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Terror and Faith in Har Nof: A Review and Excerpt

March 18, 2018 | by Risa Rotman and Elliott Katz

After 11 months in a coma, Chaim Rotman succumbed to his wounds sustained in the horrific terror attack that killed 4 other worshippers and a policeman.

On the morning of November 18, 2014, two terrorists attacked worshippers during morning prayers in the Kehillas Bnei Torah Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. Four of the worshippers and a police officer who responded to the attack were killed. News reports that morning also said the most seriously wounded person was from Canada.

When I heard this, I thought of the only Canadian I knew in Har Nof, Chaim Rotman. Later that morning, a friend called to tell me the wounded Canadian was Chaim.

I met Chaim in Israel in the early 1980s. At that time he was Howie. He was helping a rabbi at the Western Wall set up students and other visitors for Shabbat meals. We were both from Canada. In 1986, he married Risa and they made aliyah to Israel.

Chaim and Risa at their wedding

Chaim was one of the kindest people I knew. He didn’t wait for people to ask for his help. He looked for people to help. When we drove between Jerusalem and the Har Nof neighborhood and he saw someone walking he would pull over and offer them a ride.

After the attack, he was in a coma for 11 months. Terror and Emunah in Har Nof, written by his widow Risa, is a moving and inspiring memoir of those eleven months when their struggle became a focus of the Jewish world.

The Talmud teaches that all Israel are responsible for one another. Risa writes that the terrorists attacked Chaim with a knife to his head because he was a Jew, therefore the Jewish people had to take special care of him. Family, friends, neighbors, rabbis, social workers, Chaim’s colleagues at the Israeli State Comptroller and complete strangers were all part of what Risa describes as a fierce tidal wave of kindness.

There were fundraising campaigns in the United States and Canada. In Har Nof, people would knock on her door, hand her an envelope and say their community raised this money and is praying for Chaim.

Risa’s journey begins at the ICU at Hadassah Ein Kerem where she spent hours on a bench in between visits with Chaim. Their teenage daughter Yaffa became the family’s media spokesperson for reporters who came to the hospital. Risa made shiva visits to the families of the victims who were killed and when they asked how Chaim was, she replied, “He is alive.”

From Hadassah, Chaim was transferred Beit Levenstein in Raanana, for rehabilitation. He stayed there for six months. She describes a hopeful stage when they were sure Chaim was squeezing their hands when they would hold his good hand – but ultimately there was no proof if this was a conscious act or just reflexes.

Chaim was then moved to Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem which enabled people to visit him constantly. A neighbor from Har Nof wanted to organize a Tehillim rally to have one million people say Tehillim on Chaim’s behalf but his rabbi told him he could only do it if Chaim’s recovery was not dependent on a miracle. The idea ended when Risa told him it would take a miracle.

As Chaim’s condition deteriorated he was transferred to Shaarei Zedek Hospital. On October 23, 2015, people commented that he was looking well when suddenly the blood pressure machine went off. Risa and the other family members said prayers. He lost consciousness and passed away.

After the attack a woman said Risa’s life is in limbo. Risa responded that her life was not in limbo and that no Jew is ever in limbo. “This is the place where I am meant to be, at this time, to serve God, and that is true for all Jews at any time or place in their journey.”

Read Terror and Emunah in Har Nof and be moved and inspired.

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First Day: An Excerpt from Terror and Emunah in Har Nof

By Risa Rotman

Tuesday, November 18, 2014, the 25th day of Cheshvan 5775. I got up at 6:15 a.m., my usual wake-up time, allowing myself to daven before taking care of my kids. I felt the tension in my shoulders release at the thought of a more relaxed day. By nature I am something of a homebody, but the last several months had required a lot of activity out of the house and many extra responsibilities. At the beginning of Elul my son Shloimi had gotten married after a brief engagement, and then Erev Yom Kippur my daughter had a baby girl, our first grandchild. These events, in combination with the chagim, plus the new addition in my routine of bringing one of my children for a certain therapy outside the neighborhood twice a week, and of course my regular social/parenting obligations, made life feel rather frantic at times. So I was really enjoying the idea of an entire day at home, just to do my work (I was working online at the time) and take care of my family and home.

At about 7:01 that morning, I heard several ambulance sirens. I remember thinking, What a nuisance. Why do they insist on driving with their sirens so early in the morning? It took about two weeks for me to get my head around the idea that my husband had been in one of those ambulances. At about 7:10 a.m., Andy, a good friend, called in hysterics. “Risa, I heard there is shooting in the shul. Is Chaim okay?” I have to admit I don’t like worrying, so I told her, “I am sure he managed to take care of himself. He is so quick and agile, and besides it is probably nothing.” There had been such scares in the past so I wasn’t buying into the idea that something earthshaking was happening. I continued to go about my routine: getting the kids ready for school, tidying up, and still enjoying the thought of a quiet day at home.

A few minutes later, my newly married son, Shloimi, the third child out of 11, called in a panic, “Mommy, is Abba all right? The police wouldn’t let me down the street. Something is going on at the shul. I tried calling Abba but he didn’t answer.”

I told my son not to worry. I was still not interested in anything upsetting my “quiet” day and therefore I wouldn’t allow my son’s concerns to get in my way. Again I reflected on crazy rumors in the past that had always turned out to be relatively harmless events. “After all,” I told my son reassuringly, “Abba would never answer the phone in shul, and besides, there isn’t reception there anyway.”

A short time afterward Shloimi came into the house. I tried calling Chaim myself at this point and when I didn’t get an answer I grabbed my daughter’s cell phone and ran out to Rechov Agassi. Someone had put up a barrier, blocking off the shul. Everywhere, there was pandemonium; no, pandemonium is an understatement. Members of Zaka and various medics were racing around. People were screaming.

