By C.B. Weinfeld
Yated Ne’eman 21 Shevat 5777 | February 17, 2017
Last Wednesday, 12 Shevat, Klal Yisroel bid farewell to a tayere Yid who served as an example of hope and faith even during the darkest hours of the night. Rabbi Yehuda Simes, who along with his wife Shaindel (nee Vinitsky) was profiled in these pages, was a brilliant ben Torah and beloved member of the Ottawa, Canada community. The Simes family moved to Ottawa in 2002, hoping to use their strengths to make a difference in the fledgling, growth-oriented community.
Rabbi Yehuda taught in the Hillel Academy and was the founder of Torah High, a highly successful NCSY program, while Shaindel taught (and still teaches) women and girls. Seven years ago, on June 20, 2010, a horrific accident turned their lives upside down. During the return portion of a family trip to visit relatives, a predawn collision with a deer on Highway 81 north of Watertown caused Rabbi Simes to become a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. During the ensuing years, Rabbi and Mrs. Simes learned to navigate a brand new reality, raising their nine young children, the youngest born a few months after the accident, under incredibly challenging circumstances.
Yet the Simes family didn’t just survive. They were determined to thrive, becoming a source of inspiration and chizuk to their neighbors, friends, and the rest of the world. Shaindel Simes recalled the details of the accident in her interview with the Yated several years ago:
During our June vacation, we took our children to Rochester for Shabbos to spend time with my sister, who lives there with her family. Her husband is the principal of Ora Academy, the girls’ high school. We had eight children at the time, and I was expecting our youngest. Our eldest son, who was in yeshiva, stayed home with friends. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend and left on Sunday night for the four hour drive north to Ottawa. The atmosphere in the car was happy and relaxed. A short while earlier, before shkiah, my husband had davened Mincha, his last tefillah while standing on his own two feet. About two hours into the drive, Yehuda felt a little tired and asked me if I could take over the driving while he got some rest. My eldest daughter was on the phone with my son back home, telling him we were almost in Canada, when the accident occurred. It was already dark outside, so I couldn’t tell for sure, but it seemed like a deer was standing in the middle of the road. I couldn’t see its body, just the green deer eyes. We were coasting on the highway and there was no time to slow down. All I could do was swerve to avoid hitting it. The deer ran back to the side of the road, but the damage was done. I lost control of the car. I tried to pull the wheel to the right, but overcompensated, and the car began to roll. A few moments of sheer terror followed.
The kids were screaming. I was in a state of shock, frozen in terror, and my husband was saying Shema. A few moments later the nightmare ended, as the car came to rest right side up on the side of the road. This confused me, and made me wonder whether the van had actually rolled over, or I had just imagined it. I began to realize that we had survived a serious car crash. A man, whom my kids call Eliyohu Hanovi because he refused to give us his name, called for help, which came almost immediately. To my incredible gratitude, one by one the children started climbing out of the car. Aside for some scrapes and bruises, they were all miraculously okay. It took me a few minutes to realize my husband hadn’t come out of the van. I wondered where he was, but was too traumatized to realize that something was wrong. The roof of the car had crushed above his head, breaking his neck and causing a severe spinal cord injury. We didn’t know it at the time, but Yehuda had become paralyzed from the neck down.
We were in Watertown, a few miles from the border, and were taken to the local hospital. In the meantime, my husband was airlifted to the trauma center at Syracuse Hospital. I kept on asking how he was doing, but the hospital staff was avoiding me. Finally they told me that he had a spinal cord injury. I was naïve and had no idea what that meant. “Can he walk?” I asked. They said no, but refused to give me more details. In all honesty, I figured that meant he would be wheelchair bound, a very big deal, but we could live with it. At the time I didn’t realize what a spinal cord injury meant.
Our children were immediately released from the hospital and went to friends and family. I stayed in the hospital for a week. I was transferred to Syracuse so I could be near my husband. It was then that I realized my husband had lost his ability to move his body from his neck down. He was completely paralyzed, aside for some movement in his biceps and triceps, which was only achieved after much effort.
