An ordinary miracle – that’s what you could call what happened in the autumn of 2015 to the 30-year-old repatriate from Ukraine Meir Pavlovsky, who received multiple serious injuries from a terrorist who attacked him. For several days Israel watched as the doctors fought for his life, and prayed for his recovery. In this interview we decided to return to the days when Meir found himself between life and death, and also to discuss his complex fate and path to Judaism.
Meir, first of all, how do you feel? What do the doctors say?
Thanks, I feel much better, although you can’t say I’m completely well, of course, that will take time. But the doctors say that I’m improving at a normal rate, even faster than they expected.
Meir, I realize how hard it is for you to recall what happened, but still tell us, if you can…
It was the 8th of October, around half past three. I was reading a book by Rabbi Chaim Drukman “Kima-kima” (“Gently-gently”), in which he analyzes the section in the “Sangedrin” treatise, where there is a debate about how the Mashiah will come: whether the liberation of the Jewish people will take place “dereh a-teva” i.e. as a natural, evolutionary process, or “dereh a–nes”, suddently, with a miracle… So, I took this book, left Kiryat-Arba and went to the “Khazon David” synagogue, which the state has destroyed 36 times, and which has been restored over and over again. A few months ago it was destroyed once more, and the army declared this territory to be a closed zone, where it was forbidden for people to go to pray. I sat down in the ruins of this synagogue on a remaining stool and started to read…
Was it so important for you to sit in a closed military zone?
It was important for me. It was important to show that although the synagogue was destroyed, it continues to function at least to some extent, and Jews will never leave it. And also, it’s a very picturesque spot with grass, trees, it’s simply pleasant to sit there and study. But then the police came along. One of them came up to me and said I was sitting in a closed zone, and asked me to go under the canopy, where something like a new synagogue had been organized, 15 meters away from the destroyed one. I sat on the bench under this canopy, and not far away there was an unassembled bench.
Naturally, there were a lot of Arabs walking and driving past me, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. One of these Arabs walked behind the bench, I followed him with my eyes and waited for him to appear from the other side. For some reason he didn’t appear. And suddenly he jumped out of the nearest corner and with the cry of “Allah Akbar” he stabbed me in the stomach several times. I didn’t even realize what was happening, and when I did, I saw that my whole right side was puffed up and my internal organs were spilling out. My guts, in fact, if we’re going to speak plainly. I managed to stand up, push him away, turn around, grab my stomach with both hands and start running away, but he chased after me and kept stabbing me, in the back this time. So in the end I received knife wounds to the stomach and back.
Wait, you were right next to a closed military zone. Where were the soldiers and border guards?
A soldier was standing at a distance of 18-20 meters from the place, at the entrance to Kiryat-Arba. But, as it later turned out, he was a “jobber”, i.e. he didn’t serve in the combat units, but in the rear guards. So he lost his head and shut himself in his booth, and when he saw the blood and guts, he started crying and rang his mother. In short, the soldier went into shock and couldn’t help me at all. I was able to reach the Kiryat-Arba checkpoint, I lay on the ground next to it and started shouting “Shma, Israel!”, as I realized I didn’t have long to live. Still clutching my butchered stomach, I looked around and saw a trail of blood behind me. By the time the ambulance arrived, I had lost three liters of blood, but I was still conscious. We took about 40-45 minutes to reach the Shaare-Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, the medics were nervous, but I said that they didn’t need to hurry, I was going to die anyway. I was given an anesthetic at the hospital, and I passed out, and when I came to, the doctors said that I my liver had been cut into by two centimeters, my stomach had been cut, and in my back the knife had punctured two ribs and my lungs. The doctors estimated my chance of survival at 10%. And I was rescued from this state, thank God, by our Israeli medicine.
Tell me, when you were taken to the hospital and you were still conscious, didn’t you regret moving to Israel? Did you think that everything that you had done in your life previously was a fateful mistake? If you had stayed in Ukraine…
No. Of course not. The only thought that I had was that with my death I would fulfill “Kiddush a-Shem”, consecrate the Name of the Almighty. During my entire path towards Judaism I never thought about what it meant, to fulfill “Kiddush a-Shem”, to die for being a Jew? And in the ambulance I only thought that I had become worthy of this highest honor, and so I had no fear, let alone, God forbid, any regret that I had done something wrong in my life. Naturally, I didn’t want to die, but if that’s how it was going to be, then I started to get ready to see a tunnel full of light, angels and everything else that is described in stories about spiritual worlds.
By the way, how did you come to Judaism, and become a religious Jew?
Well, that’s a long story. I was born and grew up in Zaporozhie, both my parents were Christians, and I was baptized with the name of Filipp. When I was in the first year at school, I saw a film where a Jew was buried in a coffin with a six-pointed star engraved on it. I don’t remember what the film was, but I remember that I asked my mother what this star was, and she said that it was a Jewish star. Since then I constantly drew the Magen David and literally covered all my school exercise books with the Magen David. Then I became interested in books about Jews and Israel, and at the age of 12 I decided that I wanted to learn Hebrew. I bought textbooks at the market and sat over them for nights on end. At the age of 14 I was already teaching Hebrew at beginner courses at the Jewish Agency.
And how, pardon the question, did you get into the Jewish Agency? Are they prepared to accept every non-Jewish boy from off the street?
I simply came to the Jewish Agency and said that I wanted to learn Hebrew, and they sent me to an ulpan, without asking any questions. Then the Hebrew teacher sent me to a Jewish youth club, I met the people there, I went there again and again, and I really got involved in the Jewish youth movement. I started going there almost every day, took part in organizing all Jewish holidays, and all events generally. When I turned 18, I was drafted into the army. By that time I had already been training as a cook for three years.
How did your parents feel about your interest in Judaism?
Initially it didn’t bother them, quite the opposite: they were pleased that their son wasn’t hanging around on the street, that he was learning something and clearly wasn’t mixed up in a bad crowd. But when I decided to change my religion, that did bother them. By the age of 18 I was already very interested in Jewish history and tradition, and when I was leaving for the army, I took a prayer book, kippah and tallit with me, although naturally I didn’t really know anything about any of that and didn’t know how to pray either. I couldn’t even explain to myself why I took these things. I truly immersed myself in Jewish life after I returned from the army and went to a Jewish camp organized by the Jewish agency and the Bnei-Akiva youth movement. But before that my friends and I created an organization which provided security for the Jewish community in Zaporozhie.
What did it do?
We guarded synagogues, established addresses of skinheads and other anti-Semites who attacked Jews, and dealt with them, in our own way, so to speak. To be quite honest we acted quite harshly. At the camp I met Tzvi Arieli, the emissary of Bnei-Akiva from Israel. He lived in Kiev, I lived in Zaporozhie, but he was interested in the organization we had created and began inviting me to Kiev to various events. And when we had been friends for about half a year, he asked me a question I had been awaiting for a long time: “Filipp, who is a Jew in your family?” I had to admit that I didn’t have any Jewish roots. “That means you’ll have to carry out giyur,” said Tzvi, and when I replied that I had dreamed of this for a long time, he helped me to study at a Kiev yeshiva in Podol. That’s how I started to study the Torah properly. And about half a year after I’d been studying there, the rabbi came to me and said: “Get ready, tomorrow we’re going to get you circumcised!”
Was it that easy?
It’s easy for you, but I remember I couldn’t hold back my tears – I was very moved. The next day I underwent brit-mila, two weeks later I immersed myself in a mikveh, and since that day my life began not as Filipp, but as Meir-Yitzhak.
And how did your parents react to this metamorphosis?
Very badly to begin with. For some time they barely talked to me, but after a while they realize that I hadn’t become worse because of this, quite the opposite. Also, they aren’t exactly devout Christians. In short, gradually everything sorted itself out. Shortly after giyur I decided that I wanted to repatriate to Israel, and in 2006 I visited the country for the first time with a group from my yeshiva, and in 2007 I moved there as a permanent resident and started studying at the Nir yeshiva in Hebron. After a few years of study I went back to Kiev, worked as a chef there at kosher restaurants, was a kashrut supervisor at a restaurant in Podol, and a year ago I returned to Israel., Until recently I worked as a chef at a restaurant in Bat Yam, but for all holidays and Saturdays I went to my adopted family in Kiryat-Arba – I was “adopted” by the family of the renowned journalist Aaron Granot, the deputy editor of the religious newspaper “Be-mishpaha”. Incidentally, he returned from Paris a few days ago, where he was reporting on the aftermath of the terrorist attacks there.
Tell me, has your attitude to terrorist attacks and reports about them changed since you were attacked by a terrorist yourself?
I’ve become more cautious. It’s not fear, it’s caution. I recommend that everyone else also be more cautious and watchful, because this can happen to anyone anywhere.
Has your attitude towards Israel changed?
Of course it’s changed! I’ve come to love and appreciate it even more. From my own experience I saw how important every Jew is to the people here, and how they root for them.
Have you seen your parents since then?
Three days after the terrorist attack my parents arrived from Ukraine and stayed here for a week.
Did they come themselves or did someone help them to organize this trip?
Of course they were given help. They didn’t even have passports, and in Ukraine these days it takes at least ten days to get a passport. They wouldn’t have managed to get a passport in two days without help. Then they were given help with tickets, of course, and when they arrived in Israel they were simply swamped with invitations to stay with families. But in the end that wasn’t necessary, as the state paid for them to stay at a hotel by the hospital for a week.
And one last question: what are your plans for the future?
Firstly, when I got out of hospital, I immediately proposed to my girlfriend, who I met by shidduch, i.e. with the help of a professional match-maker, and she agreed. So now we’re preparing for to be engaged, and in summer, with God’s help, we will be married.
Israel, war, Palestine, attacks, interview, terrorism, Meir Pavlovsky
Israel, war, Palestine, attacks, interview, terrorists, attack, Meir Pavlovsky discusses how his attitude to Israel has changed.