ights flashing and siren blaring, the ambulance sped through the streets of Jerusalem. Thirty-four-year-old Shlomo Gelber lay on the gurney, critically ill. The doctors were unable to stabilize him, and he passed away in the hospital.
Eight months later, his wife Shira gave birth to their fourth child, Yehuda Shlomo, in that very same ambulance.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Shira about her incredible story, a story of faith and courage in the face of terrible tragedy.
A Match Made in Heaven
Shira Gelber was born in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. She was a bookish child with a large, loving family, and she grew up basking in their love.
Mutual friends introduced her to Shlomie. “From the moment we met, it was clear to me that we were meant for each other. It felt so right. Conversation flowed, the chemistry was excellent, and within two weeks we were engaged,” remembers Shira.
Three months later, Shira and Shlomie were married. On their first wedding anniversary, they revisited the hotel they had stayed at during their honeymoon, this time accompanied by their newborn daughter. “Our relationship was special,” says Shira. “We were so open with each other, we communicated so well, and we gave each other a lot of encouragement. Shlomie would always tell people, ‘The most important thing is that it should be good for Shira.’ He treated me like a queen, and I tried, and still try, to be at least a thousandth as good to him as he was to me.”
Shlomie and Shira had two more children, and Shlomie worked hard to support his family. He was a model father, and made sure his children lacked nothing. “He was completely dedicated to being a father. He was involved in every step of the children’s lives, from the first ultrasound to getting advice on any issue. He took it all on his shoulders, and held us all tight.
“We dreamed of raising our children to have good midot (character traits), of seeing them raising their own families, and of growing old together. Just before he passed away, we began the process of buying a new apartment. He wanted it designed so we’d be able to welcome our children when they came for Shabbat with their children. That’s how much he thought about the children . . .”
The Gelbers were excited about planning their new apartment and their upcoming vacation. The night before Shlomie died, he and Shira went to an Avraham Fried concert, where he sang and danced. Who could have dreamed that the worst possible tragedy was just around the corner?
“It was a perfectly normal morning. He would drop me off at my office every day on his way to work. In the car, he told me that he felt a twinge in his chest. I asked him when he would go to the doctor, and he said he’d go that day. Around 1:00, his partner called to tell me that an ambulance was taking Shlomie to the hospital, but that he was fully conscious and no one knew what was wrong. He said he’d keep me informed.
“About half an hour later, his partner brought me Shlomie’s car keys and told me to go to the hospital. He wouldn’t tell me any details. He just said to go.
“On my way to the hospital, I found out that the doctor Shlomie had gone to wasn’t in his office, so Shlomie decided to go to the nearby emergency clinic. When he felt he was no longer fit to drive, he stopped the car and asked someone to call an ambulance.
“When I saw a parked ambulance with its lights flashing, I thought that Shlomie might be inside and considered stopping, but I knew they wouldn’t open the door for me, so I continued on to the hospital. When I got to the ER, I gave them his ID number, but they couldn’t find any record of him. It took another half-hour for the ambulance to get there—the same ambulance I’d seen parked by the side of the road. The paramedics rushed Shlomie straight in.”
The paramedics told Shira that they’d kept reviving Shlomie, but his vital signs kept flatlining. Even though she didn’t quite understand how serious the situation was, she called the family.
“After five resuscitations, the doctors came to tell us that they had to declare him dead. For a few seconds, you could have cut the silence with a knife. When I recovered from the shock, I went to his bedside to say vidui (confession) and Shema Yisroel.
“Everybody left, and I spent some time alone with him. His face wasn’t covered. He just looked like he was sound asleep. I asked him to help me.
“At home, when I was tired, I just had to say, ‘Shlomie, it’s your turn.’ Then I could rest, knowing that the house was in better hands than when I was in charge. I asked him, I pleaded with him, I told him, ‘It’s your turn, you have to take care of the children,’ but he didn’t answer.”
One of Shira’s first decisions was that she’d be upfront with the children. She brought her children to her old bedroom in her childhood home, the room in which she’d cried about torn stationery and teasing classmates, and there she told them the worst news in the world.
“I told them that Abba hadn’t felt well and went to the hospital, that he’d lost consciousness and wasn’t suffering at all, but that I had something very sad to tell them. I asked them, ‘Can you guess what it is?’ When they said no, I told them that Abba had passed away.
“Their shrieks and cries were heart-breaking. I have no idea how we got through it, but I knew that if we got through that moment, we’d be okay.”
I asked Shira, an observant Jew: What did you feel in those moments? Were you mad at G‑d?
“At first, you don’t think about faith; you’re moving on autopilot. I just knew that I couldn’t fathom G‑d’s world. It’s His world. He made it and He knows what’s good for us. As my aunt likes to say, He’s our father. He gives us such strong hugs that we may say, ‘Ouch!’ but they’re still hugs.”
