On Motzei Shabbat, March 9, 2002, just after 10:30 PM, a suicide bomber entered Jerusalem’s bustling Café Moment and detonated the powerful explosives strapped to his body, completely gutting the restaurant, murdering eleven people, wounding fifty-eight others and dramatically changing the lives of all touched by the horror—one amazingly for the better.
At the time of the bombing, Shlomi Azulay, thirty-three, had just returned to Israel after a five-and-a-half-year stay in the US. In Israel, it is common that one goes to high school, joins the army and then “starts life,” according to Shlomi.
Shlomi chose to start his in New York. He let his hair grow long, sported four earrings in each ear and scuba dove to repair boats for a living. Realizing—after half a decade—that it was high time he visited his family, he booked a flight back home.
About three weeks into Shlomi’s visit, his friend asked him if he wanted to go to Café Moment, a popular hangout. “I thought, give me a break, I just came from Manhattan; what can be better than that?” he asked. Nonetheless, he agreed to go. Shlomi and two friends entered the restaurant, nudged their way through the crowd, and positioned themselves by the bar. Due to overcrowding, a waitress told them if they wanted drinks they would have to come back later. As the threesome headed towards the exit, one of Shlomi’s friends noticed a girl seated at the corner of the bar and approached her. “I realized this was going to take a while and told him I’d wait outside,” he recounts.
“The second I turned to leave, the bomb exploded behind me and I saw my friend’s arm fly by, the girl [he was talking to] died instantly, my other friend’s eye was knocked out. I had three broken joints in my lower back and metal fragments in my face from nails and screws [embedded] in the bomb. It took the ambulance nine minutes to get there. To me it felt like a lifetime.”
Shlomi left the hospital after three days with shifted joints in his lower back, which caused him chronic pain. Before releasing him from the hospital, his physician determined that Shlomi needed ongoing therapy to cope with the trauma and sent him to a psychiatrist. After skipping a number of appointments, Shlomi finally acquiesced. “Every week the doctor asked me to retell the story of the attack,” he says. “He explained that when a person speaks about the trauma over and over, it becomes a part of him and later he doesn’t think about it anymore.”
In the meantime, Shlomi gave his family members the impression that nothing terrible had happened and that they should move on, but he knew he wasn’t the person he used to be. “I used to dive 240 feet under the water,” he says. “[After the attack], I couldn’t go in an elevator or ride a subway, and I needed sleeping pills to fly in an airplane.” He also developed an aversion to eating meat. “If I smelled a barbeque nearby, I would see [a flashback of] body parts and blood and people running and dying.” He lost twenty-two pounds.
The one thing that didn’t change and, in fact, only increased, was his antipathy towards religion. “If people said to me: ‘Maybe this is a sign from God,’ I almost hit them,” he says. “I couldn’t hear it.”
Coming Face to Face with One’s Judaism
As time went on, the repercussions of the trauma remained. Shlomi spent most days in continuous confrontation with Israeli bureaucracy in his attempts to receive medical and financial assistance. “The psychiatrist I had gone to through my medical insurance said I was only capable of working in a limited capacity and recommended that I receive [monetary] help from the government,” he reports. “Bituach Leumi’s [Israel’s National Insurance Institute] doctors did their own ‘analysis’ and refused [to give] me any help, not even to [pay] for my medication.” Shlomi found himself assisting other terror survivors in taking government agencies to task, and often to court. While doing this work, he began experiencing an existential crisis. Questions he had never asked before crowded his mind. What are we doing here? Why are we living? Is it possible that Somebody is running the world?
Apparently, Somebody was listening to his questions. A year after the attack, Shlomi received a call from Benjamin Phillip, director of Hineni Jerusalem. The organization, founded by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis of New York, offers support groups and a social network to young survivors of terrorist attacks. Phillip invited Shlomi to an all-expenses-paid trip to England for a week of rest and relaxation with other terror survivors.
