Jul 6, 2014
Fiery Car Crash Survivors Meet Up
COLlive EXCLUSIVE: 7 Lubavitchers who survived a fiery car crash met in Crown Heights to mark the anniversary of their miracle.
By Mendy Hecht, special to COLlive
Looking at the sepia-toned photos of nearly two generations ago, it seems that Chabad bochurim have not really changed at all. The wedding pictures, like most in our community, show a beaming, readily-identifiable choson at a round table, surrounded by his friends—with the one predictable live wire holding a l’chaim aloft and the rest boasting spectacles whose styles have returned in recent years. How familiar it all looks.
Especially when the bochur standing to the choson’s left, a friendly hand on his newlywed friend’s should, is my own father.
Today he’s the Rebbe’s shliach to Lomita, California, a town where I was raised and in whose immediate area he’s been since 1973. But then, Rabbi Eli Hecht was a Lubavitcher bochur all of 20 years old—young, fresh, and ready to take on the world.
He and eight fellow bochurim had driven up to Boston earlier that very day, the seventh of Tammuz, 5729 (Monday, June 23, 1969), to attend the eighth-of-Tammuz wedding of Elchanan Geisinsky that night after getting permission from the hanhalah of Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah, known to all as “770,” to go. The photos indicate they had a rollicking time at a textbook Lubavitcher celebration.
The drive back, which they had hoped would get them to Brooklyn in time for a short nap and then morning seder, would prove to be something else.
It was just before 4:00 a.m. the morning of Tuesday, June 24 as the group of nine traveled back in the station wagon to Brooklyn. On their lips was a brand-new nigun freshly composed by one of the chevra. All were tired. They whooshed down the deserted New England Thruway north of New York City in the wee hours of the morning.
No one saw it coming.
As driver Shmuel Light slowed the station wagon down in the rightmost lane to ease off the highway, a monstrous truck materialized from nowhere, bearing down on the car like a raging rhino. The trucker, unable to slow down to avoid collision, tried swerving left but connected with the vehicle’s left rear bumper with brute force.
The station wagon, which had slowed to 40 miles an hour, was spun around like a toy thrust across a floor. Sholom Ber Levitin, who was sitting in the car’s middle row, remembers the car doing at least three complete 360s, with one corner of the car even coming off the ground upon first impact.
As quickly as they’d been hit, they came to a stop. The station wagon now rested along a steel barrier delineating the highway from a steep hill.
In the next few moments, the following events occurred in confusing speed and overlapping sequence.
The three bochurim occupying the car’s rear bench got out fairly easily—and fairly miraculously. On the ride in, the roll-down window had gotten broken in the open position, allowing the young men to crawl through the open space right after the accident. In that particular model of station wagon, the rear door could not be opened from the inside…
At the same time, flames appeared under the car, crawling along the pipes leading to the gas tank.
Fire was now reaching up through the car’s floor, and the three center passengers were still inside. One managed to leap over the front seat, and over the shoulder of the bochur in front of him, before that stunned rider even realized he needed to get out.
The three bochurim in the front—driver, passenger, and rider in the center—exited left and right through doors that still opened, following the cue of the bochur who had vaulted over them seconds earlier.
Six shocked young men now stood outside the crippled station wagon, staring at the three bochurim still inside: Sholom Ber Levitin, Yossel Minkowitz and Leibel Kaplan. There were flames all around them, so much so that the door buttons had melted and they couldn’t unlock the doors from the inside.
The flames grew. The three were getting terribly burned. Springing into action, Shmuel Light rushed at the burning car with a strength he didn’t know he had and managed to open one side door. Miraculously, all three tumbled out at the last possible second, clothes aflame. They quickly dropped to the asphalt, rolling over and over to extinguish the fires.
Seconds later, the car was completely engulfed in flames.
Looking around, the bochurim did a head count.
They looked back at the burning car, now completely engulfed in an oily fireball.
From behind them, though, the ninth bochur, Shloma Majeski, rematerialized. In the chaos of the moment, when he had exited the car’s right side, he had climbed over the highway barrier and ran down the hill. A minute or so later, once gathering his wits, he climbed back to rejoin his friends who had feared the worst.
It wasn’t long before the first of many emergency vehicles—police, fire, ambulances and more—roared up. One of the survivors recalls that one of the police officers at the scene told him, “You must be the Chosen People, because I never saw anyone survive a car fire like that!” Another recounts that the entire highway was closed for hours following the incident.
Three of the bochurim had sustained significant burn injuries and required immediate treatment. Yossel Minkowitz left the hospital after several hours with huge bandages covering his numerous burns. Leibel Kaplan remained in the hospital for several days. The other six were examined on the scene and released.
