The Human Spirit: Walking to the huppa

Five years after nearly losing his leg during reserve duty in Gaza, Kenny Sachs dances at his own wedding.

chuppah wedding good 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chuppah wedding good 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The groom pauses, ready to stomp on the wedding glass.Many commentaries, both ancient and modern, have added glosses to this beloved Jewish ritual. But for me, standing under the starlit sky in the Judean Hills at the wedding ceremony of Judith Marks and Kenny Sachs, our Jewish insistence on remembering sadness amid joy, on summoning to mind the still imperfect Jerusalem with our destroyed Temple is a perfect fit. Which foot will he use, I wonder, and in the instant before the groom lifts his foot, his story returns in its entirety. Kenny Sachs was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. A lanky, handsome fellow with a winning smile, he played basketball on his high school's highly competitive team. He was the only white player. At the same time, he was an active member of the Zionist youth movement Betar and embraced his duty to defend the State of Israel and the people of Israel. His two dreams dovetailed: He wanted to become a professional basketball player in Israel. He was fond of saying, "How great it would be to get paid for doing something I love to do." Within a short time of moving here in 1997, he was playing semi-pro ball. He did his army service in the Golani infantry brigade. In June 2003 he was called up for his first reserve service, and assigned to the Erez border crossing of the northern Gaza Strip. FOG MADE night vision difficult on the night between June 7-8. Sgt. Kenny Sachs had drawn the predawn shift of guard duty. There would be no time for sleep from the end of guarding until he set out to patrol the border. He was washing his face when he heard gunfire. He ran outside. Twenty meters away, a man in IDF fatigues and a helmet was kneeling on the ground. But this wasn't a fellow soldier. Terrorists in stolen IDF uniforms had entered the base under cover of the fog. The terrorist turned and shot a round of bullets toward Kenny. The first shell hit Kenny's tibia, the inner long bone that connects knee to ankle. The second bullet tore apart his calf muscle. Kenny fired back, hitting the terrorist, taking a third bullet, this time in his right knee. Only then did he fall. He dragged himself behind the armored personal carrier and waited for a medic. There was no pain, only silence, Kenny told me. "My mind was somewhere else." Only later would Kenny learn that four of his fellow soldiers and the three terrorists were dead. The terrorists had shot 2,000 bullets and lobbed 14 grenades, including one aimed at him. Eleven of the grenades failed to explode. When the attack was over, Kenny was evacuated. By then he'd lost nearly half his blood from the gunshot wounds. Still conscious, he called his brother Frankie, a former sports editor of this paper. His sister-in-law Mara answered. Although she was American-born, too, somehow he spoke to her in Hebrew. Finally, he spoke in English. Knowing she was pregnant, he didn't want to scare her. Could he speak to his brother? He was okay, but in Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, he told Frankie. Shot three times. Mara and Frankie were waiting for him when he came out of surgery five hours later and woke up. In his first words, Kenny congratulated Frankie on the victory of his favorite team, the New Jersey Jets. Only three weeks later, at the circumcision ceremony of his newborn nephew did Kenny learn about his brother and sister-in-law's long journey from Jerusalem to Ashkelon and their briefing from the doctors. Assuming the worst despite Kenny's avowals that he was okay, they had decided to name their firstborn for him. 'ONLY THEN did I realize how close to death I'd been," Kenny once told me. "I was pretty upset." Avinoam, that lively five-year-old, was at the wedding on his dad's shoulders, along with younger brother Matan, 3. Kenny's parents and a large delegation of family members flew in from the US. Kenny has had five years of physical therapy and surgery by the best orthopedists here and abroad. He lives with chronic pain. He has persevered through strenuous physical therapy to overcome the limits of his sinews and tendons to get better use of his leg. Despite his efforts, professional basketball is no longer an option. Not until someone invents a way to regenerate cartilage. But he's overjoyed to be alive and to be standing on two legs. Tonight there's an aura around him. He's glowing, as is his London-born gorgeous bride - a graphic designer of this newspaper. Framed by the white huppa, they are a portrait of love and harmony. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." He shatters the glass in one easy stomp of his right leg. "Oh yes - the history of that leg was very much on my mind when I broke the glass," he told me later. The gathering of the Jews, the meeting of Jews from different continents and their marrying in Israel, is a fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah, Rabbi David Milston, of London, reminds us. So says the prophet: "They will bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to God, on horses and chariot, on covered wagons, on mules and with the youthful dances upon My holy mountain, Jerusalem." Youthful dances. One question remains. Can Kenny dance at his wedding? I know he's asked the question of his medical team. "The answer is yes," says Kenny, flashing his remarkable broad smile. "But I've invited my doctor and my two therapists just in case." Mazal tov.