I am so honoured to have been asked to speak this evening. Thank you Shaindel. Thank you all for being here tonight.
When I think about Rabbi Simes so many thoughts whirl through my mind…..I have many warm memories about him as the young teacher I first met, the friend he became and from the vantage point of one of his team who worked with him and Shaindel after his injury.
I first met Rabbi and his family when they moved to Ottawa, at the time I was a parent of children at the school, and involved on the then Hillel Academy Board. I remember meeting Shaindel and Rabbi on their “look see “trip, when they were deciding whether or not to make Ottawa their home. Right away this soft spoken man impressed, his authenticity and deep love of Hashem and teaching shone through within minutes.
As some of you may know one of our sons, has had many health challenges and at times we didn’t understand how much this impacted his school work. In a parent teacher conference one term, Rabbi was telling us that our son was not handing in assignments. I suggested tough love “just fail him Rabbi, and then he will get the message”. Rabbi put down the paper he had in his hand and looked at me perplexed, he said: Mrs. Levy, “no one ever fails Judaism. “ It embodies to me who he was and how he thought. Each student was a treasure to be nurtured, a valuable member of our community, a sacred duty to teach, however they came to him, however they performed. I once asked him why he never seemed to have class room management issues even with some of the more so called “challenging classes”. He said, “I offer respect and I hope to receive it in return. So far it has never failed me”. Rabbi went on to teach our son his Bar Mitzvah portion , was there for us when we had to postpone the Bar Mitzvah when our son was too ill and guided us in our decision to do a quiet early morning Aliyah. He understood so much without us ever having to explain. Rabbi went on to teach all of our children. I asked them what their memories of Rabbi are…. all three said a man who lived his beliefs. A man who found great joy in his Judaism. A man who’s faith was deep even in the face of great suffering.
I can certainly attest to these, especially, a man whose faith held firm even in the face of great challenges.
In the work as a neuro physiotherapist, I am privileged to be allowed to accompany people on some of the most difficult journeys of their lives. I have often asked myself if I would have even half the courage or dignity and endurance, if I could even hold onto half the hope that life will again be worth living as some of my patients.
Rabbi was one such person
I heard about his injury while I was in Israel on a woman’s trip, rediscovering some of my own Jewish roots. I quietly went up to my room and cried. My heart ached for Shaindel, the kids and Rabbi, as I knew what lay ahead. I would later come to know the courage and fortitude with which they would face the tremendous challenges that lay ahead.
I became involved in his care when he returned home from the Rehab centre. When I met Shaindel to discuss his home coming, despite the many complexities of caring for someone with his injury, she was brave and resolute in her decision to bring Rabbi home. She had nine children, the youngest was around 6 months old. From the start Shaindel and Rabbi tried to find joy in everything they could. Ice cream parties at the hospital, dressing up for Purim, taking pride and joy in every tiny physical gain Rabbi made. Any time we made progress in our sessions he couldn’t wait to tell Shaindel. I think he was as excited to tell her as by the fact that he had made some progress.
I came to spend a lot of time with Rabbi. He would greet me at the start of every session with the biggest smile he could muster always dressed in a shirt and tie. However he felt he, always gave each session his very best. Pushed his limits.
One of the most poignant memories I have is the first time we stood Rabbi up on a tilt table, a piece of equipment we use to help someone stand up when they do not have the strength to do it on their own. It was late Friday afternoon. For medical reasons I was concerned that he didn’t stay up too long. He kept reassuring me that he was fine. That I worried too much. Then he asked for a siddur and the phone, then asked Shaindel to dial Schmueli’s number. Standing up for the first time in 18months his first wish was to say the Shabbas blessing on his children, while standing. There was not a dry eye in the room.
There were some nights when Rabbi was in pain and the medications not helping. He said he found some of the pain management techniques we had tried helpful and I had told him that he could call me if needed. One night Shaindel called and I went over. Rabbi was very uncomfortable and between us we tried to help him. Several hours later, things had settled and we were talking. I asked him if he was ever angry at G-d for what had happened. He didn’t miss a blink, he said “I am not angry because there is nothing to be angry about; I believe there is a reason for everything. There are lessons for me to learn from this and work I am supposed to do, my job is to try and figure out what that is”.