Sholom Ber Levitin, however, was hospitalized for over two weeks. The burns to his face alone were serious enough to swell his eyes shut for some time. He was engaged to be married at the time, and on the accident day, his wedding was about one month away. The doctors believed he’d be in the hospital for a long time, and advised his family to postpone the wedding.
Over the next few years, the young men would gather in Crown Heights in various dining rooms and other venues on Ches Tammuz to recount in grateful hodaah the miracle of their survival. But one by one they got married, and several moved on and away.
Sholom Ber Levitin became the first shliach to Seattle, Washington, a post he holds to this day. My father likewise went to the West Coast. Yosef Samuels went on shlichus to Milwaukee, where he remains. Yosef Minkowitz ended up in Montreal, where he continues a career in chinuch. Leibel Kaplan eventually settled in Tsfat, Israel, where his towering Torah knowledge made him a chinuch authority that brought him nearly 20 years ago to tour Chabad schools in Russia. There, he tragically died in another auto accident, also involving a truck. And Meir Minkowitz, Hirshel Morosov, Shmuel Light and Shloma Majeski remained over the coming decades in various capacities in Crown Heights.
Over the years, Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz would hold a seudas hodaah farbrengen in his Montreal home, at least once attended by this writer, at which he’d gratefully bring out 8x10 photos taken by an insurance company showing his face striped tiger-like by red burns. He also would display the suit jacket he was wearing at the time, which still bore marks of fire.
The four bochurim living in Crown Heights, first young fathers, then baalei batim and respected community members and finally grandfathers, continued meeting each year at the anniversary of the crash. In the first years of the 1970s, the out-of-town friends would call in, but as time passed, so did the resolve to participate; life on shlichus took on a life of its own.
It was a few years ago that the idea of a reunion came up. But this past Daled Tammuz, taking advantage of the out-of-town shluchim’s presence and the wonder of live Internet video technology, the first-ever reunion-seudas hodaah farbrengen was held in Crown Heights, in the home of Elchanan Geisinsky.
At the last minute, the support and participation of COLLive.com was secured. A laptop with Internet capacity and a webcam provided by the news site allowed Rabbi Eli Hecht of Lomita, California to see, hear and also be seen and heard, live from his home office desk. A professional photographer was also on hand to capture the moment.
Shortly before the scheduled start of 6:00 p.m., the first of seven arrivals, Rabbi Yosef Samuels, the Rebbe’s shliach to downtown Milwaukee, showed up. Rabbi Shloma Majeski, a mainstay of the Machon Chana women’s school for baalei teshuvos for decades, walked up shortly after six. And close to two months of planning began coming together.
A live Gmail video chat put Rabbi Hecht right in the Geisinsky living room. Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin walked in a few minutes later, followed by Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz and Rabbi Shmuel Light. By 20 minutes past the hour, Rabbi Hirshel Morosov arrived.
Eight men with grey beards, classic Lubavitcher chasidim and chaveirim from way back when, now sat together at the same place at the same time.
Rabbi Geisinsky sat down at the head of his table, beholding the boys who once drove for hours to come to his wedding; like him, they were now all heads of their own households and proud parents and grandparents.
Rabbi Hecht lifted a bottle out of nowhere, poured a l’chaim and started a nigun. The rest joined in. The farbrengen began.
For the next two hours, as a summer thunderstorm darkened the skies and flooded the streets outside, the memories (and a bit of mashke) flowed and the years melted away. A robust, raucous discussion broke out as each took a turn speaking while the others listened—reconstructing the accident by sharing key details of who was sitting where, how each got out, and what happened in the crash’s immediate aftermath.
While the story is fairly well-known in Chabad among members of my generation and ones before it, with several published accounts in circulation, the reunion produced a number of key clarifications and missing details.
Perhaps most striking of them all is a photograph brought to light for the first time by Rabbi Meir Minkowitz, the last of the eight to arrive. Rabbi Minkowitz has had the picture in his possession ever since the accident; the participants, with the energy and excitement of men less than half their age, clustered around the head of the table to look at it. The picture shows the charred hull of what once was a station wagon belonging to Gershon Shusterman, a longtime shliach to Long Beach, California then a bochur who lent his vehicle to friends for a chasunah trip.
The actual accident and its results were only half the get-together. The other half of the reunion, and perhaps the majority, was occupied by a detailed reconstruction of the Rebbe’s involvement before and after the event. (See side bar.)
At 8:00 p.m., Rabbi Samuels had to leave to catch a flight. Thanks to “Lubavitch Standard Time,” the farbrengen began to break up at a few minutes past the hour.
