Steve Averbach z”l: Israel’s man of spiritual steel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-10-10

The recent death of  Steve Averbach, yet another victim of Palestinian terrorism, stirred memories of the bad old days of 2003, when suicide bombers regularly attacked. Averbach was paralyzed during a bus bombing in Jerusalem early Sunday morning May 18, 2003. The informal networks of love that helped him showed “We Are One” is more than a slogan. His steadfastness, grit, and humor while imprisoned in his own body inspired those of us lucky enough to know him.

In 2003, Averbach was a 37-year-old New Jersey suburbanite turned Golani “gever,” whose talents as a gun instructor earned him the nickname “Steve Guns.”  A Palestinian terrorist, masquerading as a religious Jew, boarded the bus near French Hill. Noting the tell-tale bulge, Averbach reached for his weapon. In that instant, the terrorist blew himself up.

Hamas took responsibility for the attack which murdered seven people immediately. Twenty were severely wounded, including Averbach, a father of four, who ended up paralysed below the neck after a steel ball bearing ripped into his spine.

Averbach’s alertness scared the bomber into detonating earlier than his bloodthirsty Hamas handlers planned. The Defense Ministry honored Averbac’s heroics, because the bus was about to pick up dozens of schoolkids and commuters. He regretted not stopping the bomber – an impossible expectation he imposed on himself – and wondered how to rebuild his life. “I control nothing, zero. I can’t turn over, lift a hand,” he told  a reporter. “So they tell me that I’m my kids’ father, and no one can take that away from me. But look at me, what kind of a dad can I be? I want to walk and play with my kids, what can I do now? What does anyone need me for? It’s hard to think that I’m really worth anything like this.”

But Averbach was a warrior. He fought to breathe on his own, when experts doubted he would. He fought to live at home, when experts doubted he would. He fought to get some quality of life, maintain his dignity, be a good father – despite his own doubts.

Word of Averbach’s remarkable progress reached Christopher Reeve, the one-time Superman actor paralyzed after an accident. In July, 2003, Reeve visited Israel and met Averbach, Israel’s own man of spiritual steel.

As Averbach lay in the hospital, bereft and struggling for each breath, word of his troubles reached Rabbi Emanuel Forman, an oleh himself who was temporarily at Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Rabbi Forman told some of us about the tragedy, and, we immediately raised over $15,000. Sean Bernstein from Dawson College Hillel undertook to raise $1000. He miscalculated. He raised $2000.

As more people embraced the mitzvah of giving, more people asked how to help. We were living out the rabbinic teaching “Mitzvah gorrer Mitzvah” – one Mitzvah tugs another. Thanking Sean and singling out the Hadassah women enveloping Steve and his family, Dr. David Averbach – Steve’s father – reported, “There are many more wonderful people in the world than I ever realized.”

In November, 2003, I visited Steve. While searching for his hospital room, I felt nervous. I am a professor not a social worker or a rabbi. I don’t do hospital visits. I wondered: What will I say? How long should I stay? Does he even want visitors? Fortunately, Sean had sent a letter along with the money I was delivering, praising Steve as a hero. I read it. We both teared up as Steve insisted, “aw, no, Gil, I’m no hero.” The friendship flowed from there.

Steve dismissed all the hero talk, insisting “I simply had no choice. It was required of me. It would be like a doctor who sees a car crash and doesn’t stop.”

Steve Averbach was a macho Zionist, a street-smart Zionist. He was tough, partied hard, and loved Israel fiercely. He did not sit around quoting the “Zionist Idea.” His Zionism was more instinctive, sensual, primal. He felt he belonged in Israel, threw his lot with Israel, and did what was necessary to defend it. His Zionism was of self-defense and self-fulfillment

In spring, 2004, Sean Bernstein went on Birthright Israel. As a non-political, identity-oriented journey for first-time visitors, Birthright usually avoided visits to terror victims. Nevertheless, we felt this was an exceptional opportunity to bring Sean and Steve together (as well as Sean’s 39 bus mates).

At the meeting, Steve disarmed everyone by joking about his best friend Jack – Jack Daniels. He spoke movingly about Zionism as a way to make a difference in this world. Deflecting all the attention on him, he asked the participants about their aspirations, their impressions. They ended by singing, hugging, and crying together.

Lorne Klemensberg of the Israeli arm of the Canada Israel Experience Centre, himself a tough oleh and combat veteran, reported that “Steve touched the heart of every single person in the room. He made us all think about the meaning of certain words we throw around every day like courage, heroism, commitment, belief, Zionism, sacrifice.”

After Steve’s death, one friend wrote Sean Bernstein: “I was deeply saddened to learn of Steve’s passing today. I am glad you pushed for us to meet him on our Birthright Trip. Hell of a guy. He made the Zionist in me fiercely proud!” Sean wanted the Averbach family to know “that 45 minutes with Steve changed 40 young students forever.”

For 2574 days, Steve Averbach lived in hell. Each day was endless, filled with anguish and indignity. He suffered. His saintly wife Julie suffered. His family suffered. Strangely, such suffering – which in Israel is multiplied exponentially considering the thousands of casualties – is invisible, even to many American Jews, who label Israeli intransigence the only obstacle to peace.

Steve’s suffering illustrated the risks of peace – and the need for peace. His heroism, carving out moments of beauty and pockets of meaning amid this nightmare, proved how deep our reserves as human beings are – and how one person can not only face tragedy but touch so many others with his strength, vision, idealism.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of
Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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