I saw a few men I knew on the other side of the barrier and asked them if they had seen Chaim. They shook their heads. The cell phone rang.

“The hospital called...” one of the kids said.

“Which hospital?”

“We don’t know. Either Shaarei Zedek or Hadassah Ein Kerem.”

I turned back toward my building when I saw my friend and neighbor Mrs. Goldberg standing at her building’s entrance, worry written across her face. I gave her a hug and said, “I just got called that my husband was taken to the hospital.” I couldn’t even imagine that something worse could have happened to anyone. I ran back to my apartment to set things in motion.

My kids were taken to my upstairs neighbor. They were a tangled mess, half dressed, scared, and trying to absorb the impossible. We were trying to think logically. How could the hospital contact us? Thankfully, our cordless reached to the neighbor’s apartment, while I took my daughter’s cell phone with me to the hospital.

Knowing that Chaim was wounded, but absolutely in the dark as to the extent of his injuries, or even which hospital he was in, my son, his new wife, and I ran down to the street where my daughter-in-law’s parents lived. They kindly offered to drive us to the hospital. Just as I was about to leave the house, a neighbor called to say that Yaakova Kupinsky was worried about her husband. She didn’t know which shul her husband had davened in that morning. I called Yaakova and told her, “Look, I got called by a hospital, so if you didn’t get a call, it must mean he is okay.” After that I checked my voice messages and heard a bizarre computer-generated voice message from Chaim’s cell phone saying he would be in touch later. To this day, we do not know how this call was made. With that I flew out of the house.

As we were driving along, still unsure as to where Chaim had been taken, the kids at home called to say that Abba was at Hadassah Ein Kerem. At that point I started to cry. As a general rule, the more serious cases are taken to this hospital and I was really beginning to worry. Could this be life and death, really? Could I manage to take care of my family alone? I let the thought hang over me as I heaved with sobs. My son gently patted me, to show he was there for me. I appreciated the gesture, particularly since he doesn’t tend to show his feelings easily.

Once we got to Hadassah Ein Kerem, we were greeted by a team of social workers and were put in a large windowless room with a faded red carpet, together with the other families of the injured. I knew them all. The Mulwami family had a few daughters who learned together with my girls. The Goldsteins: I was friendly with Miri Goldstein, who lived further down on Agassi; in fact, my son-in-law had learned in her husband’s class. But even more so, I had a close personal relationship with Rebbetzin Heller, Miri’s mother, for many years. Here in this small room I recognized many members of the extended Heller family, all hovering over their books of Tehillim. All we knew now was that each man had endured cuts by a knife or meat cleaver to his head and body.

Later, I would absorb the true nature of their experiences and wounds. Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein’s son had been in shul with his father and had managed to crawl his way out as the terrorists burst into the sanctuary. The father saw an opportunity to stop some of the carnage when one of the terrorist’s weapons jammed. Rabbi Goldstein jumped to grab the weapon. The second terrorist, infuriated, cut deeply into Rav Goldstein’s scalp near the ear. In his rage, the terrorist then threw Rabbi Goldstein out of the shul. Just at that moment, a young man, a student at one of the local yeshivos, was riding by on his bike. At the sight of the bleeding man, he ripped off his shirt and wrapped it around Rav Goldstein’s head, effectively saving his life and also bringing attention to the terrifying carnage going on inside.

Rav Mulwami usually davened at the Sephardi shul two buildings over, but that fateful morning he woke up late and joined the 6:30 minyan with the Ashkenazim. He too had received severe cuts to the head and his hand was almost completely severed. When the paramedics found him, he, like Chaim, barely had a pulse.

Solemnly, the personnel in Ein Kerem apprised us of Chaim’s injuries. He had been slashed twice through the head with a meat cleaver, with cuts through the eye and through the jaw. He was also slashed through the arm. I just could not take it all in and did not stop crying. The refrain I repeated was, “How could they slash a man through the head in tallis and tefillin?” I cried on Rebbetzin Heller’s arms and she simply said, “It is so awful!” I also kept repeating, “If we are not safe in a shul, then where are we safe?”

We waited, hardly daring to breathe, as time ticked by. I sat at our family’s round table, a siddur in my hand. Was I concentrating? I can hardly remember…Each of the families huddled in their pain, waiting to hear the outcome of their loved one’s surgeries…

Slowly details of Chaim’s condition started coming in and the picture became clearer. When the neighborhood paramedics found him, his pulse was very weak. I was told, though this was not confirmed, that the bulk of the blood scraped from the shul floor was Chaim’s. I was informed by the staff that upon arrival at the hospital, he had no pulse. He immediately received 12 units of blood and in surgery a transfusion of still another 8 units…

We waited endlessly to see Chaim but by the very end of the day, we were told that we would only see him for mere seconds as the situation was so precarious. His head was completely draped over and hardly anything of his face was visible.

Looking back, I realize that with my deep desire for a calm day amid the super pressure of taking care of a large family while also helping financially, at first I simply couldn’t acknowledge that something absolutely horrendous had occurred. Yet once the reality hit me smack in the face, I accepted this new situation and the role I was to play in it. I think of it as a baseline Emunah (faith in God), spontaneous and unconscious. This baseline emunah is what is implanted into every Jew’s heart: a belief that there is a Creator and everything is under His domain. Unfortunately, once we start to think or become conscious of our circumstances, our acceptance of the situation sometimes changes, and that’s when questions, anger, or frustration can seep in.

In addition, each one of us builds up our storehouse of emunah with the events and challenges that mold us. In my case, the tragic loss of my eldest son strengthened me for the unimaginable events to come.

Click here to order Terror and Emunah in Har Nof.

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