In another first, the friends gathered for a group photo with their old chaver Reb Elchanan—and a photo of most of them at his wedding in 1969—in the center. If time travel were possible, then such a moment might have looked like the one that unfolded, with the decades disappearing as the men, suddenly bochurim all over again, wished a live “L’chaim!” and “refuah shleimah!” to Rabbi Eli Hecht listening live from the West Coast.
The group photo broke up and the men started making their way to the door. But in Lubavitch, once a chaver, always a chaver, and once a chosid, always a chosid. One of the chasidim began singing the classic nigun “Tayereh Brider,” and in a moment, eight chasidim and old friends were wrapped up in a brotherly dance that was likely sung in Boston 45 years earlier: “Der aibishter vet gebin gezunt un leben, vellen min foren tzum Rebbin, mir vellen zich vaiter zen!”
As the old Chabad saying goes, “What a chadisishe farbrengen can accomplish, not even the malach Michoel can accomplish.”
The Rebbe Saw it Coming: Unusual Additions to a Sicha Spiritually Forestall Tragedy
Negative events, as a general rule, materialize in the physical world through the spiritual filter of Gevurah (or Din), followed by blessings of Rachamim. The Rebbe himself explained as much.
But the Rebbe’s influence on the accident began well before it happened.
It was at the farbrengen of Acharon Shel Pesach of that year, only a few months earlier, that the Rebbe had spoken strongly how Jews cannot abandon a weakening Jewish neighborhood, and even halachically so.
However, contrary to standard operating procedure, the Rebbe did not edit and return for publishing the unedited transcript of the sichah that was put together immediately after Yom Tov. Usually, the transcript of the sichah as composed by the chozrim would be edited and returned for publication by the Rebbe in a fairly timely manner—sometimes the same day or night. But with this Acharon Shel Pesach sichah, the Rebbe put it in abeyance.
The night before the accident, just a few hours before it happened, the Rebbe summoned his staff into his office and explicably told them rush the edited galleys of the Acharon Shel Pesach into print immediately—with the addition of letters from the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe which respectively mention the teaching of Chazal that “after a fire, one becomes rich” and how to spiritually react in the aftermath of a physical fire. After it was taken care of, the Rebbe left his office for home at 11:30 p.m.
Later on Tuesday, after Minchah in 770 (several good hours after the accident), the Rebbe asked secretary Rabbi Leibel Groner about the accident and the condition of the injured. The Rebbe listened and then said, “It seems that it was completely for them that last night we distributed the additions to the sichah which talk about the subject of fire.”
Shortly after that, the Rebbe instructed chief of staff Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Isaac Hodakov to give each of the bochurim in the accident copies of the unprinted galleys of the edited sichah. In a handwritten note to the secretaries, the Rebbe added, “Give each of them one transcript—with the addition of a brachah for a speedy and complete recovery and that they should be chasidim, yirei shomayim and lamdanim and in such a way—like our Rebbes put it—that they should become rich.”
When giving the bochurim the galley transcripts, Rabbi Hodakov told them that it was clear that by rushing the sichah into print with the additions, the Rebbe thus prevented a tragedy resulting from the fire.
Two days later, on Thursday morning, the bochurim came to 770 to say the brachah “Hagomel” in the Rebbe’s minyan. When the Rebbe saw Yossel Minkowitz and his many bandages, his face took on a deeply pained look, indicating how much the incident had affected him.
At the Shabbos farbrengen following the accident, Parshas Chukas-Balak 5729, the Rebbe mentioned the shocking incident and clearly linked it with the release of the sichah with the additions that had gone to print that night.
At the end of that sichah, the Rebbe told the survivors present to come forward and get “L’chaim” from him.
The Rebbe also explicitly mentioned the incident, and the spiritual machinations surrounding it, in the Yud-Gimmel Tammuz farbrengen held the following Sunday.
Sholom Ber Levitin made a complete recovery, despite the doctors’ suggestions to wait on his wedding; he went to his chuppah healthy and on schedule. The Rebbe had said it would be on time.
The following Tishrei, a few months later, Yossel Minkowitz had yechidus with the Rebbe since his birthday was coming up. At the time, he was still undergoing treatment for his burns, and the bochur asked the Rebbe about the doctors’ verdict that he needed several skin grafts—but that they were unsure whether the grafts would be successful, and that without plastic surgery he would not heal. The Rebbe had an astounding reply: “Since when do doctors know about such things?!” The Rebbe said that the surgery should not be done.
Needless to say, Yossel Minkowitz enjoyed a complete recovery, and Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz today is a healthy man with no signs of burns.