Accident of Faith

March 3, 2011

9 min read


After nearly being killed in a highway rollover, Yehuda Simes views the accident as an act of God.

When his ninth child — a boy — was born in September, Rabbi Yehuda Simes was still in the intensive care unit of The Ottawa Hospital.

He had been transferred there in early July, three weeks after a terrifying rollover on Interstate 81, near Watertown, New York.

On that night, June 20, Simes was in the passenger seat of the family van when his pregnant wife swerved to avoid a deer that bolted onto the highway in the dark.

Minutes earlier, he had been the one driving; the couple had just switched places during an evening stop to say prayers.

The van, with seven of the Simes’ eight children inside, rolled several times before coming to rest on its wheels.

Their eldest son, Shmuel, at home in Ottawa, was talking to his sister on a cellphone at the time. She had phoned to tell him they were close to the border and would be home soon. He heard the screams of his siblings as their van cartwheeled off the highway and onto a grassy median.

Miraculously, the Simes children suffered only cuts and bruises. Shaindel Simes, seven months pregnant, was taken to hospital with relatively minor injuries: a broken collarbone and ribs.

Rabbi Yehuda Simes, a popular Jewish studies teacher at Ottawa’s Hillel Academy, was not so fortunate, despite wearing a seatbelt like everyone else in the van.

The ceiling of the car crushed my spinal chord.

“I was sort of trapped: the ceiling of the car was crushing me,” he remembers. “It must have crushed my spinal cord.”

Simes was airlifted to a Syracuse trauma center where he underwent emergency surgery to stabilize fractured vertebrae. A metal plate and screws were inserted into his back. He was placed on a ventilator.

As news of the accident spread, the Ottawa Jewish community rallied to the family’s aid. Prayer services and fundraisers were held. Friends and strangers donated food and kindnesses. Babysitters, cleaners and chauffeurs were arranged to ease the burden on Shaindel Simes.

Rabbi Simes was flown back to Ottawa when his condition stabilized in early July. He was still breathing with the help of a ventilator.

His family celebrated every milestone in his recovery. His children were in hospital to cheer him as he worked to breathe without a ventilator for 10, 15, then 20 minutes.

In August, when Simes passed a swallowing test, which meant that his feeding tube could be removed, there was dancing in the Simes’ home. “It was like a wedding,” says Shaindel.

Everyone came to the hospital to watch him enjoy his first Slurpee of the summer.

On Sept. 8, the birth of a perfectly healthy son, Charlie, was the cause for more celebration. Charlie’s circumcision, his bris milah, was conducted in the patient lounge on the second floor of The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.

Rabbi Simes, who had moved to the centre the day before, managed to hold his newborn son. Everyone in the room was in tears. “It was very emotional,” he says.

Simes believes the events of the past six months — the deer, the rollover, the paralysis, the small miracles — were the product of an all-powerful God. He is certain none of it was accidental.

“It was not random,” insists Simes, whose still-recovering voice has the quality of a stage whisper.

He’s not sure what the next chapter of his life holds, only that he must keep faith that it is part of God’s plan for him. Does he believe it’s a spiritual test of some kind? Is it suffering imposed for a reason as in the Book of Job?

Ultimately, there will be a lot of good that comes from it.

“I don’t know if it’s a test or not,” says the 43-year-old Simes. “Certainly, it’s not what I wanted. But I think God wants something from me ... And ultimately, there will be a lot of good that comes from it.”

Yehuda Simes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the fourth child and only son of Isaac and Asna Simes. His father was a bookkeeper.

The Simes family was at the heart of the city’s community of Orthodox Jews. They cared for the local Jewish cemetery. They helped establish a shul (synagogue), mikvah (ritual bath) and school.

“You name it, they were the go-to people to grow the Jewish community,” says Simes.

The family moved to Israel when Yehuda finished high school. He began rabbinical studies in Jerusalem, and three years later, moved to New York City to study at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim while also taking courses in computer science.

It was while in New York that Simes was introduced by mutual friends to Shaindel Vinitsky. She had grown up in the suburb of Queens, the daughter of a local rabbi.

