Certain events are etched into our collective memories. Anyone who lived in Yerushalayim ten-and-a-half years ago remembers exactly where they were when they first heard about the horrific bombing of the number two bus line. For most of us, there was fear as we waited to hear the names of the dead and wounded, and then a sense of relief at learning that all our loved ones were accounted for. The following day, when we heard the cars circling the neighborhoods announcing the funeral times of the victims, we shuddered and shed a few tears. By the next day we had returned to our routine lives. But some didn't have that privilege.
As heard from Orah Cohen:
My story begins on the twenty-first of Av, 2003. It was boiling hot, and my five children were cranky from being cooped up in the house all day. My youngest was just one month old, and like every new mother, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I was also feeling extremely lonely. It was summer vacation. All my friends were busy going on trips with their extended family, but as I had immigrated to Israel just nine-and-a-half years before, I had no extended family in the country.
I decided to take the children to the Kosel. I knew that they would enjoy watching all the people at the Kosel plaza. I was looking forward to the opportunity to thank Hashem for giving me such wonderful children. Despite my sense of loneliness and difficult circumstances, five beautiful, healthy children is a true present from Above.
I quickly got dressed and (not so quickly!) got my children ready to go out. Within an hour, I was the happiest mother in the world. I remember sitting near the Kosel, watching the three older children (my oldest was almost eight) davening. They were so sweet and sincere. Afterwards, they watched the baby while I went to daven. As I stood facing the ancient stones of the Kosel, my davening took on a strange sense of sense of urgency. At the time, I assumed it was nothing more ominous than the result of my being a new mother. My children were so beautiful, and healthy — so why did I have this strange sense of fear? I found myself davening for my children's health. "Hashem," I pleaded. "Keep my children, and all Jewish children, healthy and whole."
Tears sprung to my eyes. I recalled a Holocaust story I had heard, about a mother pleading with a Nazi soldier not take her children from her. The Nazi laughed and said, "You can choose only one. The others must die." My prayers took on a new intensity. I begged Hashem to never put any Jewish mother in such a horrible situation, ever again.
Afterwards, when I walked to the back of the Kosel plaza and saw my children playing together – they were so happy to have escaped the four walls of our tiny apartment – I had to force back my tears.
It was getting late. I was anxious to return home; I still had to make supper and put the children to bed. We arrived at the bus stop and found it packed with families; lots of strollers, toddlers, and babies in their mothers' arms. There was a bus standing there, almost ready to leave. I tried to get on, but it was impossible. There was no choice but to wait for the next bus.
We were among the first to board the bus and found seats near the middle door. More and more people pushed their way onto the bus, so by the time we left, the bus was so jam packed I didn't think another person could have fit in. At the first stop on Shmuel Hanavi Street, some people got off the bus. As the bus started to pull away from the curb, people yelled at the driver to stop. Two elderly men were pushing their way through the crowd, trying to get off the bus. The bus let them off and then, just as it began to move, I saw a Chassidishe man run up to the bus, forcefully pull the closing doors open, and jump inside. With his long peyos and Chassidishe dress, he looked like everyone else, except that he had an unusually large stomach (I later learned that he was the terrorist, and that I was the only survivor to have seen him). As the bus left the bus stop, a father with four young boys tried to get it to stop and let them on. I noticed their looks of disappointment as the bus left without them. A strange thought rushed into my head, the thought that "you're disappointed? Maybe that disappointment saved your life!"
MY WORLD WENT BLACK
Suddenly, my world went black. A strong force pushed me to the floor. Everything started spinning, and all I could see was fire raging underneath me. My baby fell from my arms into the abyss, and the roof of the bus collapsed on top of me.
It took me a few seconds to realize that this was a terrorist attack. I couldn't think of anything but my children. Where were they? Were they alive? Were they all alright? In my mind, I heard a voice telling me to choose one. I had just stood at the Kosel, davening to Hashem that He never put any Jewish woman in that situation. "Please. Hashem," I cried. "Don't force me to choose! Return all my children to me."
I have no idea how much time I remained there, but soon I felt someone lift me out of the roofless bus and place me on the pavement. I didn't want to be there. I tried to get up and race back to the bus to save my children, but I couldn't move. So I just screamed that my baby had fallen into the fire, that I had five children on the bus, and pleaded with the people around me to save them. I noticed someone place a man on the pavement next to me. He had no arms. I begged Hashem that He return my children whole.
Eventually someone lifted me into an ambulance. I begged the paramedics to let me stay – I wanted to be there when they found my children. I was in pain – I had numerous broken bones and damage to my ear – and of course I was in shock, but all I could think about was my precious children. At the hospital, a reporter from one of the newspapers asked me how many children I had. I responded, "An hour ago, I had five children. Now, I don't even know if I am still a mother."
