In his classic opus To Be a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin poses a familiar rhetorical query most succinctly: “If proof of God’s existence is beyond our capacity, why should rational man proclaim such faith with the same fervor and intensity that comes with truly ‘knowing the Lord?’” I submit that this is a question with which all thinking men tussle, and should probably be included in all religious school curriculums.
Thus said, when asked to pen a piece on “faith after terror,” I initially hesitated. Living in central Jerusalem, I have heard the bombs explode and attended the funerals and shivas of my children’s classmates. With so much energy going into bag-searches and staying alert, I’ve had little time to question my own relationship with God. Or, perhaps, that is just an excuse. Nevertheless, the idea of facing someone who has lived through a worse-than-my-worst nightmare and still lives, breathes and loves Hashem’s word was as alluring as it was petrifying.
In agreeing to interview Ora Cohen, I tacitly agreed to confront my own unuttered questions. I was most frightened that I would no longer be able to advocate on His behalf when faced with difficult questions from my children (“How can He?” and “Why does He?”).
Amazingly, not only was I spared the pain of confronting my own doubts, but I was treated to the greatest possible lesson in emunah, faith. Because to look into the bright, unapologetic eyes of Iranian-born Ora Cohen, to hear her speak both Hebrew and English with a delicate hint of a Persian accent, and to witness how flawlessly she quotes pesukim (passages) from various Torah portions and can recall by heart any stanza from Tehillim, is nothing short of incredible.
Humbly, I now realize that there was a tinge of arrogance in my agreeing to do this interview, thinking that I was doing both Ora and the readers a favor by sharing her story. But I was wrong. Because, at the very least, this writer came out changed and, I hope, a better person. After meeting Ora I know that I can pray, and if it doesn’t feel right on any given day, it merely means that I have another chance tomorrow. Without the deepest, unquestioning faith in God’s blessing every moment of every day, Ora would have no reason to believe in “tomorrow.” But she does—it is clear in her walk, her smile, the tilt of her head. Generously, she handed over that unshakable emunah to me on the morning we met.
With deepest gratitude, I invite you to read Ora’s story.
Four years ago, on an oppressively hot day in August, Ora Cohen remained inside her small Jerusalem apartment with her five children. Having given birth to her fifth child only four weeks earlier, she had little residual strength to take the youngsters to a local playground where they might run around and enjoy the outdoors. Her oldest child was seven-and-a-half-year-old Merav, followed by her six-and-a-half-year-old Daniel, four-and-a-half-year-old Orly, eighteen-month-old Shira, and, lastly, little baby Elchanan.
By late afternoon the children were antsy and out of control. The older children were being disruptive, and the new toys Ora had purchased to keep them entertained seemingly broke only five minutes after they were unwrapped.
It was Ora’s ninth wedding anniversary and she yearned to go to the Kotel and pray. The din of the noisy apartment on this hot summer day could do little to curb the children’s enthusiasm. For Ora, just envisioning the children running around the Western Wall Plaza with other youngsters made the small, hot apartment suddenly feel cooler.
Although Ora’s husband, David, wanted to learn in yeshivah for a few more hours, he could hear the desperation in his wife’s voice on the phone, and came home earlier than usual to help prepare the children for the outing. Excitedly, the family boarded the No. 2 bus and made their way to the Old City.
With her cheek pressed against the cool stones of the Kotel, Ora suddenly felt a cold shiver run through her body, bringing with it an unshakable sense of doom. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. “When I got to the wall I started to cry and daven for the things I always daven for—that my children should be happy and healthy. I remembered something I had heard a few years earlier. The Nazis used to remove Jewish children from their homes with the mothers inevitably screaming ‘Take me! Kill me! Choose me!’ Whenever I heard such stories, they always made me afraid of somehow finding myself in such a situation. Why I felt it so strongly that night, I can’t tell.”
Ora composed herself after her prayer and rejoined the family.
Seeing her children at the Kotel eating, jumping, laughing and running around with other children in the large plaza quickly made Ora forget the earlier unpleasant part of the day. The family took pictures that night which would forever be called the “before photos.” In only a short while, the lives of the Cohens would change forever.
“I remember thinking that I must always look happy in a picture—even when I’m frightened or sad—because this is how I will be remembered in years to come,” she sighs. “The children looked so beautiful that night that I thought, ‘They could be in a newspaper!’”
The No. 2 bus was impossibly crowded and the family initially spread out to find places to sit. The baby, Shira and Orly all sat on their mother’s lap and Merav and Daniel shared a seat on the aisle, two rows in front. But when a pregnant woman got on the bus, the two bigger children also squeezed in with Ora. David had made his way to the rear of the bus and couldn’t be seen in the crush of people.
As the bus winded closer to her neighborhood, Ora worried about how she would get everyone together and off the bus in a timely manner. The baby, in Ora’s arms, had apparently fallen asleep.
