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Faith, Courage and Triumph

Editor's note: On Sunday, March 21, 2004, ten years after a terrorist almost succeeded in snuffing out his life in the infamous 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting, leaving him severly disabled, Nachum Sasonkin joined 65 peers in receiving rabbinic ordination at the Rabbinical College of America-Chabad Lubavitch in Morristown, NJ.

To address the hundreds who’ve sought Nachum’s reactions to this historic occasion, he chose to put his feelings in writing.


By the Grace of G‑d
28 Adar, 5764 — March 21, 2004

Dear friends and well-wishers,

Thank you very much for your extraordinary outpouring of love and support. As you can well imagine, this is a very emotional day for me and, since it’s easier for me to express myself in writing, I’ve decided to put some of my swirling thoughts in this letter.

Ten years ago this month, my mother, sitting at the side of my hospital bed in S. Vincent Hospital in Manhattan, believed that this day would come. Probably no one else did.

I was eighteen years old, in a coma, with a bullet in my brain. On March 1, 1994, I was riding in a van with fourteen of my classmates. We were returning to Brooklyn from visiting the Manhattan hospital where our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of righteous memory), had undergone surgery. As we got on the Brooklyn Bridge, a Lebanese terrorist opened fire, strafing our van with fifteen rounds of machinegun fire. My friend, Ari Halberstam, age 16, was killed. Two other friends, Levi Wilhelm and Yankel Schapiro, were badly injured. I was pronounced brain dead on the front page of the New York Times.

But my parents, siblings and friends refused to give up. They sat by my bedside, they talked and sang to me, even though it didn't seem likely that I could hear them. Three weeks later I regained a hazy consciousness. Several more weeks passed before I realized where I was and learned what had happened to Ari, my friends, and myself.

Even after I awoke, my medical prognosis was not good at all. About ten percent of my brain was gone. I was completely paralyzed. Doctors doubted whether I would ever be able to walk, talk, or even eat.

I communicated by blinking my eyes — once for yes, twice for no. Once, after a medical examination, a sharp wire left under my foot caused me extraordinary pain. Though my sister noticed my tears I had no way of telling her why I was crying. For an excruciating hour we exhausted each other until her questioning finally touched upon my foot.

But while struggling for breath on a respirator I thought repeatedly of a passage in my daily prayers and its Talmudic interpretation: “With each and every breath we need to praise G‑d." Unlike ever before, I became aware of each breath, appreciated every movement, every human interaction.

It took years of grueling therapy to relearn the things I learned as a toddler: to focus my vision, to walk, to speak, to swallow. (For a year I was fed with a tube in my stomach.) But with the help of extraordinary doctors, nurses, therapists, homeopaths, and friends, I slowly but surely regained some function and then more and then yet more.

I still have a bullet lodged in my brain. My speech is slurred. I have difficulty maintaining balance when I walk. But I am determined that, with the help of G‑d, these will not stop me from doing what I know I was born to do.

Thank G‑d, I married an extraordinary person and G‑d has already blessed Nechama Dina and I with our first happy child, Chaya Mushka, and we pray to G‑d for many more.

I always believed that I would make it. Seeing my mother’s smiling optimism, remembering the Rebbe’s spirited and always forward-looking approach, I believed that I would regain my life, and regain what has always been the most important thing in my life: the ability to help others.

You see, I'm not the first rabbi in my family.

My great-grandfather and namesake, Nachum Shmarya Sasonkin, was sent in the 1920s by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to Batum in the Soviet republic of Georgia to lead the local Jewish community in their valiant fight to preserve their heritage and faith.

His son, Moshe Sasonkin, was arrested by Stalin's henchmen for that very work and sent to Siberia. He never came back. My father, Rabbi Avraham Sasonkin, never knew his own father — he was two months old when Moshe was taken away. Raised by his grandfather under the Soviet regime, he later emigrated to Israel. Together with my mother he moved, at the Rebbe’s behest, to the Taanachim region in Northern Israel to work with poverty-stricken families and socially disadvantaged youths.

My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Posner, came to America in the 1920s and served as a rabbi for more than sixty years, first in Chicago and later in Pittsburgh, where he and my grandmother built a vibrant Jewish community. He was one of the first of thousands of now famous Chabad-Lubavitch "shluchim" dispatched by the Rebbe to pioneer Jewish outreach in America.

In newspaper interviews they gave over the years, my angel-like doctors and therapists expressed amazement about my case. The pain I endured, the determination I displayed, the progress I made. A number of them have been quoted saying, "We've never seen anything like it."

But to me, it couldn't have been any other way. Not after all those years studying the Rebbe's teachings and participating in the farbrengens (chassidic gatherings), listening to him speak.

