The story I want to tell begins on September 17th, 1963, when I was three-and-a-half years old. At the time, we were living in McKee City, in Southern New Jersey, where my father had a poultry farm and where he served as the rabbi of the local Orthodox synagogue.
Incidentally, my father, Rabbi Gimpel Orimland, had been educated in Bnei Brak, Israel, where the famed Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was his Torah study partner, and where his teachers were the Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon. In other words, he had a Lithuanian yeshivah background, which is as far away from Chasidism as you can get. And this makes this entire story all the more remarkable.
That particular day I had been with my grandmother and step-grandfather and was being driven back home. It was raining hard, visibility was poor, and we were in a car accident. It was a multiple car collision, as the Atlantic City Press reported later, and I went flying out of the windshield together with my grandmother. I landed with my face submerged in a puddle of water and I was drowning. My step-grandfather was killed instantly, but my grandmother managed to crawl over and pull my face out of the water.
I was rushed to the hospital, where they found that my brain was hemorrhaging, and they couldn’t stop it. When my father arrived, he found me unable to see or hear, and unfortunately, the doctors offered little hope for my survival. In fact, they thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and one of them actually told my father to hold off scheduling my step-grandfather’s funeral as he would likely be burying both of us at the same time.
You can just imagine the shock that my parents were in at that moment. Fortunately, the president of my father’s synagogue, a Mr. Gellman, had a brilliant idea, to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing. At first my father demurred – it went against his grain to ask a chasidic rabbi for help – but he was desperate and he had nowhere else to turn.
Later, my father would tell the story of what happened next with a great deal of drama. He said he would never forget it. It was four o’clock in the morning when he placed the call to 770 and was instructed to call back in an hour. It was the longest hour of my father’s life, but then he got to speak with the Rebbe who said to him: “The decree in heaven is over. Your son will live.”
My father was stunned. As he would later say, “This statement lifted my spirits. But I couldn’t stop wondering: how could a person just declare like that: ‘The decree in heaven is over.’ How did he know?” As someone raised in Lithuanian yeshivahs, he couldn’t fathom that a chasidic Rebbe had this knowledge and power. (more…)