Reproduced from The Record
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood
2-10 N. Van Brunt Street
Englewood , NJ 07631
A Living, Breathing Hero
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Two years ago, Steve Averbach risked his life to save dozens of people from being killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem.
The attack left the New Jersey native a prisoner in his own body, paralyzed from the neck down.
But at least one thing has remained the same: The 39-year-old is still trying to rescue people.
Averbach, who has lived in Israel for the past 20 years, aims to tell the world about the travails faced by terrorism victims and he hopes to raise money to help others who need long-term treatment.
"There are hundreds of people like myself who need financial help to get rehabilitation and medical care so they can become productive members of society," said Averbach, while on his first visit to the United States since being injured.
Averbach has been making stops statewide over the last month, recently bringing his message to Englewood.
"Great men like him remind us that each and every person can have an effect on the war against terrorism," said Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, who gave Averbach a key to the city.
But Averbach, a counterterrorism expert who spent 18 years in the Israeli army, doesn't consider himself a hero.
"I simply had no choice," he said, as his aide held a cigarette to his lips. "It was required of me. It would be like a doctor who sees a car crash and doesn't stop."
As his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, Averbach said: "I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome. If I wouldn't have done anything, even if I would've walked away without a scratch, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself."
But the choice, as all choices do, came with a price.
"I miss playing with my kids," he said of his four children, ages 5 to 15. "Teaching them to ride a bike, taking them to the beach and the park and playing Frisbee."
Averbach visited Israel for the first time at 16 and instantly fell in love with the country.
There, he felt, he could find his niche.
Two years later, he moved to Israel and joined the army, where he served in the elite Golani unit, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. Later, he worked in the Jerusalem Police Department's anti-terrorism unit and then as a weapons instructor at a school that trains police officers, citizens and private security firms. His nickname was "Steve Guns" because of his prowess with weapons.
Averbach was on his way to work on May 18, 2003, when he boarded the No. 6 bus in Jerusalem. The last passenger to board was dressed in the garb of an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Averbach, accustomed to scanning crowds for suspicious faces, noticed that the man was cleanshaven and had a strange bulge in his jacket - an Arab disguised as a Jew. Averbach reached for his gun but the bomber pulled detonated his explosives, which killed seven passengers and injured 20.
Averbach's wounded body was found in the wreckage, his hand still on the gun's trigger.
Glass had punctured his lungs. A ball bearing was lodged in his spine. He was barely conscious. But he mustered up the strength to tell police about the bullet in his gun. He didn't want anyone to get hurt.
A police investigation determined the bomber had wanted to detonate in the center of town, a bustling, crowded area. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and injuries and was given a government award for his bravery.
He spent five weeks in the ICU at Hadassah Hospital and 14 months in a rehabilitation center but remains in a wheelchair.
He undergoes physical therapy and massage therapy five days a week. He needs 40 pills a day. An aide is by his side 24 hours a day to help him dress, eat, brush his teeth, even scratch his itches. It takes Averbach more than three hours to get ready in the morning.
"You never get over this," said Julie, his wife of 11 years. "I still feel sick whenever he retells the story."
They still smile sweetly into each other's eyes, although she must bend down to reach his eye level. They recall their first meeting and both their mouths stretch into bright grins. The normally stoic Averbach blushes. Julie was a waitress at a bar in Jerusalem and he stopped in for a drink.
"I didn't go to there a lot, but after I saw her, I went back every night," he said.
He also made a strong impression. "His arms were so muscular, they were massive. I saw that he was strong and he was a leader," she said glancing at him. "I liked that about him right away."
They recently sold their house because it was too far from the hospital where Averbach goes for therapy. Now they rent a home outside of Tel Aviv, in Ganei Tikvah, which means Gardens of Hope. Julie renovated it to make it handicapped accessible.
She spends hours on the phone battling social services and insurance companies. Israel's social services program is responsible for taking care of terrorist victims, but because there have been so many incidents in recent years, funds have been stretched to their limits, she said.
"We don't ask why?" said Julie, who left her accounting job to care for her husband. "I try not to cry. Most days, we're too busy."
Averbach's heroic act earned him fans beyond Israel's borders. People from as far away as France, Australia and North Carolina visited, wrote letters and called. Christopher Reeve went to Averbach's hospital bedside in 2003 and spoke about stem cell research.
The paralyzed actor died last year.
Maida Averbach, a nurse who lives with her doctor husband in West Long Branch, has become a vocal advocate for her son. After the bombing, she helped establish Steve's Fund, which has raised more than $125,000 to buy critical care beds and medical equipment for Hadassah Hospital.
"Life deals us with strange blows and we have the opportunity to learn from them and grow," she said.
Sometimes, when her son's progress was particularly gloomy, she'd find a quiet place to cry. "I've learned patience and strength. I've learned that a person can do more than they think they can."
At other times, the smallest improvement, like when he regained use of his left index finger, brings joy.
When people ask her how her son is doing, she knows they want to hear that he's recovered. "I tell them he is trying and we hope," she said. "It's hard to handle. This is the reality. There are people who would look at him and say he's not alive."
Averbach knows he has more to do.
Congregation Brothers of Israel, Averbach's childhood synagogue in the Elberon section of Long Branch, welcomed him home as a hero. He thanked them for supporting his family, for calling and sending letters and for donating money.
Averbach recited the birchat hagomel, the blessing to thank God for rescuing him from a life-threatening experience. Many people at the service, which was standing room only, burst into tears.
The baal koreh, who typically chants the Torah portion in perfect key and rhythm, suddenly lost his pitch, sobbing through the rest of the reading. Worshipers then shouted the words traditionally recited when a book of the Torah is completed: "Chazak Chazak venitchazek." Only this time, the recitation, translated "strong, strong and be strengthened," seemed like a prayer for Averbach.
"We welcomed him home as a hero," said Jeff Elbaum, a physician and Averbach's friend since kindergarten. "If I had seen a terrorist on my bus, I would have gotten off. Steve approached him head-on. Some people call him Superman because he saved so many people."
Averbach's bravery came as no surprise to his brother-in-law, Alan Sapadin of Englewood. But he is awed by the courage Averbach has demonstrated every day since.
"Even with all his suffering, he says he would do it all again and he means it," Sapadan said. "He's never expressed any anger about his situation. He feels it was his role to protect Israel. He would never relinquish that role."
Paid for by Friends of Michael J. Wildes, Claudia Colbert, Treasurer