By Brocha Chana Metzger – Chabad of Midtown
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
It’s an oxymoron, but “surprise reunions” are almost to be expected at Chabad of Midtown Manhattan. Located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street – the so-called “Crossroads of the World” – every week sees a varied cross-section of travelers and locals coming through.
Every Friday night, each person stands up at dinner to introduce themselves. On average there are eight countries represented in the room. On special occasions that number doubles. We play host not only to the New York community, but also to scores of business people, diplomats, Israeli backpackers, and tourists.
It’s where the worlds of business, fashion, culture, media and tourism collide – this location inevitably lending itself to the seemingly coincidental meetings of old friends, former neighbors, distant relatives and the like.
For years I have been privy to these chance encounters, half-heartedly pledging to record them. I never did. But the emotional reunion of this past Shabbat has finally spurred me to share this remarkable story.
OUR WAR HEROES
On Friday (Simchat Torah in the diaspora) a group of twelve wounded Israeli war heroes departed Israel and headed to the United States – where they are currently touring the country, sharing their inspiring stories of courage and bonding with one another in their mutually understanding of post-battle trauma and recovery.
They arrived in New York just in time for Shabbat and came directly to Chabad of Midtown to partake in our communal Friday Night dinner. The room was buzzing with a large crowd of participants – all of us excited and honored to host these brave heroes.
We were soon moved to tears by the moving account of the group’s leader, Guy Pries, who had lost both of legs in an armored car that was blown in half by powerful explosives.
Standing on his prosthetic titanium legs he spoke of how he views his injuries not as an impediment to his life, but rather as a source of strength, giving him the ability to value the important things in life. He now uses his life story to inspire other soldiers and civilians with physical and psychological handicaps. Guy calls them achim l’chaim– brothers for life.
Guy amazed us with his ready sense of humor, even telling my curious six-year-old son Avi that his metal legs made him “Robocop” – a superhero comic character.
I KNOW YOU!
The Shabbat meal followed the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot which we had celebrated in the company of the three unassuming Portal brothers, among many others.
The Israeli Portals had looked up Chabad – and joined us for the services and meals in our Bryant Park Sukkah. On Friday night they were running late and arrived at Chabad of Midtown just as Guy Preis finished addressing the crowd.
As the Portal brothers entered the room, one of the soldiers in the newly arrived group leapt to his feet -his face lit up in recognition and surprise. A moment later Roi Agustus, and Elad Portal were embracing.
They would spend the rest of the evening and much of the following day side by side, reminiscing and sharing their unique shared history with an awed audience.
Elad and Roi had been part of the super-elite Duvdevan division of the Israeli army. Planted in Tulkarem, an Arab village, they lived together undercover, speaking Arabic and infiltrating the local population in pursuit of Luis Saadi, a terrorist who had been on top of Israel’s most wanted list for years of bloodshed – claiming the lives of many innocents.
During their time incognito they used many disguises – even donning wigs and women’s clothing (these tales accompanied by self-deprecating laughter) – to escape recognition and root out the villain.
Throughout this period, Elad and Roi had only one another to rely on for protection – living amongst the enemy and isolated from other Jews. The order finally came to take out the terrorist. As he was approached, Saadi fired and Roi took a bullet through the shoulder. A firefight erupted and Elad raced to save Roi by extricating him from the firefight. Saadi was eliminated and the soldiers were airlifted to safety by a special forces evacuation.
As a result of his injuries, Roi’s tour-of-duty came to end. He would require long years of therapy to help him recover from the trauma of his time undercover and his physical injuries.
Roi would not see his comrade-in-arms and savior, Elad, until their unexpected reunion this past Shabbat, three years later, and across the ocean – at Chabad of Midtown – The Crossroads of the World.