NEW YORK - Gabriel Sassoon remembers the days before last year’s Yom Kippur like it was yesterday.
Only a few months have passed, after all. But he also remembers them as if it were an entirely different life, because it really was. He sat with his young boys and taught them to play the shofar. His life, his wife Gayle’s life, and the lives of their eight children were perfect.
Other than the fact that he wanted to live in Israel instead of Brooklyn, everything was good. Especially the Saturdays. On Saturdays they were always together.
Until that cold Friday last March, when Gabriel Sassoon left to spend Shabbat at a seminar in Manhattan, leaving the family alone for more or less the first time.
He called home before Shabbat started, spoke to his wife and kids, said Shabbat shalom (wishing them a “peaceful Shabbat”), and hung up.
Gabriel went to bed and didn’t know until morning that his life had been completely upended.
The house in Brooklyn went up in flames at about midnight. Seven of the children were killed: 16-year-old Eliane, the eldest; 13-year-old Rivkah; 12-year-old David;10-year-old Yehoshua; 8-year-old Moshe; 7-year-old Sarah; and 5-year old Yaakov.
Sassoon’s wife, Gayle, and their 15-year-old daughter Tziporah, their only surviving child, jumped into the yard out of two separate windows. Gayle was badly burned and fought for her life for weeks. Tziporah suffered medium-severity burns. Gabriel was tracked down on Saturday morning in a city synagogue. His world crumbled in a second.
The funeral ceremony, conducted by the haredi community in Brooklyn, won’t be forgotten for many years. Tens of thousands came to pay their final respect to a family that was almost entirely wiped out.
Above all, they’ll remember Gabriel’s eulogy. Without preparing any comments, without knowing what he was going to say, after refusing anti-depressant medication because he didn’t want to dull the pain, Sassoon tore the heartstrings of everyone present. Back then, shattered to pieces, he didn’t know it was just the beginning of his life’s new journey, one that would give it a whole new meaning.
But that’s what happened. Out of the ashes, a new life emerged for Gabriel – one that he never planned and certainly didn’t ask for, but he accepts them exactly as he accepts the devastation that has befallen him.
Very few people manage to survive after such a disaster. It took Sassoon 30 days to understand whether or not he even had a reason to go on. “I remember traveling to Israel to visit the graves 30 days after the disaster. I was staying with friends who don’t have children so that it wouldn’t hurt too much,” he says. “At the end of the month I felt that I needed to decide whether I wanted to live or not. I told myself, ‘get up, clip your nails, shave, and choose life. You still have work to do in this world.’”
“When I got back to New York, messages started coming in – young people contemplating suicide, sick people, people with money problems, relationship trouble. I turned from being a private family man to a public person. Suddenly I, still digesting the magnitude of my disaster, need to encourage others. People ask me how I get up each morning. I kid and say that I have to get up to pray Shaharit (a Jewish morning prayer), I’m a slave to the lord. I very quickly understood it’s also a destiny.”
Perhaps that’s just what you tell yourself, because otherwise how can you really go on?
"I tell myself there’s a reason I stayed here. The body’s life is temporary, the soul and spirit are eternal. Not everyone understands this, I know, not everyone understands how I go on like this. My biggest survival tool is that I am too small to decide my fate. I don’t run the world, the Almighty chose a different path for me. Before the fire I had another path: To be a father to charming and special children.
“He’s the one who chose to take them. They came to be with me and my wife and our daughter who survived, for the time the Almighty gave them. And now I understand that I have a different life path, That’s the job I have in this world today. The only way is to totally surrender, because otherwise you can’t go on after such a disaster.”
On Yom Kippur, Gabriel, Gayle, and Tziporah will mark six months since the disaster, whose cause is unclear to this day. It may have been a Shabbat hot plate, or candles, or an electrical short circuit. Sassoon, whom the family didn’t let identify the bodies for his own well-being, still hasn’t read the firefighters’ report either. Because it’s hard for him, but also, he says, because it won’t change anything.
Gayle managed to survive severe injuries and is going through a rehabilitation process that will take years, under the supervision of a nurse. Tziporah suffered less severe burns, and returned to school a few weeks ago. And Gabriel, he became no less than a guru to the haredi community in Brooklyn and beyond. A mentor for survivors of tragedies.
People come to him asking for advice on anything. His schedule is packed, he’s invited to give talks across the US and the world at large. He came back from London recently. A few weeks ago he was invited to give a TED talk. Sassoon promised he’d get back to them after the High Holy Days, when his schedule clears.
Gabriel Sassoon, 52, was born and raised in Japan, where his father was a textile merchant. When he was 14, his mother died of cancer. She was just 43. “Even though I came from a traditional home, that event turned everything around for me," he says. "I started to rebel, I didn’t believe in anything, I was very mad at the Almighty. My father sent me to boarding school in England, and later to university in America.”
“I studied business administration and psychology and went back to Japan to be with my father. I worked at a private American bank there – all day I dealt with millionaires, their whims, I saw how rich people are subjugated more and more by material goods and only want to make money, and my soul wanted spirituality. I didn’t understand the point in it. More planes, more fancy cars, and vacations how many times a year?” he says.
Sassoon continues, “I asked myself if this was happiness, understood that it wasn’t and decided to go on a spiritual quest. I went to Jerusalem and started studying at the Aish Hatorah yeshiva. I thought I’d sit there for a few months and ended up staying for five years. Things started to fall into place.”
He met Gayle through matchmaking in Jerusalem. “She lived in Brooklyn and came to Israel for a visit, and the rabbi said he thought we were compatible. We really did have a good connection, a similar outlook on how to make a home, and we knew this was it. I flew over to meet her family, and we got married in New Jersey. After the wedding we came back to Israel, lived in the Jewish Quarter (of Jerusalem) for 15 years, and all of the kids were born there. They were Jerusalemite kids, but people in Israel always told us they have a special kind of style, a combination of Jerusalemite and American,” Sassoon says.
