It’s Sunday evening, and my mind is wandering. According to the Hebrew calendar, the date is Elul 13. Eleven years ago, on this night, I was lucky. In a sense, I was ‘born again’. And so I mark it as my ‘other birthday’.
There were several factors that led to my traveling to Israel in the summer of 2003, the most compelling probably being that many advised against it. It was at a time of heightened violence with suicide bombings and general security warnings significantly on the rise. Still, ever the idealist, I decided to go anyway. I did however promise a few concerned friends and family members that I would splurge on the luxury of taxis rather than taking buses during my three-week stay. But you see, every bullet has an address. Each lesson has its student. And so, on Tuesday, September 9, 2003/Elul 13, 5764, I sat at the back of Café Hillel on Emek Refaim – in Jerusalem’s then up and coming German Colony – enjoying a late dinner and coffee with friends when the entire café suddenly blew up around me.
Although it would be easier in many ways to write off my experience to having been in ‘the wrong place at the wrong time’, the truth of the matter is that there was no other place I should have been. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, at the time I was meant to be, too. As ‘luck’ would have it, I survived. After a few days in the hospital, and an extracted shrapnel souvenir to remind me of my good fortune, I had a whole new respect and appreciation for life in Israel, and of course for life itself.
I have often thought back to the string of events earlier on that day that led to my being in Café Hillel. There were lots of them, each significant in its own way. But something I have never been able to forget was – and anyone who has visited Jerusalem is likely familiar with this, especially in the Geulah/Meah Shearim neighborhoods – the charity beggars. On that particular morning, while doing some touristy browsing and enjoying the authentic Jerusalem experience of those crowded neighborhoods, I had one outstretched hand after another flung in my face, begging in Hebrew and broken English for alms. I could not understand why they seemed to specifically be after me, I was sure I didn’t have a wealthy air and was not clad in any designer wear. Yet, though I found their begging a little brazen and aggressive, I took my US dollars (which I’d not yet had a chance to exchange) and handed them out to each hand that came my way. I don’t know if anything was left in my wallet by the time I exited the neighborhood, but I do believe that I set forth a deposit being counted and reckoned Upstairs. Something I believe added to my miracle later that night. Our Sages teach Tzedakah Tatzil Mimavet – charity saves from death, and though there may be many ways to explain such teachings, I take this one quite literally.
Each year on this date I am faced with a dilemma and an opportunity. The dilemma being ‘how can I mark this day to publicly appreciate G-d’s gift to me and at the same time pay tribute to those less fortunate who lost their lives/loved ones on that tragic night?’, while the opportunity being ‘how will I show G-d that I was indeed a life worth saving’? And so, although I don’t really like to speak about it, I have no choice. I often see awed reactions even from Israelis who find out that I survived a bomb. And when I see that, it is I who am in shock. How is it that these warriors who live daily amid such threat are shocked to meet me – just one survivor? I can’t really answer that, but if my sharing can inspire a greater appreciation of life and awareness of G-d in just one person then I have already done something with it.
I don’t think it’s possible to ever walk out of any such a life-changing experience and simply ‘move on’. At least I could not. The timing of the Café Hillel bombing was remarkably close to Rosh Hashana. Just a few days after my returning to the United States I stood in Shul uttering the humbling words of Mi Yichye Umi Yamut – who shall live, and who shall die?, true tears of fear, appreciation and closeness with G-d streamed down my cheeks. Did I really need to experience the bombing to achieve that? I don’t know, but I did not regret that I did. Each year I thank G-d for the challenges that keep me real. Challenges that force me to appreciate what I have, and to share the pain of those that do not.
Today, on the day of the bombing, G-d gave me another chance – another lease on life. This time of year is all about second chances, and I was blessed to receive it in such an obvious manner that it would be foolhardy of me not to see how lucky I am. But as with all blessings and gifts from Above, there comes an obligation. A little Post Script in invisible but bold ink: I must use whatever I was given to benefit the world and lives of others around me. I can’t afford to ignore it – I don’t want to be a wasted chance! I will always pay it forward. I will always look for ways to do random acts of goodness and kindness to make this oft-crazy-seeming world a better place.
There were seven innocent lives lost in the war-zone that was Café Hillel that night. I have no doubt that were it not for the 22 year old security guard at the front of the café, Alon Mizrachi HY’D, who literally grabbed and hugged the bomber, the death toll would have been much more. I make a point to remember and thank his family each year. I cannot ever imagine the pain of losing a child, let alone in such a way. Not only does this date remind me of my good fortune to have survived, it reminds me how much more I owe to the world, to those whom were lost, and to G-d to make something of my experience and life.
And as we enter the high holidays, the time of true judgment in the things that really matter, we should remember those who have not been so fortunate to continue living. We owe it to them and to ourselves to live full lives, filled with acts of kindness.
Though birthdays may seem a time to receive; wishes, blessings, gifts, this ‘other birthday’ in and of itself is the biggest gift I could have received. This one is all about giving. And while it’s always nice to receive blessings on one’s birthday, it is said that on a birthday it is we who actually have the powers to bless others, i.e.: to give! The Torah says that man was created Betzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d. In line with that, on the day of our birth, what better way for us to show our appreciation to G-d for what (life) He has given to us than by using it to give to others?
On both the 13th of Elul, and September 9 (according to the English calendar), I will always remember to be thankful for my ‘other birthday’ and the gift of time, blessings and inspiration that come with it each year.