I forget the exact date now but I arrived for one of our sessions to find Shaindel and Rabbi waiting for me pretty much at the door. I knew something was up. They were both so excited. Their niece in Israel was getting married. Rabbi had repeatedly said that it was still a dream of his to return to Israel. If given medical clearance, would I help them work out if it was do-able practically? I have never seen a man so motivated, from the moment he thought it was a possibility he doubled his efforts during our therapy sessions. I was the one who had to put limits on things. He went from being able to cycle 15min on his arm bike to 30min daily. He insisted we stand daily. He was a man with a goal!
We deconstructed each part of the journey; how would he transfer from the wheel chair to the plane seat, how he would be seated in the plane? We set up a pretend plane seat and practiced with him, Shaindel and his caregiver. As we solved each potential barrier Rabbi would be so joyful. While not blinded to the risks or the difficulties he was truly driven to go. And go he did.
Humour was always part of how Rabbi and Shaindel coped. I was concerned that all our planning might not have covered every eventuality, and asked Shaindel to let me know how they were doing on each leg of the trip. The day they travelled I checked my phone constantly. A video came through of Rabbi being carried down the stairs, a huge grin on his face. I don’t remember why he needed to be carried down, but the thing I do remember is the grin on his face. It was luminous, he had arrived! The next video that came was of a crew member using a lighter, trying to burn off a plastic tie that held part of his wheelchair in place when they had loaded it. I guess we forgot the pair of scissor or it was confiscated. A silly story perhaps to recount but told to demonstrate how many barriers Rabbi faced each day, big and small, he and Shaindel met them with levity and humour.
I cannot reflect on Rabbi and his journey without saying something about Shaindel and his family. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is quoted as saying “Faith is not uncertainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty”. This is the faith and the courage I saw in both Shaindel and Rabbi day after day, when dealing with loss, pain and the constant uncertainty about what each hour of each day would be. Shaindel was his rock, confidante and fierce advocate. She insisted that we did everything, and I mean everything, we could to help him regain as much as possible.
Together Rabbi and Shaindel tried to be the parents they needed to be. I know you will believe me when I say the standard they set themselves was high. Rabb, though unable to physically help, tried to be present for anything he could. Homework, trips to the Museum of Civilization, picnics. Nochi and Devorah were very small and often around during our therapy sessions. Rabbi would encourage them to help me. He always gave them a small role and thanked them for helping him get stronger. Shaindel and his family together with G-d were his strength, his meaning and the source of his courage. I only needed to mention one of the upcoming weddings and Rabbi’s face would beam.
One very difficult afternoon I asked him if he wished he had not made the trip to Israel, given how ill he had been since his return. He answered as swiftly as he could, with one word “never” and then he added “it was my dream and I am so blessed that I could realize it.”
As Rabbi’s condition deteriorated he spent many weeks on and off in the ICU unit. He eventually lost the ability to breathe well enough on his own without a ventilator. This meant the loss of his ability to speak. I think that perhaps of all his loses this one was the hardest because he could no longer freely share his thoughts with Shaindel and his children, and he could not teach. We tried to put in place substitutes but conversations became so much harder and more needs based. One afternoon we were speaking through a combination of a computer program and a letter board, and I just wasn’t getting what Rabbi was trying to say. I apologized saying “I’m so sorry Rabbi, you must be so frustrated with me” Again that look, twinkle in eye, he tried to reassure me and comfort me, he knew I was doing my best!” He tried to comfort me!! That is who he was.
I asked him if he ever wished for an end to his suffering and he said: “never, I have everything to live for”.
I was privileged to be allowed to be part of this extraordinary man’s journey. Please G-d few of us will ever be called on to exhibit fortitude and courage under such extreme circumstances. But whatever the challenges we must all face as we go through this life Rabbi, has set us an example to follow. Live each day to the utmost, take joy in every little thing you can, trust in Hashem, serve mankind, and cherish your loved ones. He would want you too, to celebrate each day the miracle of a healthy body and mind.
In South Africa we have a saying at times of loss and remembrance,
Shaindel, we wish you and Rabbi’s beloved children and grandchild and his sisters and extended family, long life.