Living and loving in the shadow of terror

From weddings to burn units, OneFamily has stood with survivors of attack for the last 14 years

SARAH-TEHIYA and Ariel Biegel. OneFamily has given the couple money for a new apartment in Geva Binyamin. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
SARAH-TEHIYA and Ariel Biegel. OneFamily has given the couple money for a new apartment in Geva Binyamin.
Her last conversation with her father, Rabbi Ya’akov Litman, ended with a kiss and a blessing for Sarah-Tehiya: “I want you to always be happy. Your mother and I will always love you.”
He himself was a joyous person, his daughter recalled this week when talking with The Jerusalem Post.
On that last day, Friday, November 13, Ya’akov danced with the children that he taught in an elementary school in the Kiryat Arba settlement where the family lived.
“That symbolized everything about him,” the slim 21-year-old woman said of the father she had adored.
It was just days before her scheduled wedding to Ariel Biegel. She had planned to spend Shabbat at home with her friends while her parents and her five siblings were to celebrate with Ariel’s family in the town of Meitar, near Beersheba.
But the family never arrived.
Along the way, Palestinian gunmen attacked the vehicle, killing Ya’akov and his oldest son, Netanel, 18.
The couple delayed the wedding until after the mourning period and invited the Israeli public to celebrate with them in Jerusalem’s International Conference Center last Thursday night.
“Everyone was with us when we sat and mourned, so we thought they should be with us when we celebrated,” Sarah-Tehiya said.
The thousands of wedding guests that mobbed the building could not fit into the hall, so for a brief time Sarah-Tehiya and Ariel went outside to dance with them.
On Monday, between two sheva brachot celebrations, they stopped in the small three-story building in Jerusalem that houses the organization OneFamily, which is dedicated to helping bereaved family members and terror victims.
Sarah-Tehiya and Ariel are among the newest of the 2,700 families for which the organization provides financial assistance, psychological support and a wide range of activities such as ceramics and dance classes.
OneFamily’s founder and director Chantal Belzberg said she began the organization by accident in 2001.
Her daughter Michal’s bat mitzva fell near the date of the suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, in which 15 people were killed and 130 wounded, and it felt strange to have a large party. They canceled the big event, held a small one and donated the money to terror victims.
But the more they became involved the more their understanding of how much these families needed beyond financial help grew. They turned from donors to organizers, said Belzberg, who has since devoted her life to the cause of helping them.
“Friendship,” she said, “is not about who you have known the longest. It is about who has walked into your life and said, ‘I am here for you and proved it. We do not wait for people to approach us. We tell them we are here for you and we want to look after you.”
To welcome Sarah-Tehiya and Ariel, the OneFamily staff put up balloons on the wall and a small sign that said “Congratulations.”
OneFamily has already given the couple money both for the extralarge wedding and for their new apartment in Geva Binyamin.
Sarah-Tehiya and Ariel do not wear their sudden celebrity status easily, and dream of a return to anonymity.
There are times, said Sarah-Tehiya, that she imagines she is in the midst of some nightmare from which she will wake to discover that her father and brother are still alive and her wedding is days away.
On that Friday afternoon, she said, she was so overwhelmed with happiness that she never worried about the danger of a possible terror attack.
Her bubble of joy was broken by news reports that showed a photo from the crash scene with a vehicle that looked like her family’s car. That was followed by a visit from Kiryat Arba psychologists who told her of the accident but not of the deaths.
“My sister called to say that the family was in Soroka Medical Center [in Beersheba] except for my father and brother who had lost a lot of blood, and that she did not know where they were.”
A driver took her immediately to join her family at the hospital, where they learned of the double loss.
Netanel had dreamed of being a doctor since he was three years old and carried out imaginary surgeries, recalled Sarah-Tehiya. As a highschool senior he volunteered with Magen David Adom and planned to be part of a medical program when he joined the IDF after graduation.
“He took on a lot of responsibility in the house and was very much the older brother,” recalled Ariel.
At the wedding, they placed a photograph of him and of Ya’akov on a table. Earth from the scene of the attack was placed on Ariel’s forehead during the ceremony.
Typically, Ariel said, one places such dust in memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But in their story, they also thought it was fitting to mark the personal loss the family had just undergone.
It was one of the most meaningful moments of the wedding for Sarah- Tehiya along with the bedeken ceremony in which Ariel placed the veil on her face.
