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.
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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.
Then the Rebbe asked him to do three things: First to donate $1,800 to charity – to any cause or organization other than Chabad-Lubavitch. It could not be Chabad-Lubavitch, the Rebbe was very specific about that. This was a lot of money in 1963, and my father had to borrow it, but he did as the Rebbe instructed. The second thing was to add “Bentzion” to my name – again the Rebbe was very specific about that. (This turned out to be the name of my great-grandfather who had no one named after him.) And the third thing: the Rebbe wanted the doctor to call him.
After much begging, my father got the doctor to call the Rebbe. And when he did, the Rebbe told him to administer a particular injection into the exact location of the bleeding in my brain to prevent further deterioration. The doctor was shocked that the Rebbe knew about this injection – this was something brand new on the market – and he didn’t want to do it, because this injection was known to sometimes cause instant death.
In the end the doctor gave the shot, and I survived. But my recovery was not a simple matter. I was still in a coma for many months. I was like a vegetable. During this time, my father came to a couple of the Rebbe’s farbrengens. At the most memorable one, the Rebbe urged my father, “Now is an es ratzon [an auspicious time on high] and you can ask anything you want, so I don’t understand why you’re not asking!”
Upon hearing this declaration from the Rebbe, my father did ask – obviously, he asked for my recovery, which eventually was granted.
One day, my mother was sitting by my bedside, when a new nurse who was unfamiliar with my condition came over and asked me, “What would you like to drink tonight sweetie, milk or soda?” And I mumbled, “Soda.” My mother fainted on the spot.
This was not the end of the story, however. I went through a year-and-a-half of intensive therapy. Although, after all that, I was speaking and eating and even feeding myself, my legs were barely moving. I could stand up only with the aid of two metal braces, and I could not walk at all.
And that’s when my father took me to the Rebbe. He carried me into the Rebbe’s office, and left me there, at the Rebbe’s request. I have no recollection of what happened there, but I do know that after twenty minutes I walked out of that office on my own.
After that, I continued to limp, and I was also weak on the right side. But the worst of it was that I had trouble learning. When I was six, my father took me to see the Rebbe, who asked me questions about the Torah portion, and to each question I was forced to answer, “I don’t know.” So the Rebbe then asked me, “Why don’t you know?” and I responded, “It must be because of the accident … I have brain damage.” At that the Rebbe smiled and took out a prayer book and said, “Pray from this siddur – especially the bedtime Shema – and you won’t have anything to worry about.”
I saw the Rebbe again on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday. At that time, I asked him for many blessings for different areas of my life, but especially for the healing of the right side of my body – I asked to have more strength in my right hand.
The Rebbe responded to all my requests except for that last one. And when I asked again, he changed the subject and started talking about my Torah studies, so then I knew that this is the way it would be. My right side was not going to get any better.
But this hasn’t stopped me from leading a full life. And is anyone surprised that I became a chasid of the Rebbe? Even my father became a chasid!
And today, as a rabbi, I do everything in my power to spread the message of Judaism as the Rebbe wants me to. When people ask me why I do what I do, I simply tell them that G-d gave me a second chance at life through the Rebbe’s blessing, and I want to do the same for others.
Rabbi Bentzion Yaacov Shmuel Orimland presently serves as the rabbi of Young Israel in Margate, New Jersey. He was interviewed in September of 2012 in Brooklyn. This story originally appeared in the film “A Glimpse through the Veil,” produced by JEM.
This week’s Here’s My Story is generously sponsored in loving memory of:
Reb Moshe Freundlich, OBM
הרה”ח ר’ משה ב”ר שלמה ז”ל
Yahrzeit, 10 Nissan
By Danny and Chana Sara Freundlich