The Human Spirit: Night driving

Riding out a January 2009 terror attack

1302-sofer (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From a distance, the couple sitting at the end of the long, multigenerational table look as if they're being toasted for one of the seven post-wedding party celebrations called Sheva Brachot. But the Ein Kerem Hotel on the campus of Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem seems an odd venue for such a celebration. Most guests who are here for Friday night dinner are either couples who have a newborn baby in the nursery downstairs or - like me - relatives who want to spend Shabbat with their hospitalized loved ones. Closer up, the picture at the table changes. Perhaps these aren't newlyweds. Black-and-blue bruises and a fine line of stitches cross the baby face of the young man. The petite and comely woman wearing a head scarf looks tired. Nonetheless, their joy fills the room. A hospital hotel is the sort of place where you have the time and inclination to swap stories of what brought you there. So, please meet Sarah and Moshe Raphael Avitan, the young couple at the head of the table. They're terror survivors, not from the so-called second intifada, when bus passengers were being blown apart and literally thousands of men, women and children earned that title in this same medical facility. They're terror survivors from 2009. ON JANUARY 19, at 8:45 in the evening, they got in their car to leave their home in the village of Shvut Rahel in Samaria, 45 kilometers north of Jerusalem. They were conscious of the time, because they were concerned they'd be late for a workshop they'd registered for at Kochav Hashahar, another village 20 minutes away. Moshe, a building contractor, was at the wheel, driving on the Allon Road. Phone reception in the area is irregular, but on her cellphone Sarah, an English teacher, tried calling her mother Ruth Pepperman in Jerusalem. Her mother didn't answer. About 10 minutes into the drive, a car started passing them. As it pulled alongside, they heard four loud shots. The window on Moshe's side shattered. "I'm hit," Moshe shouted. "I can't see a thing." He stepped hard on the brakes and they swerved to the side. Their car stopped. Moshe was bleeding from his mouth and nose. The phone rang. It was Sarah's mother calling her back. "Moshe's been shot. I can't talk," Sarah said and hung up. Sarah looked around quickly. What if the terrorists came back to finish them off? In seconds she was out of the car. Her fingers dialed the emergency service. They answered on her first try. "Help! I need help! My husband has been shot!" The medic on the line asked her to describe the wound and suggested she have Moshe lie down. There was no way Sarah could get him into the back seat. Besides, she needed to get out of there before the terrorists returned. Sarah managed to push Moshe into the passenger's seat. Blood poured from his head, but his eye didn't seem damaged. There was a bullet hole in his cheek. The medic told her to press a cloth against it, but there was nothing in the car. She was wearing two shirts. Without hesitation, Sarah lifted one over her head, and ordered Moshe to hold it against the wound. She gripped the wheel and stepped on the gas, heading for Kochav Hashahar. AS SHE DROVE, Moshe thought he'd reached the end of his life. He thought back to meeting Sarah, whose family immigrated from Manchester, England, when they were youngsters. They'd married 14 years earlier when he was 19 and she was 18. He bade good-bye to the woman he loved and then recited the Shema. "I wasn't having any of that," said Sarah. "I didn't just talk to him, I shouted at him, 'I hope you haven't forgotten that we have five daughters to bring up and that you can't leave me alone to do this. You simply have to, have to stay awake and survive this.'" In the meantime, Sarah's mother couldn't get through to them on the phone. She sent out SMSs to Sarah's seven sisters and their husbands. The closest sons-in-law headed toward Kochav Hashahar to help. The others recited psalms. At last, Sarah pulled through the gate to Kochav Hashahar. An ambulance was waiting. "I don't think I had a single thought in my head while I was dealing with Moshe and driving," Sarah said. "Everything was focused on getting there and getting Moshe medical care. Only when I made it did I start shaking uncontrollably." A helicopter touched down to carry Moshe to the Hadassah trauma unit. The pilot advised Sarah to follow by car, but she refused to leave her husband's side. And so they'd arrived at Ein Kerem by helicopter. According to maxillofacial surgeon Refael Zeltser, the bullet was cast lead, not copper, and had been fired from a handgun. Because the velocity was lower, it crossed Moshe's face without exiting, leaving a path of shrapnel behind. It smashed his cheek, nasal cavity and eye orbits. But he was lucky. According to Prof. Zeltser, half a centimeter higher and he would have been blind; a centimeter and a half higher it would have hit his brain and Moshe would have been dead. Moshe's sight is still blurry, but expected to improve. Tonight, he's able to join his family in a Shabbat meal - he and Sarah and their five daughters - indeed, seven blessings, if not the usual ones after a wedding. He's well enough to make the Shabbat Kiddush and sing Eshet Hayil, Woman of Valor, the ode from Proverbs. Sarah Avitan brings it to a whole new level.