Even though many people alighted from the bus as it wound past the local wedding halls and onto Shmuel HaNavi Street, it was still quite crowded. A woman in the back could be heard shouting that she had to get off, that the driver had shut the door too fast for her to get out with a closed baby stroller. In typical Israeli fashion, people on the bus began shouting to the driver in a familiar refrain of “Nahag! Nahag!” (“Driver! Driver!”) The driver pulled over between stops to allow the woman to exit. Several others assisted her as she escaped the crowd. As the woman finally exited from the middle door, Ora noticed a very fat Chassidic man pushing open the doors and forcing his way onto the bus. She remembers thinking that this was unusual and a bit nervy of him because the bus wasn’t even at a regular stop. It had also seemed odd that his hat was pulled down over his eyes. The man made it to the first step of the still-open doors when he detonated the bomb he wore beneath his coat.
At first, Ora didn’t understand that the explosion was, in fact, a bomb. Everything around her began to spin as though she were in the midst of a centrifuge; in fact, she thought she was having a stroke or some other catastrophic health-related issue. It took two or three seconds before she understood that this was a piguah! The baby slipped from her lap and into the smoky, black abyss that appeared beneath her feet just as the ceiling of the bus collapsed onto her head.
When she’s asked by this writer what her immediate thoughts were when the bombing occurred, Ora barely skips a beat.
“I did what I always do,” she said. “I had a conversation with God! I said to Him, ‘I want my children back.’ And I heard Him say, ‘Choose one,’ and I answered, ‘But I begged You at the Kotel not to do this to us and now You put me here?’”
A man pulled Ora out of the wreckage and laid her on the ground, but she fought the emergency medical technicians who were trying to insert an intravenous line. Her thrashing made it almost impossible for them to work as she screamed, relentlessly, “My children! My children! My children are on the bus!”
Through the corner of her eye, she saw a man run by with no hands.
Ora is unable to recall how long she actually was in the street along with the other victims before she was loaded into an ambulance. In the emergency room of Shaare Tzedek Hospital, a reporter sidled up to where she lay and asked, “How many children to you have?”
“An hour ago I had five children!” she said. “Can someone help me? Am I still a mother?”
After what seemed like an eternity, several hospital personnel ran to Ora’s bed to tell her that the three older children had been located in the emergency room and not only were they alive, but they had all of their body parts. The staffers pushed her bed through the crowded corridors and allowed her to see her children; she viewed their every body part and helped the children move them. This offered, at the very least, a small measure of relief; but there was still no word about David or the two youngest children. She was administered a sedative and fell asleep.
Ora awoke in a room filled with medical personnel. “Please,” she begged. “Find my babies. I must know where my children are.” One of the doctors brought over a photograph and asked if she recognized the infant. At first Ora wasn’t certain but when the doctor described a certain physical characteristic on the child, she immediately knew that Elchanan had been found. He had miraculously been discovered several hours after the bombing among the rubble, lying beneath three dead bodies.
“I knew that this was nothing short of a miracle … Even amidst my fear, I felt God’s hand on my shoulder. I knew that what He does is for the best and that I hadn’t been forgotten.”
Ora was told that David was also on another floor in Shaare Tzedek. “He’d prefer not to be seen,” she was told. The doctor kindly called him on the phone and the couple cried together. David said, “Ora, I’m not ready for you to see me like this. My face is burnt and I can’t really walk well. Let’s just wait a few days.” She understood David’s sadness and didn’t push.
With each passing hour and, subsequently, each passing day, it became clear that something terrible had happened to Shira. Ora begged for help but not one of the pressured staff members could give her a definitive answer about her daughter. There were so many people who were in terrible conditions that there simply wasn’t enough manpower to attend to every agonizing request. Nurses, doctors and social workers heard Ora’s pleas and promised to help. For Ora, prayer served to give her more than solace; it served as a spiritual poultice for her roiling emotions.
On the third day after the bombing, a doctor, social worker and nurse holding a small paper bag entered Ora’s room and asked that she describe what Shira had been wearing the night of the bombing.
“Blue overalls. Pretty, sky-blue overalls,” she replied. They asked if she had been wearing shoes and Ora felt a shiver run through her body.
“Black patent-leather shoes, with T-straps.”
The nurse reached into the bag. “Are these the shoes?”
Ora began to shake uncontrollably, and the nurse grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted, “She’s alive! Your daughter is alive!”
The nurse explained that Shira had been badly hurt by shrapnel and flying glass. Ora didn’t care. “She needs to be with me! She is frightened without her mother!”
The following morning the same team came into the room. In her arms, the nurse carried a young child whom Ora—ashamedly—thought was ugly.
“She looked nothing like my beautiful, fair and delicate Shira. No, this girl was burned, cut and blackened, with charred hair and a piece of her lip missing. One eye was swollen shut as though there were nothing inside the socket. I didn’t know at that point that all of her sweet little baby teeth were gone as well. Before I could shout to them, ‘Who is this child? Where is Shira?’ this baby screamed ‘Ima, Ima,’ and put her arms out to me. The nurse put her in my arms and we both began to sob.”
Ora was asked to sign a form giving the hospital permission to remove the now-dead-and-useless left eye which, she was told, was at great risk for infection. She felt paralyzed with indecision. In a panic she called her husband, whom she had yet to see. Although he still thought it was best not to see each other, Ora refused to be put off another moment. She explained to him, “We have a child who needs two parents right now.”
