the site of the Florida
captivated the Surfside mayor
, who introduced her to President Joe Biden
, who asked to meet with her Thursday when he arrived to console families affected by the disaster.
Families were kept away from the collapse site for days after it was deemed unsafe, but relatives were allowed to visit earlier this week. Some shouted the names of loved ones and friends
, hoping to hear their cries for help, while others cried.
Elisheva sat alone, separated from her mother and brother, and began to read prayers.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett
quickly noticed her and knelt beside her to inquire about her well-being.
The girl replied, "Yes."
“And that really hit home for me,” Burkett said. “She wasn’t crying; she was just lost; she didn’t know what to do, what to say, or who to talk to.”
Only six months ago, Elisheva celebrated her bat mitzvah with her mother and father, Dr. Brad Cohen
, one of approximately 120 people
missing under the rubble. The year preceding the religious ceremony entails intensive study of Hebrew
, the Bible, and history
Dr. Cohen was overjoyed that night because his youngest daughter, Elisheva, was maturing and reaffirming her Jewish identity
, and her father had instilled in both Elisheva and her teenage brother a love for the Torah.
Dr. Cohen had spent weekends at the home of his mentor Rabbi Yakov Saachs, always eager to learn more about his faith, before completing his medical residency and internships.
He listened to cassette tapes during his long commutes, eager to learn the lessons.
“Even though he was dog
tired, he made it a priority to try and glean as much information as he could,” Saachs said over the phone to The Associated Press
At the urging of Brad Cohen, the entire family
became “more observant,” according to the rabbi, abstaining from driving
or conducting business
on the Sabbath.
The night before the collapse, her mother texted Cohen a selfie she took in front of a mirror, wearing a pink
T-shirt and a high ponytail. They were staying in separate homes.
The message said, "Look how pretty."
The next morning, she was dressed in the same outfit when her mother "frantically woke her up" to tell her about the collapse.
Burkett spread Elisheva's story for several days, and when Biden's visit was announced, the girl's mother, Soriya Cohen, bought her a new blue and white dress for the occasion. Elisheva's teenage brother was the first one chosen to meet Biden, having rushed home from a kibbutz in Israel
as soon as he heard about the collapse.
During the president's visit, however, the teen had already planned to take a rabbi class in Miami
"He said, 'I already made a commitment,'" Saachs explained, "so he said no."
Elisheva went with another family member instead of her mother, who skipped the meeting with Biden because she felt it was a distraction from the search efforts.
The mayor described the president's reaction to Elisheva's story as the most moving
moment of Biden's visit.
“I wanted him to know and see the face of that little girl praying for her father across from the rubble,” he explained, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Would you please bring her to me right now?’”
Elisheva was apprehended by police
, and Biden approached her for a hug.
This report was also contributed to by Associated Press Writer
Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale