A heart-breaking tragedy sows the seeds for a new chance at life
By: Rabbi Ami Glixman
It was the early 1930s in New York and a street game of soccer comprised of neighbourhood boys was taking place. Yaakov Maizels, who would later change his name to Jacky Mason, was standing on the corner, telling his jokes to anyone who would listen, but the game was too much competition for him on that day. One of the boys playing, Chayim, had fallen down, but was able to hold the ball in the bend of his knee. Before he had a chance to get back up though, two players from the opposing team were rushing from his right and left to strip the ball from him. Focused only on the ball and the perfect angle to free it from under Chayim’s knee, the players both slid towards him at full speed.
Tragically, both of the boys’ aim was just a bit off and, instead of jarring the ball loose, the metal spikes on their shoes met full force with Chayim’s leg as they attacked from opposite sides, nearly severing Chayim’s leg completely from him. No one realised how badly Chayim had been hurt until he somehow managed to stand up on his other leg, desperately trying without success to kick the ball to his teammates. Chayim’s badly damaged leg was later reattached, but he would never walk with grace again. Although his physical wounds eventually healed to some degree, the emotional scars from the trauma would take much longer. In those days, a future for the lame was a lame future. After such an accident, what young man wouldn’t worry about his chances for marriage and work? But who would have guessed that Chayim would one day be able to give thanks for his terrible injury and the future that it made possible for him.
The late 1930s brought little news from Europe and none of it good. War was again on the horizon. Another young man who had been a part of the soccer game that day, Zevulon Glixman, arrived home from school to find a letter from Europe on top of the post. There the letter remained until later that night when Zevulon’s father sat down after dinner and looked through the post. He opened the letter and immediately started to tear up. As he continued to read, a soft whimper turned into heart-wrenching sobs. His 16-year-old son had witnessed his father cry during davening, but had never seen him wailing like this. He knew what was in the letter; his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins had been killed Al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s name (ie. they had been killed simply because they were Jewish). Unable to just stand by, Zevulon decided he needed to do something. He made up his mind on the spot: he would not wait until he was of age to volunteer, nor would he wait for a draft notice to come; despite being underage, Zevulon would find a way to join the American army and fight the Germans.
During World War II, America required all men from the ages of 18 to 64 to register for the draft, with those aged 18 to 37 immediately available for induction. Anyone who was 17 years and older could voluntarily join the US armed forces. With the help of a slow and cumbersome record retrieval system, a young man claiming to be 17 years old and wanting to help his country was duly accepted into the American army. He reported to the army induction station and, not long after, was taken from there to an army training facility. He quickly earned respect as a staunchly religious and exemplary officer-in-training. He thought he would be able to go to Germany to fight the Nazi scourge, but the army had other plans. The wounded and dying soldiers returning home would need clergy, Army Chaplains, and so Zevulon was left to serve as a rabbi for the US Army, a position that came with a jeep and driver. Well-versed in several languages, Rabbi Zevulon Yerachmiel Glixman was able to reach out to the many Jews returning from the Gehinnom playing out overseas.
On one his furloughs, Rabbi Glixman went home to spend Shabbos with his family and found a letter awaiting him from the army. After Shabbos, he opened the letter to find that Robert Glixman had not only been drafted into the United States army, but had failed to report to the recruitment centre as required. It was only then that the family learned that the doctor who had completed Rabbi Glixman’s birth certificate had decided that he liked the name Robert better than the name Rabbi Glixman’s parents had chosen, Ralph! By Sunday evening, all was sorted out by a helpful Army General, who was familiar with the praiseworthy work of this never-tiring Chaplain. After completing his years of military service, Rabbi Glixman continued his Torah studies at the famous Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, New York.
While at the yeshiva, Rabbi Glixman encountered some old friends who had taken D4 deferments for religious studies. It dawned on Rabbi Glixman, however, that none of the boys from his neighbourhood who had been playing in the soccer game that fateful day when Chayim had suffered his life-changing injury were anywhere to be found. At the next opportunity, Rabbi Glixman went to visit his old friend, Chayim, and their reminiscing over old times quickly turned to talk about what had happened to the other boys from their group. Every single one of the boys had been drafted and shipped off to fight in the Pacific theatre of the war. Of those many young men, however, only Rabbi Glixman and Chayim had survived – the former because of his zealousness to volunteer before he was legally allowed and the latter because of his mangled leg. Rabbi Glixman asked Chayim, “Do you remember the game that day?” “Yes,” replied Chayim with a noticeable twinge of pain in his eyes. “Do you remember how you felt afterwards?” “Yes,” replied Chayim as he sighed, “Like my life was not worth living; a cripple with a limp.” “Can you see the chesed of Hashem now? For years you thought this was a harsh punishment from Above. Look, my friend! Who is left? Who is alive? From our group it is only the two of us. Hashem planned a future for you. That injury saved your life. Sadly, there are not many men left our age. Marriage and jobs are both available to you now. Take note of how Hashem has saved you and make the most of it! Live your life Chayim! You were spared for a reason.”
Raised in a home that stressed ahavas Hashem and ahavas habrios (love for Hashem and for his creations), Rabbi Glixman had a love for all people, and especially for his fellow Jews. After finishing his yeshiva studies, he attracted followers who were mostly non-religious Jews and who, through his talks, classes, and personal interactions, embraced greater religious observance. They would later regard him as The Homesteader Rebbe. An incredibly modest man, Rabbi Glixman earned a doctorate in English from the State Teacher’s College in Lock Haven (which later became Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania), but he never mentioned it to his family. It was discovered only after he passed away.