Ariel said he had tried throughout the night to focus more on the happiness of the moment.
MINDEE LEVINGER, a coordinator for OneFamily and one of its 40 staff members, said that it is precisely in these weeks after an attack that her organization enters the lives of the terror victims to stand with them as they go about picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
The rest of the Israeli public moves on, but for the victims life will never be the same, she said.
This period has been particularly difficult, because news of each new attack over the past two months often awakens traumatic memories for the survivors or bereaved relatives of past attacks, she said.
Belzberg said that her staff are “professional friends” who have walked into the victims’ lives and say, “We are here for you, when all your friends have walked away.”
They look at the situation from a holistic perspective and assess the family’s overall needs, whether it is help paying bills, child care or battling the medical and insurance system, Belzberg said.
Inbar Azrak, 28, of the Kida settlement in Samaria, said that Levinger had been one of the pillars she has leaned on the last four months.
“The attack was like falling into a deep black hole, from which I am slowly climbing out,” said Inbar.
Her life has not returned to normal since the moment when Palestinians torched her car as she and her husband, Uri, drove through the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina four months earlier.
“It was as if someone took my old life and threw it away,” she said.
At the time of the attack the couple was on their way home, after a two-day vacation in Jerusalem without their three children, Yishai, five, Tal, four, and Shahar, two.
“Thank God they were not with us,” Inbar said as she thought of how much worse the situation could have been.
It was such a fun day, she recalled.
She and Uri had gone shopping, eaten in a restaurant and seen a movie in Cinema City.
They left from home around 7:30 p.m. It was August, so it was still light outside.
Uri drove and she sat next to him on the front seat. They had stopped at an intersection in the area of Beit Hanina. To their right, a truck was parked in such a way that half of the vehicle was on the sidewalk.
“The light turned green and then there was an explosion and the car burst into flames,” she said.
Since then, she has seen video footage from security cameras that showed three Palestinians hiding behind the truck, and a fourth on lookout duty. They threw three Molotov cocktails at the front window of the car, next to where Inbar sat.
For a few seconds, everything went black. Her mind couldn’t take it all in.
She could only hear and feel.
“Get out quickly,” Uri yelled as he jumped out of the car. For Inbar, the only way out of the car was through the door, which was now on fire.
“I could already feel the fire on my legs.” She steeled herself for the moment after she jumped through the flames.
“I told myself I would have to roll on the ground to put out the fire.”
She opened the door but the seatbelt held her back.
“It took me another second to undo the belt. Then I jumped and rolled.”
Inbar’s next memory was the way she lay on the ground with her cheek on the pavement. Uri stomped on her skirt to put out the rest of the flames.
She had one very simple thought. “I’m alive.”
The relief lasted for just a moment.
“Then the terrible pain began. I never felt anything like it. I sat up and screamed like an animal,” she said.
They couldn’t call for help because their phones were in the car.
Palestinians surrounded them, some seemed to gawk and others took snapshots on their phones. Fearful of the growing crowd, Uri kept everyone away with his gun, Inbar recalled.
To handle the pain, she told herself the situation was temporary and that soon she would be in an ambulance.
“In a year, you won’t remember this,” she told herself.
Many strong emotions burst through her in those few short moments. She felt a strong sense of God’s presence and the lines from the well-known psalm ran through her brain.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear because you are with me.”
They were saved, Inbar said, by a Jewish couple, Denis and Nadia, who stopped to help. They called for an ambulance. Then the two of them lifted her up and moved her further away from the car, which exploded moments later. The blast pushed the vehicle to where she had been sitting.
Then the ambulance arrived and she was finally given morphine for the pain. Her mother came down from her home in the north and stayed by her side in the hospital until she was released.
“The five weeks in the hospital were more traumatic than the attack,” she said. Inbar had burns on her arms and legs. Twice a day she had to take a shower to make sure the wounds remained free from infection.
Initially, she said, the pain was so great she could not endure it, so doctors had to put her to sleep.
She smiled often as she spoke, even as she recalled the painful moments during and after the fire. But in the hospital, she said, she had moments of deep despair.
She recalled one Friday when she spiked a high fever and endured waves of intense pain that was off the charts.
“I felt like I was going to die,” she said. In her mind God spoke to her and said, “There is another option.
You can go.”
She told God, “I got the message I will fight, for myself and my children.”
As Inbar spoke, Levinger sat next to her and held her hand. Levinger, who herself lost an older brother in the Lebanon War in the 1980s, remembered how she first met the Azrak family in the hospital.