In the emergency room, one of the social workers informed me that they were searching all the hospitals in Yerushalayim for my children. After a few hours, they returned with good news: I was still a mother. My three older children were together with me at the same hospital. Although they were injured and had to go through many painful medical treatments (and ten years later, we still have more to go through), they were alive, and all their body parts were intact.
Three hours after the explosion, my one-month-old baby was discovered under the dead body of the terrorist! He was barely breathing, had a broken hip, an infection in his eyes and ears, and his lungs were full of smoke, but he was alive. For hours, announcements had been made on all the radio stations in the country asking if anyone could identify him, until someone finally put two and two together and asked me to describe what he was wearing.
One of the reporters asked me the baby's name. Suddenly, it dawned on me - why, one month before, I had chosen to call him Elchanan – which means Hashem will show mercy. Yes, Hodu l'Hashem ki tov, Hashem had shown mercy on my child, and he was miraculously saved from death.
Now four of my children were accounted for, but I still had no idea what happened to my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Shira. Later that night, a social worker entered my room and asked me what Shira was wearing. I told her she was wearing light blue overalls and black shoes. She took Shira's shoes out of a black plastic bag and showed them to me. I became hysterical. I was afraid that the social worker was about to tell me that my child was no longer among the living. Instead, she informed me that Shira was alive, and that she was located at a different hospital. She didn't tell me that my sweet, beautiful Shira was severely injured. I later found out that she couldn't show me Shira's clothes because they were badly soiled by her blood. The shoes had been well scrubbed before she showed them to me.
The following morning I was flooded with love and caring. Everyone wanted to visit me, to give me words of chizuk, to ask what they could do for me. Jews from all over the world, from Japan, Taiwan, Paris, South Africa, the United States, England, South America, and elsewhere, came to express their pain at what I had gone through, and offer me words of encouragement and support. I felt so connected and cared for. Their love was a balm for my soul. Until then, I had no family to support me. Suddenly, Am Yisrael became my family, and today, ten years later, many of the people I met during those difficult days are still like family to me. They were with me to give me the strength to continue, and today, they are still there for me.
Sometime during that first day, my three older children were brought to my room and allowed to remain. Although I continuously requested that Shira be brought to my hospital, I was refused with flimsy excuses about hospital policy. I probably would have gone crazy with worry, except that my room was constantly filled with visitors, so I didn’t have an opportunity to think. I felt that all of Am Yisrael was with me, supporting me through this very challenging time, k'ish echad b'lev echad.
On Friday morning, two-and-a-half days after the bombing, the social worker entered my room and requested that all the visitors leave. My children were also taken out. "Your daughter keeps on crying for you," she began, "so we decided to transfer her to this hospital. We know that you are a very strong mother. Now, when you see her, you must continue to be strong. You must accept her the way she looks, now. Eventually, with treatment and surgery, she'll return to what she once was. But now, just remain strong and show her your love."
A short while later, a doctor entered the still empty room holding what appeared to be a piece of raw flesh. Before I had a chance to say that they had made a mistake, that this shapeless form could not be my exquisitely beautiful Shira, the form screamed, "Ima!" and fainted.
Shira's body was full of shrapnel. In addition, three shards had penetrated her left eye. Her eye was infected, and the infection was spreading throughout her body. The doctors were positive that they would have to remove the eye to stop the infection and save my daughter's life.
I remained hospitalized for ten days. Shira was there for twenty days.
When I returned home, Klal Yisrael was there for me, at my side, holding my hand. My children were recovering from serious injuries while trying to get over their emotional trauma. Because of the injury to my inner ear, I was constantly dizzy and barely able to stand up, let alone run a household. And I looked as though I had been in a terrorist attack: my nose and jaw were broken, and I was what you could call a very colorful sight.
Volunteers constantly appeared at my doorstep to read the children stories, to help them get them dressed, to give them their baths, and cook them their meals. I felt wrapped in a cocoon of their love and concern, and it was very empowering. They were there for me, and because of that, I was positive that together with my children, we would rebuild our lives and get through this very difficult time.
SURGERY TO SAVE SHIRA'S EYE
The surgery to remove the shrapnel and clean the infection from Shira's eye was scheduled for the week after I returned home. A world-renowned specialist at Hadassah Hospital agreed to perform the operation. Our prayers were answered, and he succeeded in saving Shira's eye. For the rest of my life, I will view him as a malach from Hashem.
