The last time Marc Haskell put on tefillin was at his bar mitzvah. That was over 40 years ago, in another lifetime.
Last Monday evening, 15 Av, Marc, whose Hebrew name is Moshe, stood on the dais under a tent next to the ritzy Maritime Parc building in Jersey City, of which he is a part owner. Sitting to his left was Leizer Galperin, the beaming bar mitzvah boy, clutching his brand-new tefillin in his arms.
Taking the microphone, Marc recited the brachah in a trembling voice suffused with emotion. Then Leizer, beads of perspiration on his forehead, painstakingly wrapped his own tefillin around Marc’s left arm. This was no easy feat, since Leizer is wheelchair-bound and has the use of only one arm. But Leizer insisted on performing the task himself—all in a day’s work for a young man who never takes the easy way out.
The sobs from the audience were audible as Marc and Leizer, two Jewish men from disparate backgrounds, whose journeys couldn’t be more different, embraced.
Standing nearby was 11-year-old Moishy Holtzberg, Leizer’s first cousin, next to their beaming zaide, Reb Shimon Rosenberg. Reb Shimon, who is raising Moishy after his parents were tragically murdered in the 2008 attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, had brought his beloved grandson to America to attend Leizer’s bar mitzvah. Both boys were born into warm, caring families and enjoyed blissful lives until tragedy struck. Now they were celebrating Leizer’s bar mitzvah, whom the doctors didn’t think would survive past his sixth birthday.
Child soloist Yoily Glick then came down the aisle, singing “Moshiach, Vi Bizti?” his sweet, treble voice rising as he placed his arm on Leizer’s shoulder, and together their voices soared to the Heavens.
Fade back to the night of June 22, 2010. It was an ordinary evening in the Galperin home in Kiryat Malachi, a small city in the Negev. Reb Shmuel was out working as a mashgiach, while Devorah had put the children to bed. Suddenly, at about 10:30 p.m., she heard hysterical screaming coming from the children’s room. Opening the door she found the bedroom engulfed in flames. With no time to think, the courageous mother grabbed her little ones and ran through the wall of fire. It was only after she was safely outside that she realized that five-year-old Leizer, her middle child, was still inside.
The little boy was rescued a few minutes later by a neighbor. Unfortunately, his condition was critical, with burns over 80% of his body. He was rushed to Tel Hashomer Hospital with a weak pulse. The doctors didn’t think he would survive the night.
Against all odds, the badly burned child clung to life as he was sedated for weeks. Both of his legs and the fingers of one hand were amputated, and he remained in a coma for several weeks. But even after he woke up it was touch and go for a while. The doctors even told his shaken parents that there was no point in keeping him alive. What kind of life would their child lead aside from having to contend with endless pain and suffering? Nonetheless, Shmuel and Devorah Galperin were steadfast, pleading with the doctors to spare no effort. As for the question of what kind of life Leizer would have, they replied with pure faith, “Whatever life the Ribbono Shel Olam has destined for him.”
They had no idea then that their precious son would not only survive but become a beacon of courage and strength to all who are privileged to know him. Today, the child whom the doctors predicted would be brain damaged and crippled is a ben Torah, the light and joy of his family.
After weeks of hovering between life and death, Leizer awoke from his coma and called out to his parents, “Abba! Ima!” He had no recollection of the fire that had destroyed his body. Still, he was a fighter, determined to get better.