Both were inspired by the leader of their school, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, who stressed the importance of becoming a good person (mentch) in addition to becoming a scholar and teacher. He encouraged students to plan that self-improvement. (Charlie, whose Hebrew name is Alter Chanoch Henoch, was named after Leibowitz, who died in 2008.)

“He really helped us to form our path in life: to develop what we wanted to do with ourselves when we became adults,” says Shaindel. “His teachings continue to be a source of inspiration for us in our lives.”

Yehuda and Shaindel decided on careers in Jewish education. Some of his colleagues thought Simes was too quiet to be a teacher, but Shaindel convinced him otherwise. The two also decided on a life together, marrying in 1992. Both wanted a large family and a larger community.

“We wanted to create a home that was open to our children, to their friends, to our friends, to members of the community,” says Shaindel. “We wanted that people should feel comfortable coming to us and spending time with us enjoying Jewish holidays and Sabbath together.”

When Simes completed his rabbinical studies, the family moved to Ottawa in 2002. They had friends in the city and loved its manageable size. Both assumed teaching jobs: Yehuda at Hillel Academy and Shaindel at Torah Academy of Ottawa.

Their lives filled with children as their family expanded steadily.

“Eight or nine is a lot easier than two,” insists Rabbi Simes. “The older kids help a lot around the house; they help with the younger children. It’s not just us. It’s also the older kids raising the younger kids.”

Five years ago, Simes took on a second job as director of education at Torah High, a Jewish studies program offered to local high school students. Bram Bregman, who helped found the program in 2006, credits Simes for its success: the school now boasts 101 students.

“He has always been the primary teacher in Torah High and the kids love him — that’s the reason I think they come,” says Bregman. “He cares for them and his classes are made to be interesting: he gets the kids moving and thinking and engaged.”

A former student, Evie Cohen, 19, says Simes inspired her to pursue philosophy as her major at Carleton University. “It didn’t ever feel like a lecture with him; it was always more of a discussion,” says Cohen.

Simes has always professed the belief that teachers must find an instructional style that best serves their students. It’s one of the reasons he’s worried about his return to the classroom. He’s expected to be in rehab for at least two more months.

“I’ve thought a lot about that (teaching),” says Simes, who needs help with most daily tasks. “I’ve thought about being able to control a class. Being able to move around. My style of teaching was very hands on. I never sat down. I moved around.

“I’m just trying to picture it, if I end up in a wheelchair, how will that work? How will the kids respond? Sometimes, I think they will behave a lot better. That’s what I hope.”

It was supposed to be a quick trip to Rochester to visit relatives and check out a school for their daughter, Malka. Instead, Yehuda Simes was grievously injured in a seemingly random highway accident, his life forever altered in a flash. Only Simes does not believe in random acts, in aimless lightning. He believes the accident, like everything else in the world, was an act of God.

It is a notion that, among the faithful, remains a source of controversy and debate.

Does God take an active role in the world’s day-to-day affairs? And if so, is God responsible for both the good and the harm that visits an individual’s life?

A prominent Brooklyn-born rabbi, Harold Kushner, offered one view in his landmark book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which sought to help the faithful deal with tragedy. Kushner wrote the bestseller after his first-born child, Aaron, died from the premature aging disease progeria. The tragedy led Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, to reconsider what he had been taught about God.

In the book, he develops the idea that God possesses limitless love, but employs limited power — and does not interfere in the laws of nature.

“I believe that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God’s creatures, is not moral. Nature is blind,” he said. “Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, germs, speeding bullets, they are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it’s a good or a bad person in their path.”

“There’s nothing that happens in this world that is ultimately bad for us. We just don’t understand it sometimes.”

Rabbi Simes is familiar with Kushner’s book, but like most Orthodox Jews, he fundamentally disagrees with its conclusions. He believes in an omnipotent God.

“God controls everything,” Simes says. “There’s nothing that happens in this world that is ultimately bad for us. We just don’t understand it sometimes.”

Simes believes the design of God’s plan for him will be fully revealed in the next world. He has already come to understand some of its wisdom.

“I see a lot of good already that has come from this — in the way I interact with people, in the way I love my family, the way I appreciate what it means to have a healthy body.”

What’s more, Simes says, he has been moved by the response of the city’s Jewish community.