This is what being a chassid of the Rebbe always meant to me: that you dedicate your life to helping others, and do whatever it takes to be able to do so. All my life, I knew that I'm going to be a "shliach." My seven siblings are scattered around the world doing that very work. My brother Moshe, for example, risks his life to serve the Israeli population in Metulah near the Syrian border.

All my life I knew that my life’s goal is to help a fellow human being in the quest to better him/herself, and help a fellow Jew in the quest to better connect with his and her heritage and people.

Being a chassid of the Rebbe's also means never giving up. It means knowing with absolute conviction that no matter what a person's situation is, the Almighty grants us the strength and fortitude to overcome all obstacles and fulfill our life’s mission. I thought about this all the time and it helped carry me through my most difficult moments.

I have so much to be thankful for and so many to thank.

In celebrating my rabbinic ordination, I recall longingly and fondly my friend Ari Halberstam who is surely celebrating with me today from his perch in heaven.

I thank G‑d for allowing me to recognize the preciousness of each breath and step I take. I pray that I continue to lead my life on a deeper level than I did before, never taking anything for granted, always recognizing His blessings. I thank Him for giving me the Torah and allowing me to appreciate its rigors and joy and fulfillment. I pray that I never tire in my quest to measure up to its standards and that I become a worthy representative and teacher of its blueprint for life. I further thank G‑d for allowing me to be living testimony of His miracles and for the opportunities He's given me to infuse faith, hope and optimism in the lives of those challenged with unbearable circumstances. I pray that He allow me to continue to do so, for the sake of all who suffer.

I thank my parents and siblings who never left my side in all those difficult years.

My wonderfully dedicated doctors and therapists at S. Vincent’s Manhattan Hospital, Moss Rehabilitation Center, NYU’s Rusk Institute and the Feldenkrais Center.

My friends and classmates, who came regularly to the hospital, to the rehab center, and everywhere else I needed them to lend their support.

My wonderful wife Dina and daughter Chaya. My teachers at Oholei Torah, Colel Menachem and Rabbi Herson’s dedicated staff at the Rabbinical College of America-Chabad Lubavitch, for their wisdom and encouragement as I struggled through the rigorous 14-hour study days.

The Rebbe, for teaching me that all is possible.

All of you for caring and sharing.

And, again, our Father in Heaven, for giving me my life and purpose, and a second chance to achieve it.

Thank you for your warm wishes and may G‑d bless you always.


Nachum Shmarya Sasonkin


An Irish Kid with a Jewish Name

The Rebbe (a portait by Sarah Kranz)
The Rebbe (a portait by Sarah Kranz)

I heard this story from the Lubavitcher Rebbe's secretary, Rabbi Laibel Groner.

A woman from the Chabad-Lubavitch Community in Brooklyn was pulled over by a N.Y.C. traffic cop for some traffic violation. Standing outside her open car window and watching her search for her license and registration papers, the police officer caught sight of a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in her open purse.

"Excuse me, maam," he asked, "are you one of the followers of this Rabbi?"

"Yes," she replied.

"Well, in that case I'm not giving you a ticket." He closed his ticket book and continued, "Do you know why? Because this Rabbi," he pointed to the picture she was now holding in her hand, "Did a very big miracle for me."

"Well," said the grateful woman, "since you aren't giving me the ticket, I have time to hear the story."

The policeman smiled and said, "It's my favorite story, but I haven't told it to many Jewish people, in fact I think that you are the first." The cars were whizzing by behind him and he had to raise his voice slightly. "The story goes like this: I used to be in the police escort that once a week escorted the Rabbi to the Montefiore Cemetery (where the Rebbe's father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, is interred). I got to know some of the young men who accompanied the Rebbe, and I learned a lot of things. They are very friendly people, which you probably already know, and we talked a lot while the Rabbi was inside praying.

"Well, one day I saw that all the fellows there were really talking excitedly to each other so I asked them what happened. So they told me that the Rabbi does a lot of miracles for people, but today he did a miracle that was really something. I didn't even ask what was the miracle that they were talking about, I just asked them if the Rabbi helps non-Jews also.

"'Sure,' they said, 'The Rebbe helps anyone who asks. Why? Do you need something?' So I told him, this young fellow, that me and my wife had been married nine years with no children, and a week ago the doctors told us that we had no chance. We had spent a lot of money on treatments, seen all sorts of big professors, we were running around like crazy for the last six or seven years, and now they told us that they tried everything and there is no chance. You can't imagine how broken we were. My wife cried all the time and I started crying myself.