The London Jewish community hosted the group for Shabbat. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Shlomi admits. “We shared stories that no one else could really understand; [for the first time] there was no need to explain.” The experience primed him for Hineni’s next trip to Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania, the Shabbat that clinched the deal. “It was the first time in my life that I kept Shabbat,” says Shlomi. “I didn’t become religious the day after, but I started to feel something. I was impressed by how religious people lived and [by] hearing Rebbetzin Jungreis; she spoke about challenges in life and about God. I thought: ‘She’s a Holocaust survivor and she can be religious; what can I say?’”
Upon Shlomi’s return to Israel, he started attending Torah classes and found them “very interesting.” He noticed gradual but steady changes in himself. “I went from being very negative and highly opinionated to [being] more open minded,” he says. “I’d listen and try to understand. I thought more about the meaning of life.”
Shlomi decided he wanted to try to keep Shabbat. “I was used to driving on Shabbat,” he says, “going to the beach, seeing friends. So, I started taking the bus [to Hineni] on Friday and leaving my car at home. This way I knew I wouldn’t be tempted to use it. Now, I wait each day for Shabbat to come.”
Born in Israel, both of Shlomi’s parents are of Moroccan descent and grew up in religious homes. His parents, however, are not religious. “In our home, we each do our own thing and everyone accepts it,” says Shlomi.
For Shlomi, secularism was no longer working. For an entire year following the attack, Shlomi struggled with the notion that his injuries came from God. “It took me a long time to believe that,” he says. “I had a lot of questions and I started asking them.” He began to learn Torah with a chavruta (study partner), who was also a survivor of a terror attack. As they delved deeper into the Gemara, Shlomi was struck by the “genius” within its pages. “I thought that it all made so much sense; it must be the truth. Little by little, I came to understand that maybe [what had happened to me] was for the good; you never know where it will lead. Two years ago I knew nothing about Judaism and now I’m wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit.”
“There are two kinds of survivors,” says Phillip. “Those survivors who were knocked unconscious and reawaken in the hospital and don’t remember that much, and those who remained conscious and experienced the smell, the blood, the screaming, the bodies. Once they’ve seen that, it doesn’t stop replaying itself in their minds. It’s like being in a terrible nightmare that one can’t wake up from. That’s what happened to Shlomi.”
Grateful for all the help he had received from his new circle of friends at Hineni, Shlomi used his naturally passionate and vocal personality to help others. One-and-a-half years ago, during the incessant Katyusha attacks on Israel’s northern cities, hundreds of residents fled south and found refuge at the Hineni Jerusalem center. Determined to do something to lift their spirits, Shlomi contacted Rabbi Zamir Cohen, a popular Israeli lecturer and author from whom he had gleaned much inspiration, and asked him to speak to the group—free of charge. Shlomi told Rabbi Cohen that he was a survivor of terror and that “your writing strengthened my emunah [faith in God]. We have two hundred people here and you are going to do the same for them. You cannot turn away from the suffering of your people.” Rabbi Cohen was there within forty-eight hours.
Unfortunately, Shlomi’s daily battles with the government persisted, draining his spirit. He grappled with the tough decision to move back to the US or to stay in Israel. “I spoke to a rav and asked what I should do,” he says. “He said ‘[Israel] is not for your soul; go with berachah [blessing].’ In Israel I was always dependent on others. Finally, I’m finding myself.”
“When I came to the US before, I had no real purpose,” he says. “Now, I wake up in the morning, go to shul, meet with my chavruta, try to start up a business and work on my emunah.”
The long locks and earrings are gone; Shlomi, who lives in Miami, is now shomer Shabbat, strictly kosher and wears his kippah full-time. “His family is still in shock,” says Phillip. “When I returned from a visit to Miami, I told his mother: ‘Your son was called up to the bimah and he not only recited the berachah, he read the entire haftarah.’ She started to cry. This was someone who drove to the beach on Shabbat, held barbeques on Yom Kippur, and went deep sea diving in the Sinai on Pesach.”
“I didn’t believe it before, but [now] feel that Hashem is supervising my life,” says Shlomi. “Maybe I had to go back to Israel so that I could get involved with [Judaism] and return to the States to help others. Whatever Hashem wants to happen will happen; a person can choose to do right or wrong, but how one is led, that’s God. [In the meantime], I’m doing my best.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.