“I have something better for you!” On Wednesday evening, June 22, at Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, Rebbetzin Shaindel Simes shared an incredible story of emunah and love: the journey of her whole family as recorded in her new, inspiring book, Rolling Rabbi – The Power of Perseverance: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Simes.
The large audience of community women sat riveted as Rebbetzin Simes told the dramatic story of the horrific accident her family experienced, the miracles, and the extreme challenge of her husband’s traumatic spinal injury. There was not a dry eye in the whole shul when she finished.
She began the lecture by thanking the audience for coming and that it gives her and her family chizuk when she has the opportunity to share their story. The accident occurred on June 20, 2010, and that was the day that everything changed.
She related that she was just a regular Queens girl. She attended the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens, Shevach High School, seminary, and Touro College. She married a learning boy from Chofetz Chaim, and everything in her life went according to plan. “It’s hard to believe that 12 years passed. When I share my story, it gives me chizuk. It’s a continuous journey.” In the beginning, as a newlywed, she and her husband lived in Forest Hills, near Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. Their plan was to find an out-of-town community where they could make an impact with kiruv. They wanted to make a mark and create a kiddush Hashem in that community. Her husband grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He traveled to Minneapolis every day for yeshivah. His family was instrumental in the foundation of that community. He knew what it meant to live out of town.
She wanted to live in a community that was a normal distance from New York and that they had a yeshivah high school for girls. The Simeses had five children at the time and they decided to move to Ottawa, Canada. Ottawa had a community and a day school where she could teach, and there was a yeshivah high school. Also, it was an eight-hour car ride to New York. “The job offer was great. It was filling our dream.”
They quickly integrated into the community, and her husband became popular as a teacher of multiple grade levels. Hotel Simes was up and running. During Sukkos, they had a party for a different one of her husband’s classes each night. The same thing happened on Chanukah. The kids in the community never had such a warm reception before. They loved it and they started coming for Shabbos. Her family was growing from this, as well. She said, “I was happy teaching kids at the school and giving shiurim to the women.”
Her husband noticed that teenage boys were hanging out in the hallway during the rav’s shiur between Minchah and Maariv on Shabbos. So that was the start of “our boys.” Every Shabbos afternoon, they came over for s’udah sh’lishis. “They schmoozed with my husband. They had a warm friendship with him.” She added, “We felt life was beautiful.”
Time passed and they had three more children. When her second daughter was ready for high school, the high school had closed down and they made a road trip to Rochester to check out the high school there for her daughter Malka. It was June 20, 2010, and they were driving back home after spending Shabbos in Rochester. All their kids were in the car except their oldest son who had stayed home. She was six months pregnant with her ninth child. They pulled over at one point so that her husband could daven Minchah. She didn’t realize it was the last time he would stand on his feet.
At a certain point, he asked her to take over driving because he had a headache. She remembered that they were up to Syracuse and her son called. The sign said 20 miles to the border. She told her son they’d be home in a couple of hours.
She recalled the road was dark and there were no lights on the highway. She saw shadows on the road. Suddenly, she said, “I think I see a deer.” She was trying to peer over the steering wheel. She saw two eyes shining at her. She swerved back and forth and tried to scare the deer away. “I felt like we were going to flip. The last thing I remember is the kids screaming, “We’re all okay!” She shared that they had flipped multiple times and the car landed perpendicular to the road into a ditch.
“My husband said, “I can’t move.”
The car behind them had called 911. She recalls lights and sirens. There was so much light like the middle of the day. She was collecting the kids. Everyone was perfectly fine. One daughter would need four stitches. “It was a neis!” The paramedics kept questioning her. “Are you expecting?” She kept responding, “No.” The kids chimed in, “Mommy, you told us a baby was coming Rosh HaShanah time.”
The paramedics convinced her that she needed to come with them, and they would bring her children along in the ambulances. Later, she found out her that husband required the jaws of life to get out of the car and he was airlifted to the Syracuse University Trauma Center. “I didn’t know this.”
At the hospital, she kept asking about her husband and it felt like forever. The kids at that time were ages two to 15. One daughter asked, “Is Aba going to die?” She kept saying no and tried to reassure her.
A nurse finally came and told her that her husband had a spinal cord injury. At that moment, she wasn’t aware what that meant. All she knew was that it meant he couldn’t walk. “I asked her, ‘Can he walk?’ She shook her head and said, ‘He can’t walk.’”
At this point, Rebbetzin Simes took a deep breath. She had two choices. She said that she could pull a blanket over her head and hibernate and shut it all out, or the other choice was to figure out what it means to make it work. “I had seven kids here, one at home, and one unborn. I chose the second choice.” She noted that what would make it work, she didn’t know then, and she doesn’t know now. “This is a whole family’s journey.”
