Brilliant young Argentine Chabad president dies in Surfside condo collapse

·5 min read

A few years ago, Ilan Naibryf drove through the north side of Chicago with friends on a college field trip to meet a local Jewish community. In the car they borrowed, the students played a CD from a Jewish band.

“Yes, we can change the world, Yes yes, change the world for good, acts of random kindness, be a lifeline in the storm!” the group belted, singing the happy-go-lucky song “Change Our World” from 8th Day.

“We were blasting it on the highway on repeat,” recalled Isabel Wolfson, Naibryf’s close friend. “We were driving around the entire campus with the windows down, the quad, the library, up and down the streets, blasting this song, singing along.”

This kind of unbridled joy defined Naibryf, said loved ones, who described him as a brilliant soul who was filled with a positive energy that lifted others up and who embraced his many identities: American, Jewish, Argentine.

Naibryf, along with his girlfriend Deborah Berezdivin, died when Champlain Towers South crumbled in the night. The couple had been staying in the building to attend a funeral. Nancy Kress Levin, sister of Berezdivin’s grandmother, lived on the floor below. Her son Frankie lived next-door with his wife Ana Ortiz and her son Luis Bermudez. Frankie’s brother Jay was staying with their mother for the same funeral. The bodies of Berezdivin and Naibryf were the last to be recovered by search teams on July 7.

Ilan Manuel Naibryf was born in Argentina on Sept. 11, 1999 to Ronit and Carlos Naibryf. He had two sisters, Micaela and Tali.

Naibryf grew up in South Florida in a tight-knit family but moved to Waimea as a teenager to attend Hawai’i Preparatory Academy High School. At the boarding school, he delved into his love and curiosity for science and how the world worked, assisting in a NASA project about lava terrains, interning at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, and designing a low-cost prosthetic hand.

“He learned to surf, played on their soccer/cross country/Track & Field teams, enjoyed nature with his friends,” wrote his sister Micaela about his high school years. “His heart always remained in Hawaii!”

Naibryf joined his sister Tali at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2018, where he pursued a Physics and Molecular Engineering degree. At the university, he dove into his passions, working as a design engineer at the university-affiliated hospital, where he secured National Science Foundation funding by developing a way to generate accurate data of malignant tumors with low frequency vibrations. He was also the captain and midfielder at the university club soccer team, a software specialist at a computer science lab, and spoke multiple coding languages in addition to Spanish, English, and Hebrew.

“He was an innovator, such a bright young man. He was at the prime of his life. Ready to take on multiple things,” said Baila Brackman, who knew Naibryf through the school’s Chabad, the Jewish campus center she directs with her husband Rabbi Yossi. “Every single project that he was working on was equally important.”

Naibryf was introduced to the Chabad community through his sister. He became the Chabad’s student board president, drawing students from many different backgrounds and hosting all kinds of programming from holiday celebrations to ice cream socials. He was never afraid to invite and bring along anyone he met to community events.

“When he came, the room would light up. It was like it was going to be fun. We are going to have a good time” Brackman said. “He was the person who when we’re having a barbecue, he just went to the grill and took it over.”

Naibryf helped the Brackmans coordinate student programming and became close to the family, spending time in their home during holidays and Shabbat dinners.

“The minute that Ilan walked through the door, he became like family,” Brackman said. ‘‘Our children love him very much. He’s almost like a brother or an uncle to them. When I think of Ilan, I think of love and hope and warmth and friendship and kindness.”

Ilan Naibryf with friend Isabel Wolfson manning a table for the Chabad.
Ilan Naibryf with friend Isabel Wolfson manning a table for the Chabad.

Isabel Wolfson, his close friend from the University of Chicago, served on the organization’s student board along with him. They became friends who enjoyed studying at the library, attending Shabbat dinners, taking walks around campus and talking for hours.

“He was someone you always wanted to be around, because you know that being around him is going to make you happier,” she said. “Even if you’re just sitting there together doing work. You don’t meet him and not want to speak to him.”

Deborah Berezdivin and Ilan Naibryf perished in the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside.
Deborah Berezdivin and Ilan Naibryf perished in the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside.

Naibryf had been dating his girlfriend for almost two years, said Wolfson. He was in the Midwest and she was in Washington D.C, but the two kept their love alive through long phone calls and FaceTime.

“He adores her. Loved talking about her, he loved talking about how much he loved her,” Wolfson said. She did not know Berezdivin well but said she could tell that “she was a perfect partner for Ilan.”

This summer, Naibryf was building a startup called Stix. The venture aimed to create an innovative debit card that clients could swipe to use stocks as cash. To friends like Wolfson, that he was delving into finance as a physics and engineering major showed the profound nature, inquisitiveness, and skill of Ilan’s mind.

“He really decided to take his own initiative and, you know, build something that would be big for the future,” she said.

Naibryf would have been the first person she called when the Champlain Towers South collapsed. Now Wolfson, Brackman, and the rest of the Chabad community are filling a virtual pinboard with memories and messages in honor of Ilan, speaking to his memory. In one photo, Ilan rests his curly hair on a pink pillow, a ukulele with a broken chord by his side. In another, he shows off his challah bread braiding with friends.

A young Ilan at a beach with friends. Ilan ice skating, the Bean reflecting the Chicago skyline. Ilan on a balcony, embracing Deborah in a white dress, wooden doors framing the young couple.

Vignettes of a life interrupted.

“He’s just someone who loves life so much, and he’s so optimistic,” Wolfson said. “For Ilan, he saw everything in front of him, he never looked back.”

Here are the names and stories of the missing and dead in Surfside condo collapse