Editor's note: On Sunday, March 21, 2004, ten years after a terrorist almost succeeded in snuffing out his life in the infamous 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting, leaving him severly disabled, Nachum Sasonkin joined 65 peers in receiving rabbinic ordination at the Rabbinical College of America-Chabad Lubavitch in Morristown, NJ.

To address the hundreds who’ve sought Nachum’s reactions to this historic occasion, he chose to put his feelings in writing and post the following letter on Chabad.org.

We invite you to use the Reader Feedback form on the bottom of this page to express your thoughts to and about Nachum.

By the Grace of G‑d
28 Adar, 5764 — March 21, 2004

Dear friends and well-wishers,

Thank you very much for your extraordinary outpouring of love and support. As you can well imagine, this is a very emotional day for me and, since it’s easier for me to express myself in writing, I’ve decided to put some of my swirling thoughts in this letter.

Ten years ago this month, my mother, sitting at the side of my hospital bed in S. Vincent Hospital in Manhattan, believed that this day would come. Probably no one else did.

I was eighteen years old, in a coma, with a bullet in my brain. On March 1, 1994, I was riding in a van with fourteen of my classmates. We were returning to Brooklyn from visiting the Manhattan hospital where our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of righteous memory), had undergone surgery. As we got on the Brooklyn Bridge, a Lebanese terrorist opened fire, strafing our van with fifteen rounds of machinegun fire. My friend, Ari Halberstam, age 16, was killed. Two other friends, Levi Wilhelm and Yankel Schapiro, were badly injured. I was pronounced brain dead on the front page of the New York Times.

But my parents, siblings and friends refused to give up. They sat by my bedside, they talked and sang to me, even though it didn't seem likely that I could hear them. Three weeks later I regained a hazy consciousness. Several more weeks passed before I realized where I was and learned what had happened to Ari, my friends, and myself.

Even after I awoke, my medical prognosis was not good at all. About ten percent of my brain was gone. I was completely paralyzed. Doctors doubted whether I would ever be able to walk, talk, or even eat.

I communicated by blinking my eyes — once for yes, twice for no. Once, after a medical examination, a sharp wire left under my foot caused me extraordinary pain. Though my sister noticed my tears I had no way of telling her why I was crying. For an excruciating hour we exhausted each other until her questioning finally touched upon my foot.

But while struggling for breath on a respirator I thought repeatedly of a passage in my daily prayers and its Talmudic interpretation: “With each and every breath we need to praise G‑d." Unlike ever before, I became aware of each breath, appreciated every movement, every human interaction.

It took years of grueling therapy to relearn the things I learned as a toddler: to focus my vision, to walk, to speak, to swallow. (For a year I was fed with a tube in my stomach.) But with the help of extraordinary doctors, nurses, therapists, homeopaths, and friends, I slowly but surely regained some function and then more and then yet more.

I still have a bullet lodged in my brain. My speech is slurred. I have difficulty maintaining balance when I walk. But I am determined that, with the help of G‑d, these will not stop me from doing what I know I was born to do.

Thank G‑d, I married an extraordinary person and G‑d has already blessed Nechama Dina and I with our first happy child, Chaya Mushka, and we pray to G‑d for many more.

I always believed that I would make it. Seeing my mother’s smiling optimism, remembering the Rebbe’s spirited and always forward-looking approach, I believed that I would regain my life, and regain what has always been the most important thing in my life: the ability to help others.

You see, I'm not the first rabbi in my family.

My great-grandfather and namesake, Nachum Shmarya Sasonkin, was sent in the 1920s by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to Batum in the Soviet republic of Georgia to lead the local Jewish community in their valiant fight to preserve their heritage and faith.

His son, Moshe Sasonkin, was arrested by Stalin's henchmen for that very work and sent to Siberia. He never came back. My father, Rabbi Avraham Sasonkin, never knew his own father — he was two months old when Moshe was taken away. Raised by his grandfather under the Soviet regime, he later emigrated to Israel. Together with my mother he moved, at the Rebbe’s behest, to the Taanachim region in Northern Israel to work with poverty-stricken families and socially disadvantaged youths.

My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Posner, came to America in the 1920s and served as a rabbi for more than sixty years, first in Chicago and later in Pittsburgh, where he and my grandmother built a vibrant Jewish community. He was one of the first of thousands of now famous Chabad-Lubavitch "shluchim" dispatched by the Rebbe to pioneer Jewish outreach in America.

In newspaper interviews they gave over the years, my angel-like doctors and therapists expressed amazement about my case. The pain I endured, the determination I displayed, the progress I made. A number of them have been quoted saying, "We've never seen anything like it."

But to me, it couldn't have been any other way. Not after all those years studying the Rebbe's teachings and participating in the farbrengens (chassidic gatherings), listening to him speak.

This is what being a chassid of the Rebbe always meant to me: that you dedicate your life to helping others, and do whatever it takes to be able to do so. All my life, I knew that I'm going to be a "shliach." My seven siblings are scattered around the world doing that very work. My brother Moshe, for example, risks his life to serve the Israeli population in Metulah near the Syrian border.

All my life I knew that my life’s goal is to help a fellow human being in the quest to better him/herself, and help a fellow Jew in the quest to better connect with his and her heritage and people.

Being a chassid of the Rebbe's also means never giving up. It means knowing with absolute conviction that no matter what a person's situation is, the Almighty grants us the strength and fortitude to overcome all obstacles and fulfill our life’s mission. I thought about this all the time and it helped carry me through my most difficult moments.

I have so much to be thankful for and so many to thank.

In celebrating my rabbinic ordination, I recall longingly and fondly my friend Ari Halberstam who is surely celebrating with me today from his perch in heaven.

I thank G‑d for allowing me to recognize the preciousness of each breath and step I take. I pray that I continue to lead my life on a deeper level than I did before, never taking anything for granted, always recognizing His blessings. I thank Him for giving me the Torah and allowing me to appreciate its rigors and joy and fulfillment. I pray that I never tire in my quest to measure up to its standards and that I become a worthy representative and teacher of its blueprint for life. I further thank G‑d for allowing me to be living testimony of His miracles and for the opportunities He's given me to infuse faith, hope and optimism in the lives of those challenged with unbearable circumstances. I pray that He allow me to continue to do so, for the sake of all who suffer.

I thank my parents and siblings who never left my side in all those difficult years.

My wonderfully dedicated doctors and therapists at S. Vincent’s Manhattan Hospital, Moss Rehabilitation Center, NYU’s Rusk Institute and the Feldenkrais Center.

My friends and classmates, who came regularly to the hospital, to the rehab center, and everywhere else I needed them to lend their support.

My wonderful wife Dina and daughter Chaya. My teachers at Oholei Torah, Colel Menachem and Rabbi Herson’s dedicated staff at the Rabbinical College of America-Chabad Lubavitch, for their wisdom and encouragement as I struggled through the rigorous 14-hour study days.

The Rebbe, for teaching me that all is possible.

All of you for caring and sharing.

And, again, our Father in Heaven, for giving me my life and purpose, and a second chance to achieve it.

Thank you for your warm wishes and may G‑d bless you always.


Nachum Shmarya Sasonkin