Beloved ‘Rolling Rabbi’ Dies At 49

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Rabbi Yehuda Simes, who turned a horrific car accident that left him a quadriplegic into a source of inspiration for thousands, has died of pneumonia at the age was 49.


Rabbi Simes at his sons bris.

He named his blog, followed by over 10,000 readers, Rolling Rabbi “because I’m just that,” wrote beloved educator and father of nine.

“Figuratively, because I like to think of myself as one who rolls with the punches, and literally, because I also roll on the wheels of my power chair. This is because I am a quadriplegic – one who has no or limited function in any of his four limbs, and in my case, near complete paralysis.”

Rabbi Yehuda Simes was a teacher at Hillel Academy and co-founder, in 2006, of Torah High Ottawa, . He suffered a devastating accident in June 2010, which he described on his blog: “Thankfully, the eight others in the vehicle escaped with no or minor scratches and bruises, with my seven-months-pregnant wife sustaining the most worrisome injuries. But it was I, sitting in my wife’s original seat, who absorbed the brunt of the fury that night. The roof of the van was primarily crushed above my head, effectively breaking my neck and trapping me in the van.”

Rabbi Simes spent three months in intensive care and six months in a rehab hospital.

Three years later, he wrote: “Now, many things must be different, but we fight to keep them normal. We accept that things are different, but somehow they must stay the same. At the same time, many things that we took for granted before the accident we will never underestimate again.”

“The positive Rabbi Simes that many got to know after his accident was the same exact positive Rabbi Simes as before the accident. This is the essence of who he was. His whole life was dedicated to serving God, spreading Torah, and caring for others.” eulogized Bram Bergman, the other co-founder of Torah High Ottawa, at Rabbi Simes’ funeral.

Rabbi Simes “treated every student with respect and would take a real interest in their life by asking genuine questions and valuing what they said,” Bergman said.

“He would walk around the class with his arms waving and swinging to keep kids’ attention. He always smiled at his students and would greet them with fervour to show them how special they were to him. He was always positive, calm, and in control, never losing his cool.”

“I truly believe that it was Rabbi Simes’ unique ability to teach and inspire” that led to the school’s growth, Bergman said.

“He loved all his students and was beloved by them. He considered teaching a profound opportunity and responsibility. He was always prepared, and also prepared to listen to his students.” said Rabbi Reuven Bulka, rabbi emeritus of Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas.

“He became a teacher for the ages by unconditionally affirming life and thereby inspiring all of us. He was too modest to think of himself as a heroic figure, but a heroic figure he was, and will always remain,” Rabbi Bulka said.

The following was written by Rabbi Simes Z”L on the opening post on his blog “Rolling Rabbi” which inspired tens of thousands of people around the globe:

Welcome to “Rolling Rabbi” – the place for you to learn, think and be inspired. I decided to develop this blog to reach out to my fellow Jews who may be looking for personal growth and inspiration. Read the provocative articles, listen to the compelling audio, watch the engaging video, ask probing questions and receive stimulating answers and build an even stronger relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

I named this blog “Rolling Rabbi” because I’m just that. Figuratively, because I like to think of myself as one who rolls with the punches, and literally, because I also roll on the wheels of my power chair. This is because I am a quadriplegic – one who has no or limited function in any of his four limbs, and in my case, near complete paralysis beneath the lesion to my spinal cord, caused by traumatic injury on a high level (C4 – C5).

My qualification as “Rabbi” comes as a result of many years of study in the great Yeshiva Chafetz Chaim (Rabbinical Seminary of America), having received Rabbinical Ordination and being a close disciple of the renowned Rav A.C.H. Leibowitz Z” TL, the great Rosh Yeshivah.

The goal of this blog is twofold: to invite others to share in my world and see everyday things on a deeper level, and to further motivate myself to continue along my personal journey with strength and fortitude.

My Story

I was born and raised in St. Paul Minnesota in the late 60s and through the 70s. My parents were strong role models in Judaic values, as well as tireless workers and leaders throughout the Jewish community in the Twin Cities. My three sisters and I grew up in a loving and closely knit family, and our bonds have grown ever closer especially since my “accident” in June 2010.

I attended the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Studies in Milwaukee for my four years of Yeshiva High School. There I developed close relationships with the Rabbis and lifelong friendships that have stood by me through thick and thin until this day. I continued in the post high-school yeshiva program (Beis Midrash) in the “Chafetz Chaim system”, eventually spending three years at the Jerusalem branch and 11 years at the Home Base in Queens. During those years I toiled in Torah learning (as well as completing a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and a Master’s degree in education) and I grew in my passion for spreading Torah wherever it may be most appreciated. During those years I took side jobs in tutoring, bar mitzvah lessons, leading youth groups, becoming a chaplain at a nursing home, substituting at yeshiva elementary schools and teaching a bit in the Chafetz Chaim high school. I also took part in teacher training programs offered by excellent hands-on yeshiva training colleges.