Initially most of her conversations were with Uri because Inbar was in physiotherapy, sleeping or unconscious from the pain.
So she spent time helping Uri, whose experience of watching his wife almost burn to death was possibly more traumatic.
He kept saying that everything was fine, recalled Levinger. “Finally I said, to him, ‘Uri, everything is not fine.
You have to understand what you went through. I want you to cry, I want you to feel.’ I was very rough with him.
“He didn’t know his wife was going to survive; she was black from the fire when she arrived at the hospital,” said Levinger.
The trauma from an attack doesn’t just impact one person, it touches all the people around them, Levinger explained.
Inbar’s parents suspended their lives for five weeks. They did not move from the hospital. “Her mother is a very strong lady. She picked that girl up and said, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Inbar’s children were initially too scared to go near her.
“Post trauma is like a disease,” said Levinger. “Everyone is affected.”
Before the attack, Inbar said, she was the kind of person who was busy every moment. Now, she said, “I sit on the sofa and give orders.”
As a family they are dependent on a lot of help, particularly from One- Family, she said. The hardest part has been the impact of her injuries on her role as a mother. “I did everything for my children, and now I need help.”
She has explained to them that “mother can’t do this right now.”
Yishai and Tal understand everything, including the details of the attack, she said.
Once she heard Tal threaten someone else by saying, “I’m going to throw a Molotov cocktail at you.”
Another time Tal played an imaginary game of mother with her doll.
“Mother cannot stand up, she is in pain,” Tal told her doll.
FOR PUAH Palmer, the scars are all emotional. She felt her husband, Asher, and one-year-old son, Yonatan, were in danger, hours before she received any actual news of the attack that killed them on September 23, 2011.
She and Asher spoke briefly all morning while she worked as a nurse in the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He was packing their car to head from their home in the Kiryat Arba settlement to Puah’s parents’ house in Jerusalem for Shabbat.
“It was a quiet shift,” said Puah, 31, as she recalled that fateful morning four years earlier, when she was six months pregnant.
“We talked about what to bring, what to leave and when to pick up Yonatan from day-care,” said Puah.
“At 1:55, I called him again. He said, ‘Everything is fine. I have Yonatan.’ I said, “Okay, I will see you in an hour,” she said.
Half an hour later she called him again to see when he would arrive at the hospital to pick her up at the end of her shift, but he didn’t answer.
Initially she thought nothing of it and assumed he was somewhere without phone reception. She went to the parking lot outside the emergency room to wait.
When he didn’t show up within a reasonable length of time, she called again. This time, his phone was not on.
“It was strange. I felt that something had happened,” said Puah. She called Kiryat Arba’s emergency services to see if there had been an accident on the road. They said, “Yes, but the road was open.”
Panicked, she called her mother who told her, “Take a taxi to our house and we will figure it out.”
Together they phoned hospitals in Jerusalem to see whether they had received wounded people from the car accident.
Their search ended when a friend called to confirm a story out of Kiryat Arba that Asher and Yonatan had been killed. That was followed by a visit from the police, who explained that a car accident caused their death.
“In my heart I knew it was not true that he died that way,” said Puah.
Already she feared it was a terror attack because Asher was such a careful driver.
“We had a black Shabbat,” recalled Puah.
It was only during the shiva (seven- day mourning period) that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) came to explain that incident had now been designated as a terror attack.
A Palestinian in a car heading in the opposite direction threw a large stone at the windshield of Asher’s car. The stone flew at a much higher speed as a result, making it more deadly than a bullet as it hit Asher in the head, killing him instantly.
The car overturned, crushing Yonatan to death. Other Palestinians came and stole her husband’s gun.
Nothing was the same after that.
She quit her job. It was half-a-year before she walked back through the door of their apartment, and then it was only to pack up her things.
“I had nothing to return to,” said Puah, who explained that those hours in the house where she had been so happy were more painful than the funeral.
“It looked exactly as it had that morning when I left,” she said.
Puah moved into her brother’s house in the Efrat settlement until the birth of her daughter. Then she moved to a house next to him and eventually to the Tekoa settlement nearby.
She named her daughter Orit, for the light she brought into her life in a dark time. It was a name she and Asher had already discussed as a possibility.
Orit is now old enough to know that she had a father and brother who died. “I told her they are in heaven and that they will not return. She knows them through me,” Puah said.
