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
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