The night before the surgery, I contacted my children's schools and my friends and asked them to daven for Shira bas Orah. Within a few hours, I received a phone call that people throughout the world were reciting Tehillim for my daughter. On the morning of the surgery, while driving with a friend through the side streets of Yerushalayim to reach the main highway, we saw taxis with loudspeakers on their roofs announcing that Shira bas Orah, a child injured in the bombing, was undergoing surgery and requesting that people daven for her refuah. Even after the surgery, I constantly received phone calls from schools, seminaries, and yeshivos letting me know that they were davening for my daughter's recovery. Mi k'amcha Yisrael!
Four months after the first surgery, my daughter underwent another major operation. This time I decided to divide the entire sefer Tehillim among a group of thirty ladies. Instead, it was divided five times, among hundreds of women! Total strangers volunteered to recite Perek Shirah and Shir Hashirim, and to refrain from speaking lashon hora, all as a zechus for my daughter. I have no idea who these people were, but I felt their love. I am positive that it was due to their tefillos, as well as the the doctor's compassion and expertise, that the surgery was a huge success.
Today, as well, there are people around the world davening for Shira's refuah. I recently spoke before a group of American women about my daughter. Afterwards, one of the women came over to me and said, "Even though I never met you before, for the last ten years I have been davening for Shira bas Orah." We hugged, and I felt as though I had found a long-lost relative.
TEN YEARS LATER
Ten years after the bombing, our family is still coping with the aftermath. The children have undergone multiple surgeries, and, as they grow older, there will be more. But basically, my children are fine. They have all their body parts, their scars have healed, and they are doing well in school. It's an absolute miracle.
And what about Shira? She recently turned twelve, and celebrated her bas mitzvah together all the girls in her class. It was incredible act of hashgachah pratis that the school party for four parallel sixth grade classes took place on the actual day of her bas mitzvah, which was one of the reasons (but I'm sure not the only reason!) that they asked be represent the girls and deliver a speech to all the guests.
The large hall was packed with hundreds of proud mothers and some older sisters, yet, as Shira spoke, there was total silence. "When I was just one- and-a-half years old," she began, "as a result of the bombing of the number two bus, dozens of shrapnel shards penetrated my body. There were three pieces in my left eye. The retina in my left eye was torn, and seven out of my nine teeth were broken. On the way to the hospital, my heart stopped, and the paramedics performed CPR on me. I arrived at the hospital unconscious, not breathing. There was little hope for my survival…since then, I have had many surgeries, and need to undergo more surgeries in the future. I survived, and as a result, my life is different. The bombing built my family in a way that we could have never imagined. Our life revolves around emunah – emunah in the power of tefillah, emunah in the power of Am Yisrael's chessed…"
Shira continued. "One-and-a-half years ago, on the ninth anniversary of the bombing, my family went to the Kosel, like we do every year, to remember what happened, and to thank Hashem for having returned our life to us. As we passed Shaar Shechem, Arabs pelted the bus with huge stones, and continued do so for some fifteen minutes. The bus windows shattered, and everyone was left shocked and frightened. Although physically we were not injured, emotionally, we were traumatized. Ten-and-a-half years have passed since the first attack, one-and-a-half years since the second. Despite all the physical and emotional scars, I have merited to reach the age of bas mitzvah. I must thank Hashem for the miracles and wonders that He performed for me. I survived to be able to sanctify His name, on this very special day."
After Shira completed her speech, mothers and teachers came over to me to hug me and congratulate me on having raised such a special daughter. Many of them had tears in their eyes.
Shira really is a very amazing young lady. Although her face is still damaged (she will be having more plastic surgery in the future, iy"H), she is beautiful inside. It used to bother her when strangers stared at her, but she is used to it and takes it in stride (although at times it has been really challenging, such as the time when the two little girls in the supermarket started commenting on how ugly she looks, or when an older woman started berating her for playing with matches and burning herself).
Shira's personality literally shines. The girls in school love her, and everyone wants to be her friend. She's an excellent student. Her classmates want to study with her; before a test, the phone is constantly ringing with girls asking her to study with them. She's the first to volunteer to do chessed, she often babysits without financial remuneration for mothers after birth, and regularly delivers food that I prepare to elderly women in the neighborhood. She speaks openly about what she's gone through, how it's changed our family's life, and how we've become much stronger as a result. She loves to sing and play the violin. Baruch Hashem, she is a happy, healthy young girl with a pure, healthy neshamah.
I have so much to be thankful for. Hashem returned my children to me, and he gave me a new, very large family, the Am Hanivchar shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Shiru l’Hashem shir chadash! Sing a new song to Hashem!