Yehuda was later transferred to an Ottawa hospital, where he stayed in the ICU for a couple of months, until before Rosh Hashanah. It was a crazy, overwhelming time in our lives. I was busy going back and forth to see my husband, taking care of our children, and trying to achieve a semblance of normalcy. Our son was born on erev Rosh Hashanah in the same hospital, and Yehuda was wheeled into labor and delivery to be there for the birth. It was the first time the hospital staff managed to achieve such a feat!
A few days later, Yehuda was discharged to a rehab center, where he stayed for six months. Our baby’s bris took place before Yom Kippur in the rehab center. It was a beautiful, emotional simcha, attended by our family and friends. We have memorable pictures of Yehuda smiling and “holding” the baby, named Alter Chanoch Henoch (after Rav Henoch Leibowitz, Yehuda’s rosh yeshiva), in his wheelchair.
It was a really challenging, roller-coaster time. I was home with the baby, whom we called Nochi, and the other kids. I drove every day to see Yehuda in the rehab, where he stayed until Purim. Fortunately, I had a one year maternity leave which enabled me to focus on my family. When Yehuda came home, we began another phase in our lives. At first we had nighttime care for him, while I took care of him by day. I was functioning on very little sleep since I was up at night with the baby and was busy around the clock with all my responsibilities. Later, I took over the night care, while the aide came during the daytime.
In the meantime I was caring for the children, including an infant, working, paying the bills, dealing with Yehuda’s hospitalizations; it was more than a full time job. We had to move to a house that was handicap accessible to accommodate his wheelchair. I had to take care of the move and the renovations all on my own. Of course, we had very strong support from family and friends to back us up! Nothing was as hard as watching Yehuda struggle to do things on his own. From being a fully functioning, involved father and respected rebbi in the community, my husband became a patient. He was in a lot of pain for the first few months, and couldn’t sleep much. He had to be turned every few hours and needed to be fed and dressed. Eventually, after months of therapy, he was able to feed himself and cover his eyes with his hand for Shema.
After a couple of months, Yehuda was able to continue teaching from his wheelchair, and he lectured in many communities, inspiring his audiences with his acceptance of his new reality. He also continued his kiruv efforts on his blog, the RollingRabbi.com, where he described, with candor, honesty and humor, his efforts to focus on the blessings in our lives. A few years ago, after a serious illness, Yehuda became dependent on a trach to breathe, greatly limiting his activities. Still, he continued to write on his blog, communicating , through a special eye gaze computer specifically designed for quadriplegics, typing words as he focused on them. He remained incredibly focused and strong, setting a positive tone in our family.
He learned Chovos Halevavos each day, and knew parts of it by heart. His emunah and closeness to Hashem kept growing stronger. Sometimes there was sadness, but I never saw the slightest sign of anger, of “Why me?”
Yehuda was completely accepting of his situation, and understood that this was what Hashem wanted from Him now. He was committed to making a kiddush Hashem, to serving Hashem on His terms, in his current situation.
As Reb Yehuda so powerfully wrote in his blog, “We know that the daily challenges that come our way are guideposts along our journey. They are meant to teach us something. Our journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Unlike an illness, where the patient can see some light at the end of the tunnel and a return to their prior state of health, what we are facing is a non-ending new reality. Everything we had thought of as permanent and unchangeable was suddenly ripped out from under us in an unforgiving moment. Now, many things must be different, but we fight to keep them normal. We accept that things are different, but somehow they must stay the same. At the same time, many things that we took for granted before the accident we will never underestimate again.
“One of the life lessons I have learned from quadriplegia is a whole new world view. I now found myself arranging priorities. I found out that instead of worrying about what I don’t have, I am grateful for what I do have. This is not just cliché. This change inside of myself actually occurred. “When I was faced with a near total loss of control over my body, I could have wallowed in self- pity. Instead, I found it prudent to take what Hashem dealt to me and make peace with it. Truthfully, this is an ongoing process, as there are an infinite levels of acceptance. Acceptance for me entails throwing away what I no longer have and no longer can do, and embracing what I do have and what I can do.”