A Surprising Twist
Two days after Shlomie died, Shira discovered that she was pregnant. It was an enormous surprise, a real plot twist. “I felt like somebody had put a net across the huge pit that had opened at our feet, that G‑d was taking care of us and showing us that He was with us.
“The pregnancy didn’t leave me a lot of options. I had to take hold of myself and carry on. I couldn’t waver, so I rallied and somehow managed to take care of myself and the children.”
What’s it like to go through a pregnancy without a partner? How did you find the physical and emotional energy to take care of the children?
“During the whole pregnancy, it bothered me that I hadn’t told Shlomie. I didn’t know how I could give birth without telling Shlomie, without having him at my side. I remembered how happy he’d always been when he accompanied me to an ultrasound, and now I had to go alone . . .
“I couldn’t stop crying at the first ultrasound. Of course, I’d warned the technician that that was likely to happen—I learned to prepare people for my reactions. I missed Shlomie every second. I missed being able to discuss names with him, and where to give birth, but I got strength from G‑d. During every other pregnancy, I was always exhausted for nine months; I went from bed to work and back to bed. I don’t know how I suddenly managed so well, but I did.
“Someone was looking out for me from above. My births always lasted at least 12 hours, but this one was quick. The contractions started at 6:15 a.m. Since there was always traffic at that hour, I decided not to drive myself, but to order a taxi. When the dispatcher told me it would take 12 minutes, I decided to call an ambulance instead.
“I got into the ambulance at 7:45 and soon realized that we were going the same way the ambulance had gone with Shlomie. Before I could think about it too much, before I even realized I was really in labor, I’d given birth in the ambulance.”
A few minutes after the birth, before she’d even held her new baby, the paramedic told Shira that he was the one who’d taken Shlomie out of his car nine months earlier.
“The circle had closed! I started to cry.
“I named the baby Yehuda Shlomo.”
Are there moments of despair? Where do you get the strength to carry on?
“There were, and there still are, moments of despair, of heart-breaking crying, of longing. I know that this is normal and will pass, that if I didn’t collapse sometimes it would be a sign that something was very wrong—and that after every collapse comes energy and courage.
“I find strength in loving my incredible children, who need me, and who return my love.
“Sometimes I ‘threaten’ Shlomie and tell him that if he doesn’t come, I’m not going to get out of bed. Does it help? It doesn’t help at all. The next morning, even if I hardly have the energy to breathe, the children need me. And nobody will take care of them besides me, so I get up and find the strength to take care of them.”
Help From the Community
Shira is loved by people near and far. People who don’t even know her call her to ask how they can help. Her friends were there for her from the start, providing meals after the shiva, helping with shopping, babysitting, and extending more invitations for Shabbat than she could ever accept.
“Since I live far from my family, the community is a real presence in our lives. They’ve been helping us all along. One friend takes my son Shmuli to shul every day to say kaddish. My wonderful neighbor across the hall leaves her door open all the time and is always ready to do whatever she can. There are terrific seminary girls who come to babysit for free at all hours, always with a big smile.
“My family worked together with nonprofit organizations to provide for the children both now and in the future, and we have received donations from people we don’t even know.
“My family is incredible! My sisters invite me whenever I need to get out. At first, I was broken, and I cried to them, but they encouraged me over and over again. They give me the strength to keep doing what I have to do. My dear sisters-in-law do whatever they can to make our lives more pleasant. My father and his wonderful wife give us advice. My stepmother was also widowed, so she understands what I’m going through and gives me hope for the future.
“We were always a very sociable couple. I feel like Shlomie left me a huge support network of people who truly love us, who loved him, who are here to help in whatever way we ask. Just knowing that they’re there warms my heart.”
What do you have to say to someone who is dealing with difficult circumstances?
“Don’t think about the whole road ahead of you. Take one step at a time. Focus only on what you have to do in this moment. The small victories accumulate, until you have the strength to look at life from a broader perspective. And one more thing: It’s okay to collapse and to cry. It’s liberating. We’re only human. You just have to remember to get up and get back to work, not to allow yourself to wallow in a pit of sorrow.”
Shira finds solace in new experiences, which give her the confidence to deal with daily life. She started writing a column about how she was coping, which gives many people a new outlook on life and the strength to keep going.
Was your faith strengthened by your tragedy?
“I never considered myself a big believer. I always did things out of habit. But after such a sudden death, you get a clear understanding that it’s all from G‑d, that we have nothing in this world, that it’s all up to Him. We think we’re in charge, we think we know everything, but we’re just a small screw in the huge machine that He created.
“When you understand that, everything looks different. That’s how I came to realize how much emunah I have and how strong it is.”