Counting the blessings

Following the Har Nof synagogue massacre, an aftermath of faith, miracles and prayers.

People comfort each other during the funeral of Aryeh Kopinsky, Calman Levine and Avraham Shmuel Goldberg in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People comfort each other during the funeral of Aryeh Kopinsky, Calman Levine and Avraham Shmuel Goldberg in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘It’s a miracle!” exclaimed Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, following the announcement that her son-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein, who was seriously wounded in the brutal Palestinian terror attack that left four rabbis dead at the Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood last Tuesday morning, is on the road to recovery.
“The director of the emergency room at Hadassah University Medical Center told us it is truly miraculous that he is going to recover from the attack,” Heller said in an interview with the Magazine.
Goldstein was struck three times with a meat cleaver – twice on his head and once behind his ear – and suffered blows to his back and chest. Seven other worshipers were also wounded in the attack.
Speaking to the press on Sunday, with his head heavily bandaged and a black kippa perched on top, Goldstein told reporters he had reached the last paragraph in the morning Amida prayers when he heard gunshots and people dropping to the floor. “I got up to the Sim Shalom bracha [prayer asking God for peace, goodness, blessing and life], and I saw that people around me were trying to avoid the gunshots.”
Chairs were thrown at the assailants to try and stop them, but the stabbing and shooting continued by the Palestinian cousins, Uday Abu Jamal and Ghassan Abu Jamal of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“At some point, the gunshots stopped, and another terrorist started stabbing people with a meat cleaver. He came over to me and gave me three big bashes with it. Everyone was lying there on the floor silently,” Goldstein, the father of nine children, recalled. He regularly prays at Bnei Torah.
Goldstein’s 12-year-old son, Mordechai, who was praying with his father, dropped to the floor along with the other congregants to avoid the bullets, recounts his grandmother. “He somehow found the courage to let go of his father’s hand, crawl to the synagogue’s exit so that no one would notice him, and broke into a run. Mordechai raced home and told his mom – Miri, my daughter – everything that had happened,” said Heller.
“It’s a very traumatic experience for an adult, so of course it would be for a child. He is in trauma but has spoken to a social worker from the hospital; he talks about what happened but not about his own feelings.”
Before collapsing in the ambulance, Goldstein frantically asked where Mordechai was, and was reassured he had escaped.
Heller recounted that the first words her son-in-law spoke when he regained consciousness in the hospital were from the Psalms: “Ashira LeHashem b’hayai” (I will sing to God with my life).
“I attribute this miracle to the prayers of over 7,000 men at the Mir Yeshiva,” explained Heller, who has been living in Har Nof for the past 25 years. Goldstein leads a Torah study group at the ultra-Orthodox Mir in Jerusalem, one of the largest yeshivot in the world.
“When Shmuli awoke, he described what it was like to face someone who seems to be an ordinary human being and yet doesn’t mind taking an ax, without an ounce of humanity, to kill people,” she said.
“The truth is that we are only here in Eretz Yisrael because of God’s mercy,” added Heller, who made aliya from Brooklyn, New York, when she was 17. “Every day is a great miracle and it is a gift to be in this land. Sometimes terrible things happen, but this is a wake-up call for all of us – to remember our destiny here and that there is nothing natural about our situation here.”
“Neither my daughter Miri nor I wished that Shmuli would have stayed home from the synagogue on Tuesday, more than any other day of the week. Neither of us wished that Mordechai would be the kind of kid who doesn’t like to go to shul with his dad. We both know that the villain of the story isn’t the coincidences of time and place that led them to be in Kehilat Bnei Torah on Tuesday morning.
“The villain is the man with the cleaver and the man with the gun. But in the emergency room, we were aware of something much bigger, more real than the ongoing soap opera called ‘them against us.’ It’s called faith in God, who can turn things around in a moment. And that’s all that mattered in the recovery room,” said Heller.
“People have been reaching out to us from all over the world and across Israel,” she said. “We welcome the unity and even the press to get our message out.”
“We must continue to pray that God gives strength to the five new widows and 25 new orphans,” stressed Heller.
In other acts of faith in the Har Nof community, Shula and Dov Sorotzkin decided to conduct the brit mila (circumcision) of their son at Kehilat Bnei Torah the day after the attack took place.
“We woke up to the sounds of gunfire from the synagogue,” Sorotzkin said. “But we chose to do the brit here today because of the symbolism that this place holds, especially in light of this important religious ceremony for our people.
“The brit mila is about the covenant and connection between God and the Jewish people. The rabbis who were here yesterday were killed in the middle of a conversation with God, but we are here today, continuing that connection.”
Dov, the youngest in a family of nine children, decided to name his son Eliyahu Meir after his great-grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch, who fled Lithuania after his famous Telshe Yeshiva, founded in 1875, was destroyed in the Holocaust. The yeshiva was reestablished near Cleveland, Ohio, after many of the students and faculty members had fled Lithuania.
For Sorotzkin’s father, Yosef, the brit mila of his grandson is a sign of pure faith. “We are doing what the Jewish people have done throughout history – every time there has been death and destruction, we keep moving and creating,” he noted after he finished dancing and singing with family and friends at the brit.
Others still, who aren’t part of the Har Nof community, felt it was important to extend their solidarity.
Yosef Wolfe, a former lone soldier who lives in Jerusalem, said it was important for him to join the Shabbat prayers at the synagogue following the deadly attack. “My friends and I wanted to show our solidarity with the Har Nof community, so we attended the Friday night services last week and walked back home to Nahlaot after,” Wolfe told the Magazine.
“It was a very powerful experience to be part of the hundreds of people who participated in the Shabbat prayers following that attack. I saw the bullet hole that went right through the wood of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept. But because the scrolls were in metal cases, they were safe and the bullet didn’t pierce through,” he explained.
“It was surprising to see how orderly the synagogue appeared, albeit with a few fragments and bullet holes and other marks,” remarked Wolfe, who made aliya from Arizona several years ago. “ZAKA [rescue and recovery organization] had cleaned up the entire vicinity so well.
“One of the synagogue members pointed out to us the few places around the room that did show signs of the attack. There was an ax mark on the wall and the bottom shelf of a bookcase had been removed entirely because of one rabbi’s spilled blood. We saw where the cantor had hidden behind the lectern and was therefore saved.
“Hearing the orphans whose parents were killed in the attack saying kaddish in unison was one of the chilling moments.”
“Knowing that we were praying together with those orphans, in the place where they had lost their fathers, felt like the right thing to do,” said Wolfe.