Days after the accident, more than 250 people attended a prayer service for him at the Jewish Community Centre. Jewish Family Services established a charitable fund to assist in his recovery. His students at Hillel Academy organized a car wash and a garage sale that raised more than $4,000. Others committed to spiritual acts — lighting Shabbat candles, baking Challah bread, reciting psalms, improving their character — on Simes’ behalf.

A freezer at their synagogue was stocked with food for the family. Community members cooked them meals for three months. “From June to September, I did not cook,” says Shaindel.

Friends take care of the Simes’ three-year-old daughter every afternoon so Shaindel can visit her husband. Ten Yad of Ottawa, a Jewish charity, arranges for volunteers to help her every evening with dinner, homework and bedtime. A housekeeper is sent three times a week.

One friend does the family’s weekly grocery shopping; another drives the Simes’ daughter back from Rochester for weekends.

“I’ve been able to totally focus on my husband and the kids,” says Shaindel. “We have felt very embraced by the community, very embraced. We have felt like we are not in this on our own ... All we’ve had to do is say what we need.”

People from the United States, Israel, England and Switzerland have vowed to undertake acts of kindness (chesed) on the rabbi’s behalf. Some of his former students have committed to living observant Jewish lives.

In the fall, community members built a sukkah on a balcony of the rehab centre so that Simes could eat in the hut during the festival that commemorates the 40 years that Jews spent in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.

Every morning, a friend comes to the rehab centre to help him don the tallis (fringed shawl) and tefillin (sacred writings wrapped on the body) that are part of each day’s first prayer service. Others come to be with Simes on the Sabbath.

“It’s incredible,” Simes says. “It’s heartening because it’s a very lonely experience to be in my condition. It makes me feel less lonely to know there’s so many people thinking about me.”

While at the rehab centre, Simes has gained more use of his hands and arms, but it will likely take an act of God for him to walk again. Studies show people with serious spinal cord injuries can improve significantly in the first four months as the body rebounds from the shock to its central nervous system. Further recovery can take place — usually at a slower rate — within the first year.

Many spinal cord patients fall into depression or lash out at the injustice of a paralyzing accident. Some get angry at God. Not Simes.

“I focus on the good,” he says. “I’ve been privileged to be the impetus for a lot of good things that are going on all over the world.”

What’s more, he can’t imagine trying to deal with his suffering without the comfort of faith: “The one thing we have to grasp onto is that type of understanding, that this is part of God’s plan.”

Related Article: Wrestling with Suffering

Crying Together

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the sudden loss of a healthy body is traumatic. Simes has prayed for one day without pain. Says his close friend, Rabbi Micah Shotkin:

“There were times when he did express pain and agony over what he was going through and we cried together, but there was never an expression that he was unsettled about it, or wasn’t at peace with what happened. It’s just coming to grips with his new reality.”

Simes has fretted about his bouts of unhappiness; he has worried they could indicate a lack of faith in God’s plan.

Shotkin has sought to ease his mind. “To me,” he says, “even the greatest man of faith, when he’s dealt with a blow like Rabbi Simes, it’s more than reasonable for him to not be happy with the situation.”

Shotkin, who studied with Simes for more than a decade, calls him a “quiet powerhouse,” a man who has always “accomplished a lot with little fanfare.” He believes his friend has much to teach others about how to deal with life’s vicissitudes. “His faith teaches volumes, more than any lecture or speech,” says Shotkin. “Because everybody’s life is a test. God put us in this world to test us.”

For her part, Shaindel Simes says there are hard days when she feels that her family is “going through a lot.” But she strives to keep everyone united and focused on their blessings.

“We’ve been trying to focus on the gift we’ve been given: the fact that we all came out of the car. The fact everybody was alive. Yes, my husband is very injured, but the fact we still have a husband and still have a father who can be there for us is a gift.

“We can’t attempt to explain why things happen, but knowing it’s part of an ultimate plan and an ultimate goal — and we are pieces of that — gives you the courage to go on. That way you know it’s not only about you. It’s a complete picture you are part of even if you don’t know where you fit in yet.”

Reprinted with permission of the Ottawa Citizen Group, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Listen to a CBC radio report about Rabbi Simes.

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