"So this young man tells me, 'Listen, the next time that you escort the Rebbe to the cemetery stand near the door of his car and when he gets out ask him for a blessing.' So that is just what I did. The next time I was in the escort I stood by his door and when he got out I said to him: 'Excuse me, Rabbi, do you only bless Jewish people or non-Jews too?'

"So the Rabbi looked at me like a good friend, it was really amazing, and said that he tries to help anyone he can. So I told him what the doctors said, and he said I should write down on a piece of paper my name and my father's name together with my wife's and her father's names and that he would pray for us. So I did it, my hands were shaking so much I almost couldn't write, but I did it and you know what? My wife became pregnant and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy! The doctors went crazy, they couldn't figure it out, and when I told them that it was all the Rabbi's blessing they just scratched their heads and — Wow! I felt like the champion of the world!

"But here comes the good part. Do you know what we called him? What name we gave our baby boy? Just guess! We called him Mendel after the Rabbi. At first my wife didn't like the name because its not an American name, but I said, No! We're calling him Mendel! Each time we say his name we'll remember that if it weren't for the Rabbi this boy would not be here.

"But when our parents heard the name they really objected. They said, 'With a name like that, all the kids will think he's a Jew or something and they will call him names and be cruel to him. Why make the kid suffer for no reason?' 'That's just what I want,' I said to them. 'When he comes home and says that the other kids called him names and beat him up because he has a Jewish name, I'll tell him that I want him to learn from those other kids how not to behave. They hate the Jews for no reason, but you should love the Jews, you should help the Jews. You just tell them that without that Jewish Rabbi called Mendel you wouldn't be here at all, and then maybe they'll start thinking differently too!'

This Friday is the Yahrtziet of the 5th Chabad Rebbe .. The Rebbe Rashab. Here is a story about his Grandfather, his father and the Rebbe Rashab.
The Compromise Cure
Basha Majerczyk

There was once a chasid of the Tzemach Tzedek whose wife suffered from terrible recurring headaches. After describing his wife's symptoms, the Tzemach Tzedek instructed her to wash her head in hot water every time she felt a headache coming on.

The advice worked. All the woman had to do was stick her head in the hot water and the pain would disappear.

After the Tzemach Tzedek passed away, however, whenever the headaches began, the hot water had no effect. The chasid went to the Rebbe Maharash and asked him what his wife should do.

The Rebbe Maharash listened and then smiled. "Nu, if hot water doesn't help, let her wash with cold water!" he said. The woman tried this and the pain went away immediately.

In this manner the woman found relief from her headaches for the entire reign of the Rebbe Maharash, but after his passing, the cold water also lost its healing effect.

Neither could hot water do anything to ease her pain. When the headaches began to recur the woman sent her husband to the Rebbe Rashab to ask him what she should do now.

After the chasid had related the peculiar story of his wife's headaches, the Rebbe Rashab smiled and said, "Nu, let her mix both hot and cold water together!"

The woman did, and the headaches disappeared.
The Unsinkable Truth About the Jews
Rabbi Yissachar Ber of Rodoshitz was a great Tzadik that lived in Poland some one hundred years ago. Like Moses over 3,000 years earlier whenever possible he did all he could to 'take the Jews from Egypt' namely alleviate them of their problems.

And one of the biggest problems for the Jews in Rodoshitz was burial.

Several thousand Jews lived in the town but strangely there was no Jewish cemetery there.  Whenever a Jew died, the bereaved family had to hire a carriage and travel for some two hours, often through rain, blazing sun or sub-zero weather to the nearest town make the burial.

It wasn't that there was no available land in Rodoshitz, there was plenty of it. The problem was that the local Baron hated Jews passionately. The very sight of a Jew made him berserk and there was no way he would give them the land. In fact, the few times he had been approached about the cemetery, the Jews suffered for months thereafter.

As the Jewish population there grew the situation became more and more unbearable until finally the town elders decided they would have to do something radical; ask for the Rebbe's help.

They prepared themselves as much as possible; purified their thoughts, went to the mikva, gave charity, spent the entire 24 hours beforehand praying, learning Torah and reading Psalms and finally entered the Rebbe's office in fear and trepidation.

They poured out their hearts and waited in silence for the Rebbe's reply.

"Isn't there any plot of land that would be fitting for a cemetery here in Rodoshitz?" He asked.

"Yes" they answered sadly.  "In fact there is a perfect place; a worthless plot of rocky and barren land about fifteen minutes from the town. True, it would be hard to dig graves there too but we figured that it was the only place that the Baron might be willing to sell.

"But he refused. We even offered him a lot of money. He just started
screaming like a madman that he didn't want ANY Jews on his lands; dead or alive. Just that the live ones pay taxes. Then he raised the taxes!"

