It was a beautiful day on March 1, 1994, as Nachum Sasonkin, an Israeli-born 18-year-old student at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn, rode in a van with his friends, returning to yeshiva from a visit to the hospital in Manhattan where their Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson—lay in a coma.
They were young men, teenagers, studying in yeshiva; everything was just the way they had hoped it would be. But then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, everything went black. Someone was shooting at their school bus.
Now, sitting opposite me just before Shavuos, the young Rabbi Sasonkin looked back and tried to recall aspects of what he has endured over these last 16 years. His friend Ari Halberstam was killed in the shooting on the bus that day. Another student, Levi Wilhelm, was hit in the stomach and survived.
Sasonkin himself was hit in back of the head and today does not recall much of what happened until the time he woke up five weeks after the shooting. There is still a bullet lodged in his head.
The good news is that today Nachum Sasonkin is mostly recovered, after years of intense physical therapy. His speech is just a little slurred and he walks with just a slight limp. He says that he still sometimes has problems balancing himself when he walks. As I handed him my business card toward the end of our meeting, he added, “You see, sometimes I have problems grasping things too.”
Today Sasonkin works as a rabbinical kashrus supervisor at Brach’s Supermarket in Lawrence. He is married, lives in Crown Heights, and is the father of five children.
As harrowing and challenging as those months and years after what has become known as “the Brooklyn Bridge shooting” were for Mr. Sasonkin and his family, this is not the reason we were meeting, incredible as that may seem. In fact, Nachum Sasonkin is completely submerged in the needs of his family and has little time these days to think about himself; instead, we were meeting to discuss and, through this article, to draw attention to the plight of his one-year-old child, Moshe.
Just a few months ago Moshe Sasonkin was an ordinary baby. In many ways, he is still very much so today. What sets him apart from most other one-year-old children, however, is a virulent and untreatable infection that attacked his little body when he was only a few months old. Doctors were baffled, and some of the foremost pediatric experts were at a loss to chart a course of treatment.
They believed that Moshe had a virus that caused clotting in his hands and feet. The lack of circulation was jeopardizing his little life. His father, Nachum, explains that in order to save the baby’s life, doctors had to amputate his two hands—one at the wrist and the other below the elbow. And they also removed his two feet, one below the knee and the other at the ankle.
Of course there are no words to express what Nachum and his wife, Dina, have endured and the long road to rehabilitation they face in order to inject some conventionality into the life of a young child in a very unusual situation.
Little Moshe has been in intensive rehab and physical therapy since shortly after the radical surgery. He spent the last several weeks in New Jersey, where his mother traveled to be with him every day. His father would go to visit every few days, balancing the need to be with his son and his obligations and duties at Brach’s.
“I can’t say enough or express my gratitude adequately to Mr. Brach and his personal care and involvement in this ordeal,” says Nachum. He says that he had no choice but to miss weeks and weeks of work, and still today, due to Moshe’s condition, needs to accompany him to doctors for treatment. “Not only did Mr. Brach insist on paying me in full every week during my absence,” he says, “but if I could not come in to work to pick up my pay, he always had someone deliver the money to my home in Brooklyn.”
The shooting of the yeshiva students took place shortly after Purim. It was on Purim of that year that Dr. Baruch Goldstein went to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and acted on information that he believed was a local Palestinian plan to attack Jews on the Purim holiday. Goldstein—a physician who had treated many victims of Arab terror—took matters into his own hands and used his army-issued machine gun to shoot up the Arab section of the mosque at the site. Twenty-nine Arabs were killed before the mob there turned on Dr. Goldstein and killed him.
The Brooklyn Bridge gunman, a livery cab driver in New York named Rashid Baz, claimed that the shooting of the yeshiva students on the bridge was his frustrated reaction to the Hebron shooting. The judge and jury did not buy into the defense claims, and Baz was convicted of murder and all the related charges. Judge Harry Rothwax sentenced Baz to 141 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
That may be all fine and good as far as the workability of our justice system. But in the aftermath of this awful tragedy, it left the Halberstams without their son, a nearly crippled Mr. Sasonkin, and a seriously wounded Mr. Wilhelm.
And, although Mr. Sasonkin was mostly able to recover from his injuries, aided by his youth and the very meticulous medical care and follow-up therapy he received, that could not in any way have prepared him for what he and his family have to deal with today.
“I can tell you this,” he says. “Moshe is home, he’s very happy to be home, and we are overjoyed of course to have him here.” The road ahead is a long and arduous one replete with challenges and difficulties that are unique to a one-year-old who has had four limbs partially amputated.
If you Google “Moshe Sasonkin” you will be led to a series of brief family videos of Moshe in his rehab center as well as back at home. They are very difficult to view. Aside from the bandaged arms and legs, though, what you see is the sweetest little face of a happy and energetic child. The scenes rip at your emotions, but all you have to do is look at Nachum and Dina Sasonkin, and their courage gives one so much chizuk.
Aside from the personal challenges that lie ahead for Moshe, there is the matter of the extraordinary cost of his anticipated medical care over the next two decades. For now he is healing but will shortly begin to be fitted with prosthetics that will afford him a relatively conventional existence. The fact that Moshe is a small child means that he has many years of growth ahead of him, which also means constantly requiring new and updated prosthetic devices to accommodate that growth and development. Additionally, the funds allowed by the insurance companies involved are limited and do not provide or pay for the best prosthetic devices available.
That’s why Nachum and Dina and their families have to turn to the community and request assistance in helping their baby, Moshe Sasonkin. To that end, a website and special charitable fund have been established.
The fund, which accepts tax-deductible contributions, is called the Special Moshe Charity Fund. Contributions can be made directly to an account at Bank of America, account number 483026918722; or they can be sent to 550 Rockaway Avenue, Valley Stream, NY 11581 or donate online.
Before we parted, I asked Nachum Sasonkin to look back for me and consider all that he has been through and all that he is dealing with today. I asked him how the experiences, taken together, might have impacted on his emunah, his faith in G-d. He looked at me like I was asking the silliest question and said, “My emunah has always been strong; it’s been the same all along.”