When tragedy struck Orly Ohayon, a member of Southern NCSY’s Jacksonville Chapter (JAX), teens around the world reacted.
Her story resonated because of its horrible particulars: as Orly and her mother crossed the street to shul on Yom Kippur evening for the Kol Nidrei service, a car careened into them. Esther, Orly’s mother, was declared dead at the scene, while Orly was rushed to the hospital. A police officer who witnessed Orly being treated told her friends inside the synagogue that she had died in the accident, as well. Ten minutes later, the officer returned to report that she had been revived.
“The teenagers inside shul were white as sheets,” explained Rabbi Shaya Hauptman, director of Jacksonville NCSY, who was in the Etz Chaim Synagogue where the family davens.
The next day, as Orly underwent emergency surgery, her friends prayed on her behalf. Rabbi Hauptman brought in a social worker to talk with the teens about the situation. When word was received that she was out of critical condition, “Everyone took a deep breath,” said Rabbi Hauptman, “everyone was taking kaballahs [extra observances] on themselves.”
In the day after the news spread, teens around the world began doing mitzvot and recording their accomplishments on a shared Google document and at Facebook group called “Nothing Can Stop You.” Nothing Can Stop You is the acronym that Orly derived from the acronym NCSY. The next event at the Kotel, 150 teens prayed for Orly’s life. Karen Steinberg, COO of Southern NCSY, only heard about the tragedy as the fast finished. Within a few days she and Todd Cohen, director of Southern NCSY, flew up to Jacksonville to visit the hospital.
Steinberg said she was “shocked” by Orly’s serenity in the ICU. When Steinberg told Orly about what other teens were doing for her, Orly asked her to pass along a message.
“Tell everybody I said thank you and tell them I really appreciate it. Keep davening and keep smiling,” Orly told her.
In total, more than 330 teens from across the world signed up to do mitzvot in Orly’s honor: from saying Al Hamichya from a bencher, to reading Tehillim, to spending days working with children for special needs.
“Orly, there is so much that is special about you and so much that I admire. But what has always stood out to me the most about you is how you are so proud to be Jewish,” wrote one teen who chose to adopt a more modest wardrobe in Orly’s merit.
NCSY alumni in Israel ran a fundraising concert to help pay for Orly’s rehabilitation and NCSYers played a role in a concentrated effort that raised more than $60,000 for her. Friends stayed with her over Sukkot and Shabbat.
The next few months were difficult for Orly, filled with what seemed like endless physical therapy. She said that the efforts of her fellow teens helped her tremendously.
“It’s amazing to see how people — friends and people I didn’t know — came together and did things in the merit of my refuah [recovery].”
Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY, said that Orly’s story represents NCSY’s mission at large.
“Orly’s story emphasizes what makes NCSY so important,” he said. “From this awful tragedy, teens across the world were able to bring a small amount of light into the world.”
Rabbi Hauptman said that he believes the effort was a response to Orly’s outsized personality. She is known throughout NCSY for her effervescent demeanor and her motto of “Keep Smiling.” A regular in NCSY JAX, Orly attended TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey) in her freshman year and spent last summer on NCSY’s Michlelet program.
“Orly is a part of every single [NCSY] program that exists,” he said. “People see the ideal in Orly and they took the inspiration when it presented itself,” he said.
Or, as her friend Jackie Farber wrote:
“Every word she speaks is holy. We can all learn from the way she treats others. She is a tzadeket and a true kiddush Hashem.”
In January, Orly updated the Facebook group with an important status: She stood up for the first time since the accident.
“I think nowadays people take smiling for granted,” Orly explained. “There is a time for mourning and a time for reflection. Smiling is a feeling that something did happen but you still need to be happy: Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha.”