Upon seeing David, Ora had another shock. His thick, black beard was gone and the skin on his face was burned and scabbed. It seemed as though he’d also lost an eye. (Thankfully, he hadn’t.) It was hard for them to hear one another because both had suffered some hearing loss. Finally sitting together, the couple just wept.
At that moment, Ora had another conversation with God, similar to the one she had had after the explosion. She asked, “What shall we do? You created Shira. She’s Yours. Why can’t You just take care of this?”
“God answered me beautifully,” Ora explains. “He told me to read aloud from two different psalms and, in turn, I’ll achieve a new ‘Shir’ [song] for Shira.” In the hospital, Ora opened up her Tehillim and read Psalm 96 aloud:
Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth.…Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar… for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with truth.
Gaining some clarity, she continued with Psalm 98:
Sing unto the Lord a new song; for He hath done marvelous things: His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory …. The Lord has made known His salvation; His righteousness has He openly showed in the sight of the nations … Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praise.
Hearing these words gave the Cohens renewed strength, and David simply said told Ora, “I leave this decision to you.”
They didn’t sign.
Shira underwent one operation to stop the spread of infection but seven days later she was scheduled again for a surgery to remove the eye. Ora davened and, after careful consultation with their rabbi, she again said ‘No.’
By this time, all the children except Shira, had been released and had begun the endless rounds of physical and emotional therapy. “I’m often asked what kept me going and I can say that, without a doubt, it was the friendship, love and involvement of all of Am Yisrael [the Jewish nation],” says Ora. “They all jumped in! We didn’t have money for babysitters, and suddenly a group of girls who were touring Israel with their school canceled the rest of the trip to provide round-the-clock babysitting for me so we could spend time at Shira’s bedside. Imagine that! We received calls, prayers and gifts from as far away as Chile, France, Taiwan and Brazil.”
The Cohens’ rav informed them of an ophthalmic surgeon at Hadassah Ein-Kerem Hospital who could perhaps help them. Shira was transferred there; on the morning of the surgery Ora and David hailed a taxi on the main road near their home. While sitting in the back seat they heard the dispatcher’s voice cackle through the loudspeaker: “Attention drivers: this just in. Everyone should say Tehillim for a little girl about to have an operation. Her name is Shira Bat Ora.” The couple was stunned but, at the same time, not at all surprised. The miracles continued.
After five hours on the operating table in an attempt to remove previously inaccessible shrapnel and clean out the infected tissue, Shira was wheeled to the recovery room. As the team exited the operating room, the head surgeon looked at Ora and Davidsquarely and said, “We saved the eye.”
Every time Ora is asked if there was ever a moment when her faith wavered, she adamantly shakes her head.
“Never. God is always with us. Am Yisrael never abandoned us. If I asked five friends to recite Tehillim, each one called five of her friends. Shira has been saved because of the wonderful prayers of our people. That was the only thing that kept us going!”
At the time of this writing, most of the children wear hearing aids and Daniel has severe nerve damage in his ears. Orly still has shrapnel embedded in her body. Merav is suffering from psychological trauma and anxiety attacks are easily triggered. Shira is old enough now to better understand the world around her and becomes very agitated when facing any new medical procedure. David can’t work because he is unable to concentrate, despite his previous ability to study for long periods. He wears hearing aids and suffers from pain because the shrapnel is embedded too close to his auditory nerves to make surgery feasible. Ora’s nose broke when the bus ceiling fell on her; she also has two holes in her eardrums, only hears from one ear and still has shards of shrapnel in one of her eyelids.
“Oh, if I wanted to spend every minute of every day crying, I could,” says Ora. “But that would be the ultimate chutzpah! How could I show such a lack of gratitude to HaKadosh Baruch Hu? Look at what he gave me. Look at what I was allowed to keep!”
Sad thoughts only come to Ora on the bleakest of days. While sometimes it is difficult for her to look at cosmetic advertisements or see a picture of a bride in a salon window because it makes her frightened for Shira’s future, more often than not, she is optimistic. In time, plastic surgery will become even more advanced. Even though the medical, financial and social road ahead is certain to prove challenging, there has never been a moment during the last four years where Ora’s faith wavered.
This writer saw a recent photograph of the little girl and found her appealingly winsome. Yes, she was scarred, but her look was intelligent and sweet.
“I thank God every minute of every day for taking me through these surgeries,” says Ora. “There were so many shelichim [messengers] who brought us messages of hope and encouragement every step of the way. Love continues to rain upon us! No one expects anything except that we should have complete recoveries and prosper.
“I give praise that, on my ninth wedding anniversary, God gave me the most beautiful, lovely, expensive gift in the most holy place in the world—He gave my five children back to me.”
Andrea Simantov moved to Jerusalem in 1995 from her native New York. She is currently the director of communications for a major non-profit organization and a freelance writer for the Jerusalem Post and other American magazines. A proud mother of six children and grandmother of five, Andrea is a frequent guest speaker on a variety of Israel-related topics.