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Broken Yet So Whole

Esther Ilana Rabi

When Shloime Wertenteil was left for dead in a Chevron ambush back in 1976, his yeshivah buddies scooped him up and fled to safety, but would he ever walk, write, or have any kind of quality future?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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INDEFATIGABLE “What do you do when all the switches are down? Where do you start?” he wondered. And then he knew — start from the ground and reach for the sky “The energy and drive stay with you even after the physical crisis has passed.” Reb Shloime’s grueling schedule testifies to an indefatigable spirit (Photos: Lior Mizrachi)

F orty years is a metaphor for transition, change and growth; what do we see when we look back 40 years — those of us who’ve lived past four decades? Do we know how we’ve changed? When Shloime Wertenteil looks back 40 years, he sees near-death, a broken body waiting to be rehabilitated, a spirit desperate to succeed against the odds. And then he sees his journey, fraught with challenges and victories, and knows that just as he’s done his best, his life can serve as an inspiration for others.

He flashes back to Erev Yom Kippur of 1976 in Chevron. The Jewish community of Kiryat Arba had been established on the outskirts of the City of the Patriarchs five years before, but Jewish resettlement in Chevron proper was still a few years away. Still, the area was under IDF protection, and what better way to enter the Day of Atonement than with heartfelt prayers at Mearas Hamachpeilah, the resting place of the holy Avos? But that morning, Arabs were burning sifrei Torah in Mearas Hamachpeilah, and trying to break into the ancient, boarded-up Beit Knesset Avraham Avinu. Paratroopers called in to quell the violence later described Chevron as “hotter than the core of a nuclear reactor.”

Unaware of the tension in the city, seven American yeshivah bochurim from Jerusalem set off to daven at Mearas Hamachpeilah. All of them would return traumatized, but only Shloime Wertenteil came back in a coma. Yet, after hovering on the brink of dying al kiddush Hashem, he woke up, determined to live al kiddush Hashem instead.

“We left our yeshivah, Mercaz HaTorah, right after davening, so we could get to Chevron and back in plenty of time for seudas hamafsekes,” recalls Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum, one of ill-fated group who is today a rabbinic personality in Silver Spring, Maryland. “On our way to the Mearah, Arabs started throwing rocks at our taxi, and we were coughing from the smoke of the burning tires. Near the shuk, an Arab waved our driver to a stop and warned him not to go any further, so he killed the engine while another friend, Avraham, went to ask the police if we should wait for an escort.

There were six of us sitting in the broiling car with the windows rolled up, waiting for Avraham to return, until Izzy (Sher), Shloime Wertenteil, and I decided to go look for him. It was a little scary when six or seven Arabs crowded around us and started spitting. We flinched when one of them threw a rock, so they started throwing more. We turned to go back to the taxi but to our horror, the Arab driver, who couldn’t care less what happened to us, was driving away. We were running after him when we noticed that Shloime was missing. We turned around again to go look for him, only to find 40 or 50 Arabs chasing us up the hill, throwing rocks. Then we came across Arabs doing roadwork. They had a rock pile, so that was clearly a dead end for us.

His life had been saved, but while his friends were starting shidduchim and careers, Shloime’s future was full of questions

“I don’t know if our hearts were pounding more from terror or from the running when, out of nowhere, two Arabs appeared, opening the door of a small grocery store and gesturing for us to go in,” Rabbi Teitelbaum continues, replaying those minutes of horror so long ago. “Izzy thought it might be a trap, but the rocks convinced us to duck inside. The shopkeeper locked the door and shoved us under the counter, where we listened to the screaming and shouts from outside. A few minutes later, an Israeli soldier ran in, grabbed us, and threw us into his jeep, shooting to keep the mob at bay.

“When we got to the army base, we found our friend Avraham dazed and covered in blood. He’d gone looking for Shloime in the shuk. All the Arabs had run away, but he saw a body crumpled on the floor — wearing tzitzis, so he realized he’d found Shloime. An army jeep took them to base, and although Shloime was still conscious, he didn’t recognize us. The medic, not understanding how badly he was hurt, didn’t want to send the only ambulance into the area, so we carried Shloime to an army truck. A soldier threw a gun into my arms and told me to shoot at anyone who chased us.

“Shloime stopped breathing on the way to Jerusalem, but because we weren’t in an ambulance, no one was getting out of our way, so a soldier climbed onto the roof of the truck and started shooting into the air. We got to Hadassah two hours before Yom Kippur.”

Returning to Life

Even after Shloime Wertenteil had been stabilized, the doctors didn’t know if there was any chance he’d ever be able to walk, talk, or master other basic functions. His father spent a week in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, clapping his hands near Shloime’s face and asking, “Shloime, can you hear me?” When he answered yes on the second day of Succos, the entire ICU started clapping; he’d come out of his coma and he could still speak, although his speech would always be slurred.

That first awakening was sweet to everyone but Shloime, who was horrified to wake up in an unfamiliar body over which he had no control. He had no idea what had happened, no recollection of the attack the week before; his brain had blanked out the memories of everything that happened after the taxi pulled up to the yeshivah.

“The period I was in the hospital was extremely, extremely, hard,” says Reb Shloime, a father of eight today, who over the last four decades has learned to manage his remaining disabilities with a forward-thinking attitude that keeps propelling him onward. “I used to jog every day before Shacharis so I’d come into davening full of energy. All of a sudden I was reduced to total helplessness.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 657)

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