Armed with a deep commitment to teach Torah, and willing and ready to carry out this lofty ideal, I taught for two years in the New York area, gaining priceless experience and proficiency at touching the souls of young people. Meanwhile, my wife and I were looking to relocate to a smaller Jewish community where we might be “big fish in a small pond”, hoping that our entire family of seven would become integrated within the community and integral to its functioning. After exploring various opportunities, we fell in love with Ottawa, Canada. We knew at once that this was our home. The Jewish community was extremely warm and abundantly helpful in making us feel at home and truly valued. The year was 2002, my wife and I immediately became entrenched in teaching and changing the lives of our new community that drew us close, and we never looked back.

A glorious decade went by, constantly feeling enriched as we enriched the lives of others. Our family grew with the birth of three Canadians, we continually became influential in the educational fabric of the Ottawa community, and all we knew was success, achievement and blessing. I remember thinking that all of this was almost too good to be true. Alas, prophetic thinking.

Fast-forward to June 20, 2010. We were driving up from Rochester, New York after spending a lovely few days with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their family. We looked forward to returning home and settling the kids into the long summer vacation, and gearing up for a restful and productive break from school. We were happily chatting, singing and playing road games. As the sun began to set, I exited at a turnoff to pray Mincha (the afternoon prayer). Looking back, those moments spent in prayer were to be the last moments I would ever spend standing on my own two feet.

Feeling a bit fatigued, I asked my wife if she wouldn’t mind taking over the driving for a couple of hours. As always, she graciously agreed. So we switched spots, she taking the driver seat with me occupying the passenger position. This would end up being the way we would drive for the rest of our lives. Funny how things repeat themselves without our realizing.

So she continued driving into the night as I dozed and the seven children behind us fell into a blissful sleep. My eldest daughter was quietly speaking with my eldest son who remained behind in Ottawa. A regular and usual scene. Whoever would’ve thought differently?

Suddenly, I awoke with a start. Our faithful blue van began to screech to the left, into the oncoming traffic lane. I sluggishly reached towards the steering wheel to help redirect the van. My wife overcompensated, hurling the van towards the right. Again, she aggressively pounded the wheel all the way to the left. I don’t know how many times we sharply weaved back and forth, screeching loudly and leaving strong black marks on the highway. Apparently, my wife had seen the two green eyes of a deer staring at her through the windshield, beckoning her to join him in a deadly game of Russian Roulette. Indeed, the deer lost, as he darted back into the woods from whence he came.

I remember saying under my breath, “oh no, oh no”. Finally, the van skimmed a post beyond the oncoming traffic lane, causing the van to tumble and roll numerous times. It was during this horrifying somersaulting that I kept repeating, “Shema Yisrael”. Looking back, this just poured out of my lips automatically, without thinking to form the words. Eventually, the van ended its death roll in an upright position, abruptly giving an appearance of, “all is well”. But all was not well.

Thankfully, the eight others in the vehicle escaped with no or minor scratches and bruises, with my seven months pregnant wife sustaining the most worrisome injuries. But it was I, sitting in my wife’s original seat, who absorbed the brunt of the fury that night. The roof of the van was primarily crushed above my head, effectively breaking my neck and trapping me in the van.

The rest of my family unbuckled each other and climbed out through the bashed out windows, and they huddled together on the side of the highway. Amidst sobbing and crying out, they tearfully realized that they no longer had a working cell phone. Feeling hopeless and helpless, a man suddenly appeared, having stopped his car to see how he could help. It was he who called 911, and within 15 minutes a multitude of fire engines, ambulances and police cars quickly descended all around us, their sirens and red flashing lights cutting through the thick darkness. That kind man refused to give his name, and he disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. To this day my kids think of him as Eleyahu Hanavi.

Fast-forward three years. We now know that the daily challenges that come our way are guideposts along our journey. They are meant to teach us something. But the wisdom of three years has given us an understanding that our journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Unlike an illness, where the patient can see some light at the end of the tunnel and a return to their prior state of health, what we are facing is a non-ending new reality. Everything we had thought of as permanent and unchangeable, was suddenly ripped out from under us, in an unforgiving moment. Now, many things must be different, but we fight to keep them normal. We accept that things are different, but somehow they must stay the same. At the same time, many things that we took for granted before the accident we will never underestimate again.

So… Let’s get rolling! Let me enlighten you and brighten your life! Because our lives should be saturated with so much pleasure and happiness. We only need to access the tools that Hashem has given us.

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