The Rebbe thought for a while and said. "Go again, offer him more money and if he refuses tell him in my name that if the Jews can't be buried there then someone else will."

They left the Tzadik's home and courageously headed straight for the
Baron's castle without considering the consequences. They miraculously got in and even managed to get the Rebbe's mysterious message to him before he started screaming and cursing and had them evicted.

Two weeks later was the Baron's birthday and he decided to give his family a tour of his lands followed by a picnic.

His wife and four children dressed in their finest clothes and entered his enormous royal carriage pulled by four huge white steeds. The driver whipped the horses and they were off!  It was a beautiful summer day and they were thoroughly enjoying themselves looking at the landscape and occasionally getting out to sit by a river or a tree.

Needless to say, the local farmers turned out and waved to the carriage (more from fear than from love) and everything was going perfectly......  Until the Baron decided he would show his family the hard barren plot of land that he was driving the Jews crazy with.

He gave orders to the driver and in no time they were there. It was bumpy and rough going but that just added to the fun.  But suddenly the carriage slowed to a halt and all that could be heard was the driver shouting, cursing and whipping the horses.

"What is the problem?!" Yelled the Baron through the window.

"I don't know." The driver replied.  "We're stuck in some mud and the horses aren't getting us out. They're up to their knees in whatever it is. I can't figure it out."

The driver got off the carriage and saw what seemed to be a large shallow puddle of water in the road that he drove through, turned out to be deeper than he thought. Although he couldn't figure where such a puddle came from in the middle of the summer, suddenly he realized that he himself was beginning to sink.

Meanwhile the Baron opened his door and descended from the wagon figuring he would just take his family out. But as soon as he did, his feet also began to sink.  It was only with the greatest effort that he and the driver managed to pull themselves from the muck and get back onto the carriage.

They shouted for help, the driver even blew a trumpet he had for such emergencies and in no time farmers had gathered around and began yelling advice. The puddle seemed to grow, pushing them further and further from the carriage.  A few of them ran home and brought ropes to throw as life-lines but by the time they got back the water had spread out so that the ropes simply didn't reach the carriage.

Someone brought planks of wood but they simply sank in the mud as soon as someone stepped on them. A few farmers even set off desperately to the Castle for help, which was a good two hours drive.

After half an hour the wheels of the carriage were half sunk and going steadily down. The Baron's wife and children were screaming in panic while the Baron had his head stuck out the window alternately screaming and cursing the crowd for not doing anything and looking up trying to figure how to get his family onto it's roof.

Finally someone in the crowd suggested that they call the Rabbi.

When the Baron heard that he immediately shouted "NO!!".  But his weeping family gave him a change of heart. "Err. That is ... YES! YES! Certainly! Good idea!! Run! Run with all your might!" He shouted.

It took almost a half an hour and when they finally returned with the Rebbe, the Baron and his family were sitting on the roof of the carriage, swooning; wailing and waiving their arms in helpless fear while only few feet of the carriage were jutting above the water.

"Are you willing to sell the cemetery land?" The Rebbe called to him. "Yes, Yes!!" The Baron shouted back. I'll even give it to you. Take it for free! Just get us out of here!!"

"No!" Answered the Rebbe. "I want to buy it and I want you to write up the deed."

"Good, Good!" The Baron yelled as he produced a pen and a large scrap of paper from one of his pockets, wrote what the Rebbe told him to, signed it, took off his shoe, put it inside and threw it to the Rebbe.

As soon as the Rebbe read it and was satisfied he yelled to the driver to get back in his seat and urge the horses, who were now up to their necks in mud, to move.

It seemed ridiculous but the driver had no other choice and sure worked!!  The carriage actually began to move and in moments they had pulled the carriage, now completely black with mud, to freedom!

The farmers helped the Baron and his family down from the roof of the carriage and as soon as their feet hit the ground his wife was beside with gratitude to the Rebbe. She would have hugged him but his very being radiated such awesome holiness that she kept her distance.

The Baron then approached the Rebbe, curtly bowed and said quietly 'I will always be grateful to you for this. Please come to see me at my castle at your convenience and I will have all the necessary papers drawn up. You are welcome in my home'.

Two days later the Rebbe visited the Baron, paid him the money and
received an official deed of sale. The Baron then shook the Rebbe's hand and said, "I have begun to think differently about your people. I see why the Bible calls you special and chosen and holy. I mean, you could have let me and my family die, which is what I would have done to you in such a case... but you didn't. I see I have a lot to learn from you. I have decided to change my attitude and help your people who I have so wronged. If you ever need anything please ask me."