Miracles do happen, Ruven Ellberger said, as he thought about the recent bar mitzvah of his distant cousin Itai Rimmel.
Last year, this newspaper ran a story on the life, and untimely death, of Itai’s mother, Tzipi Rimmel, Mr. Ellberger’s Israeli cousin. At that time, we described the car accident that claimed the life of both Tzipi and her new baby, Noam Rachel. That accident also crippled her husband, Ephraim, and left her 12-year-old son, Itai, in critical condition. The family was returning from Jerusalem to their home in Neve Tzof, in Binyamin.
According to a police report, the driver of the other car, a 19-year-old from the village of Akev, was traveling at high speed and collided with the Rimmels’ car. The force of the impact propelled the Rimmels’ car into the one in front of them.
Itai arrived at Shaarei Zedek Hospital so badly injured that few thought he would survive, including the doctors in the trauma unit who treated him. “The first week, his future was not bright,” his American cousin said. “Everyone was surprised that he was still alive.” Slowly but surely, however, Itai’s condition improved. “In late December he opened his eyes,” Mr. Ellberger said. “Weeks later we got an update that he moved his eyes, squeezed something. Every month he started improving.” All this time, he also was undergoing surgeries needed to repair his body. He ultimately lost a leg; like his father, he now requires a wheelchair.
“On the cognitive side, it was apparent that he was still there,” Mr. Ellberger said. “To go from where he was to where it became evident that he was there was miraculous.” While he was in the hospital, in a coma, “Tzipi’s sister would sit for hours at a time and talk to him to help him recover,” he added. “We believe it helped a lot.
“When the accident first happened, people were saying, but not really believing, that God willing, for his bar mitzvah he’ll be OK. Tzipi’s father said it was time to start buying tefillin. It was a nice thought. My brother and I said if there was a miracle” — that is, if the bar mitzvah were to happen — “we would definitely be there.” Ironically, the miracle took place but covid kept them away. “I can get over a lot of the effects of the pandemic, but this is hard to get over,” Mr. Ellberger said. “It’s very upsetting.”
Despite remaining physical issues with his throat — “his voice is weak and scratchy” — Itai read three pesukim from the Torah as well as the brachot and Birkat HaGomel. “It was a big affair,” M. Ellberger said. “And as if it couldn’t get any more emotional, the day of his birthday and of his bar mitzvah is the day of the yahrzeit.” The night before the bar mitzvah, the family held a memorial service. “Four hundred people logged in,” Mr. Ellberger said. “A well-known rabbi gave a dvar Torah on Zoom. and the family spoke.
“Tzipi would be 35 now,” he continued. “She had five children.” Family members have cared for the other children. Ephraim, a rabbi, had several life-saving surgeries and now he is paralyzed from the waist down. His ultimate return to Neve Tzof was a cause for celebration, including streets lined with family, friends, and neighbors throwing candy. He and Tzipi had been mainstays of the community, working as educators and youth coordinators.
A fundraising drive for the family yielded some $1.2 million, Mr. Ellberger said; many of the donations came from Americans. The money allowed the family’s house to be made more accessible, with the addition of ramps and other modifications. “The community really helped,” Mr. Ellberger said.
“So many people knew them from Israel and from Chicago,” where they spent several years as shlichim, he continued. “People talked about how Tzipi taught them, taught Torah, and was friends with the older people. Hundreds of people think Tzipi was their best friend.” Still, he said, “a vast majority of the donations were from strangers. It touched a chord. Friends of friends were affected.”
To Mr. Ellberger, Tzipi was the “most American” of his Israeli cousins. “She watched TV and had the best English. She was a little more theatrical” than the average moshav resident. “It’s not strange that she married an American,” he said. He noted that Itai, too, “is kind of American, a normal kid.” Nevertheless, “There’s still a long road ahead for Itai, a lot of rehabilitation.”
Mr. Ellberger — who lives in Teaneck with his wife, Aliza, and four children — said that his family and friends are starting a campaign — loosely translated from the Hebrew as “spread the light” — to honor Tzipi’s memory by doing something to brighten someone else’s life. It’s a campaign of random kindness. As a teacher, Tzipi “would write a nice letter to one child’s parents to say one nice thing about the child,” he said. The idea has been spreading, “and teachers are speaking about integrating that approach.”