Neighbors who were professionals in the health field and everyone worldwide rallied behind the family.
“How did I get through it?” she asked. She shared two life-changing lessons. One she learned when a friend invited her to attend a Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation program on challenging times. She didn’t want to go, but one of the speakers shared a message that impacted her in such a powerful way. She said that when a person is born, his neshamah sees a video of what his life on earth will be and there is no conflict of interest up there. The neshamah knows that the point of living on Earth is to achieve its purpose and draw closer to Hashem. It recognizes that Hashem gives it a specific toolbox to perfect itself and to come closer to Hashem. The neshamah agrees and signs up for this.
Rebbetzin Simes shared, “I still get chills when I hear those words. Until I watched that video, I told everyone I did not sign up for this. Nowhere did it say wife of quadriplegic with nine kids.”
She taught, “When I heard those words, I realized that I had signed up for this. The whole night I walked around saying to myself, “I signed up for this.” Those words were so powerful. “It meant that this is what my neshamah needed to become Shaindel. The accident didn’t “happen” to me.
“That night, I made the decision that it was us against quadriplegia. “I changed my battle, and it sticks with me to this day.”
The second powerful lesson was in Parshas VaEschanan. Moshe Rabbeinu was davening 500 times to go into Israel and Hashem says, “Rav l’cha” – no, there is something hidden that’s better for you.” She said, “Hashem is teaching that you think you know what’s good for you and what you need, but I have something better for you. She shared that she talked to herself again, and said, “You think you know what you want and what you need. I have something better for you.” She wrote the whole pasuk and posted it on her refrigerator. “It stuck with me so much, I created magnets to share with others with that pasuk. Those two things kept me going and keep me going!”
She shared, “Tonight I can smile and say it with conviction, but it took 12 years. There are so many levels of acceptance.” It takes a long time to move acceptance from the mind to the heart. She confided that she still has hard days and feels sad sometimes.
She shared a letter her husband wrote when he was 18, which is printed in the book. At this time, his mother was sick with Alzheimer’s disease and he had to deal with that reality.
These are the last two paragraphs of a letter he wrote to his uncle and aunt in St. Paul:
“There’s one thing I want to touch on. And that’s the subject of asking ”Why.” I really think that although that may be naturally the first thing we do, it really is pretty ridiculous. Asking “why” and thinking it’s not fair only would make sense if we controlled life. The fact that my mother has Alzheimer’s disease proves that we don’t. And if we don’t, who are we to ask “Why?” Do we choose to be born, or to die? Do we choose to be short, or to be tall? Do we choose to be healthy, or to be sick? What right do we have, then, to go looking for answers to why I have brown hair and why Judy has black hair? Do I have any more right to say my mother’s illness is unfair, than I do to say it’s unfair that I’m not a genius?
“There are certain givens in this game of life. We didn’t make up any rules. Our only job is to make our time here worthwhile and to accomplish the right things as much as is under our power. We must take what we have and use it.”
This hashkafah never left him. He still said the same thing when he was paralyzed from the shoulders down. He used what he had. He used his mind and speech to teach and teach and to be there for others. He taught and his blog is in her book. He taught bitachon to whomever he came across, including the doctors in the ICU, the therapists at the rehab, and people who had never met an Orthodox Jew. Their lives were touched by his message. He taught that even if we don’t see the big picture, he knows that he is part of something bigger.
Challenges come our way and we don’t ask for them. It’s our mindset of how we face those challenges and what we do with them that matters. Remember, if you don’t understand why, it’s not about the why but what. What does Hashem want from me? How can I become a better me?
She shared how a butterfly represents something so free. It wasn’t always gorgeous. It went through a metamorphosis. We evolve. We grow layers and layers. We can emerge as a butterfly. “Think of becoming the best that you can become.
She shared that she looks back at the extra 6½ years she had with her husband after the accident as a gift. “I’ve grown and I’ve become. I’m not the same person I was 12 years ago or five years ago. Each day is a new chance – a new opportunity to look back and say I’m a better person than yesterday.
Her nephews once interviewed her husband and asked a question she would never ask. They asked what he would want written on his matzeivah. Amazingly, she had chosen to write those exact words, without knowing he had said it. “Oved Hashem!”
May his memory be a blessing to his family and klal Yisrael, and Hashem should bless Shaindel Simes and her family with good health and strength to continue inspiring others, and they should have only simchos and blessings.
This beautiful book, Rolling Rabbi, has already sold over 2,500 copies. It is available on the Israel Bookshop website, through Amazon, and at Jewish bookstores everywhere.
By Susie Garber