Man drowns in Lake Piru while rescuing daughter

Close to 400 people packed the second-floor Moshe Ganz Hall on La Brea Blvd. Tuesday morning to pay respects for Naftoli Smolyanksy, who died in a boating accident Aug. 25.

To accommodate the overflowing crowds, speaker systems were set up in adjacent rooms and outside. This enabled an additional 300 community members to commemorate the Russian immigrant. Smolyansky, 39, drowned after saving his 5-year-old daughter who had fallen in Lake Piru in Ventura County.

Family members, friends and rabbis were brought to tears at the levaya (vigil), where speakers included Rabbi Aharon Dov Freidman, Rabbi Gershon Bess, Paul Greenberg, Rabbi Chaim Fasman, and Rabbi Baruch Grabon.

They described Smolyansky’s struggles as a young immigrant, his study in Israel, his dedication to his wife and five children and his generosity and commitment to helping those in need.

“[Smolyansky] represented living Torah,” Rabbi Aharon Dov Freidman said.

Smolyansky had taken his 9-year-old son and 5- and 7-year-old daughters out on the lake Monday afternoon when the youngest daughter fell off the boat. All of the children were wearing life vests. Smolyansky immediately leapt into the water to rescue the girl. As she clung to him, his two other children, who witnessed the tragic event, could see their father quickly losing strength. In a final bout of strength, Smolyansky was able to get his daughter onto the boat as it drifted away. Smolyanksy was unable to swim to the boat and did not resurface. Several reports say that his children heard him say he would not make it.

A massive search was conducted by the community as people threw their support to the family. Ventura County Sheriff’s Department responded instantly with helicopters, a dive team and a rescue swimmer. Partnered with the Sheriff’s Department, Hatzolah of Los Angeles — the Volunteer Emergency Medical Rescue Team that serves much of the Orthodox community — quickly reacted in addition to services of L.A. County Board of Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, five Ventura County Fire Department units (including a swift water team) and Lake Piru park rangers.

The search continued until the body was found on Monday, a week after the disappearance, with an official recess each evening, though many continued to search, according to Hatzolah Coordinator, Rabbi Michoel Bloom. By the second day of the efforts, Hatzolah had rented all available boats. Bloom estimated that at least 150 people helped each day to look for Smolyansky, many of whom did not have any relation to him. Many of them were simply heartbroken by the events, Bloom said.

Sources say that on Monday, Sept. 1, a group of 10 rabbis gathered on a boat in the lake and recited prayers in hopes of finding the body. A lit candle mounted on a flat piece of bread was set afloat as the group waited for it to stop moving. The rabbis then dropped a stone into the water, and within a few hours, reports say, the body allegedly rose to the surface.

Smolyansky was a member of Congregation Kehilas Yaakov and the Los Angeles Kollel, both on Beverly Boulevard. Fellow congregants remember him for his generosity, welcoming smile and modesty. Since immigrating to the United States, Smolyansky had become a successful businessman, owning several adult day-care facilities. He also was known as a major donor throughout the community.

One story from the vigil described how Smolyansky once paid for all the funeral preparations for a family who could not afford them. Another story told how he once helped a financially struggling man cope with his misfortune.

The final speaker, Rabbi Grabon, after thanking volunteers and rangers for their immeasurable support, said his final words to Smolyansky’s 9-year old son: “Your father loved you, and we loved your father.”

The funeral and burial followed the levaya at Mt. Carmel Cemetery.