New Jersey, Israel lose a hero
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New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

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Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives – leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body – the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.'”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.

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