“In the beginning I lived just for her. I got up in the morning only for her. With time I learned to live for myself.
“She is a light and a present unto herself,” said Puah.
Time has not erased the pain, but as the years pass she has reframed her future; including a return to school, where she is studying art, with a focus on drawing.
NETTA SCHWARTZ, 30, who walked into the building on Monday with her two-month-old daughter, Shira, and husband, Eran, has leaned on the organization for the last 12 years since she was injured in the suicide bombing attack at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem’s German Colony, in which seven people were killed and more than 50 wounded.
That night was brought back her very painfully in the last weeks, when Ziv Mizrahi, 18, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant. His uncle, Alon, had been the security guard at Cafe Hillel that night and died trying to save her life and that of those who sat inside the coffee shop by jumping on the terrorist in a vain attempt to prevent the explosion.
“He would talk to us when we passed. He was always so happy and smiling,” Schwartz said.
“His nephew’s death killed me, it was so hard,” she said.
It was a fall night, she recalled, and although she was not yet 18, she had already graduated from high school was just figuring out what to before she was drafted into the army. She and her friend Shimrit were outside the coffee shop after saying goodbye to a third friend, who was heading to the United States.
It was the height of the second intifada and her mother had begged her not to go out. Netta dismissed her fears, unable to believe that something bad could happen so close to home.
She and Shimrit were talking and laughing as they neared Cafe Hillel, when suddenly a car driving the wrong way struck Netta as suspicious.
She wondered if the car had been stolen. Within seconds she called her brother, a police officer, but he didn’t answer. Then a terrorist got out of the car. Alon understood immediately what was happening and yelled at her and Shimrit to flee. But they never made it further than the nearby candy shop.
The explosion knocked her to the ground. When the smoke cleared she found herself inside the candy shop.
She was not in pain.
“My body was on some kind of a strange high,” she said.
Shimrit said they had been wounded.
“What are you talking about? Nothing happened,” said Netta. At worst she thought maybe she was suffering from shock.
It was only when she saw the blood around her that she understood she was among the wounded.
Netta said that her body was riddled with shrapnel wounds, including in her chin. The left side of her face was cut.
She was taken into surgery and did not wake up for three days. By then, her whole family had gathered at the hospital. She remembered thinking that if her brother, a police officer, was crying, she must be badly hurt.
She didn’t look in the mirror or examine her body. It was only when she got into the shower for the first time in a wheelchair and saw all the holes in her body that she began to shake and cry.
“I am disabled,” she told her mother.
“What kind of a life can I have?” Her parents stopped going to work so they could be with her.
It was at this moment that a staff moment from OneFamily arrived at the hospital with a stuffed tiger and stayed with the family throughout the years.
“It was a year before I could even eat solid food,” said Schwartz.
Belzberg said that knowing this, she had bought her ice coffee the first time she visited.
One by one, Schwartz said, her friends dropped away. But OneFamily remained. “It was everything for us,” she said.
Among many other things, the organization provided counseling and rides to the rehabilitation center and sent Schwartz’s younger brother on a trip to Italy with other children whose families had been impacted by terror. In addition, it has given her $500 a month for several years to cover the cost of her alternative healing.
Many surgeries later and after years of physical therapy, it was almost impossible to see the scars from the attack. Initially it seemed as if she was also improving psychologically.
She took classes at the Open University, fell in love with Eran and got married.
But the flashbacks from the attack have never left her. The pregnancy and the birth of her daughter left her with anxiety so severe that those cannot be alone.
She is so afraid that Eran has quit his job just to be with her. “My dream is that my children will not live with the same fear that I do,” she said.
What is it that OneFamily does that makes it so cherished in the hearts of thousands of victims of terror? Belzberg explained that just knowing they can turn to OneFamily whenever they are in need gives them a sense of confidence to face the future and continue their recovery.
OneFamily is not limited by the strict government rules that lock them into providing a uniform solution for all. OneFamily is the exact opposite. Each family receives a tailor- made program based on their unique circumstances.
Belzberg added that “the community OneFamily cares for has made the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
They need one thing in return – a sense that their murdered loved ones will not be forgotten, and that they, the survivors, will always be remembered and appreciated for the tremendous burden they will always carry. OneFamily fills both of these needs, by uniting Jews from all over the world, together with Israel’s victims.
Both sides gain tremendously from that feeling of Jewish unity that is created.”
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