The family arrived in Brooklyn just two and a half years ago, even though Sassoon wanted to stay in Israel. “It wasn’t my choice,” he says, “I didn’t want the children to grow up and study here. We were happy in Israel but my wife really wanted to come back to the United States, her entire family’s here and there was pressure. I felt very detached when we came here. It was also a type of disaster for me, the heart didn’t want to leave Israel.”
Do you sometimes struggle with the thought of what would have happened if you hadn’t left?
“It comes to mind, there’s anger, and then I give in to the Almighty’s will,” he says. “When a person submits himself to the Almighty, that’s when understanding begins. I suddenly understood what the Almighty wanted from me. He wants me to strengthen people. Everything I’ve learned all my life was really buying and building tools, and this tragedy came to me in order to test if I’m a believer only in theory, or in practice as well.”
To secular people, and perhaps not just them, Sassoon's words are hard to digest, almost inconceivable. Sassoon understands this, knows how it sounds from the outside and takes care not to slip into missionary behavior. At one of his lectures, a woman in the audience asked him how he manages to not commit suicide. “Killing yourself is the easiest thing to do,” he answered, “perservering and building yourself anew is the real test, that’s what’s called living.”
Another woman asked if he takes drugs, because otherwise how is it possible for him to go on, and even smile. “I do take a drug,” he said, “my drug is the Torah. The Torah can be the drug of life or the drug of death, depends on how you use it.”
When Gayle Sassoon woke up in the hospital, she was sure all of her children jumped out of the window with her. “What she remembered of the fire was that she took the little one, Ya'akov, in her hands and jumped with him,” says Gabriel, “she remembered hearing the kids yelling and trying to save them.”
How did you tell her?
“Slowly, with the help of psychologists and her mother. The first thing she said when they told her was ‘baruch dayan haemet’ (“blessed is the true judge”, a Jewish blessing on the dead). If you think I’m a strong and believing man, it’s nothing compared to my wife. She’s going through hard physical pain and a very, very difficult and exhausting rehabilitation process,” Sassoon says.
He continues, “There are days when she’s very weak, there are days of despair – but stronger than all that is her will to live. When she breaks down, I strengthen her, and when I break down, she strengthens me. She’s stronger than me because she also goes through terrible physical suffering.”
Gayle herself can only get through a few sentences before she gets tired.
“It’s difficult, it’s very difficult for me,” she says on the phone in a weak voice, “but the family helps and supports us, and Gabriel knows how to encourage me. He knows what to say, He takes me walking when I have the strength to go out for a bit.”
How is your daughter, Tziporah?
“She’s OK, she went back to school. She’s still going through treatments, and we know we need to be strong for her. My children wanted to live, so I have to live for them.”
What do you have to say about what’s happening around Gabriel?
“I’m not surprised. Even before the disaster, when Gabriel would speak at the boys' circumcision ceremonies or other celebrations, he would speak with a depth that regular people couldn’t digest. I’d always tell him, ‘Speak to the people’. I know his wisdom well, believe in his strength of spirit, and encourage him to go and lecture around the world, because I see how he affects others.”
And really, when you sit with Sassoon, there isn’t a quiet moment. The phone is constantly ringing and Sassoon answers everyone, speaks in a quiet, soft voice, and sometimes says “I’ll speak with Gayle and we’ll think about the correct advice together.”
Most of all, he’s always consoling those who console him. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” he says, “gratuitous love is the greatest thing in the world, but I don’t want pity. I’m willing to go out of my way to help any Jew and any person who needs mental help and encouragement. Wherever they invite me I’ll go. The Jewish people gave me and my family a big hug and a great feeling of solidarity.”
Sometimes the problems presented to him sound trivial next to what he’s been through, but Sassoon answers patiently.
“Who am I to judge?” he says. “Parents with kids who take drugs call, desperate bachelors looking for a match, people in all sorts of crises. They only ask me to give them tools, another way of thinking. I don’t work miracles. I don’t know where I get the answers, it comes out of me. I think people don’t believe I can go on living and they see me as some kind of inspiration, because if I go on living, anyone can.”
He continues, “Life teaches us to build even out of the rubble. But for that you need to completely submit to God, because if we start looking for material answers, how can you go on?”
Hannah Benjamin from Brooklyn is just one of the people who make sure to come to every one of Sassoon’s lectures.
“I take friends and go to hear him everywhere, share everything he says on WhatsApp,” she says. “I have a lot of experience in things having to do with rabbis, seminars, spiritual strengthening, and I see that Gabriel Sassoon has a very special aura. He has the qualities of the Lubavitcher rebbe. When he speaks, he’s calming, patient, projects spiritual peacefulness, his tone of voice is low and smart, and he has reserves of insights. His tragedy led him to change the lives of others.”
Today, the Sassoons and their daughter Tziporah live with Gayle’s parents in New Jersey. The move, Gabriel says, was very complicated.
“We spent time here with the kids on summer vacations and there are so many memories,” he says, “but each time the longings fill me and I want to hug and kiss them and I start crying, I flip a switch in my head and think of how much love we had and remember I have to live for them."
The Jewish holiday season is here. It must be especially burdensome.
“I can’t even imagine how it’ll be without them. Last year, they were with us for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we were a team. I taught the boys to play the shofar, even the little ones wanted to fast. I was so proud when they entered the synagogue and sat down to pray. During the holidays I was the happiest man in the world. It’s such a pleasant time to be with the family, a time to transmit history from father to son, from mother to daughter. All of the things we would do together before the holidays – shopping, cooking – none of that will be there anymore.”
“I sat down with my wife this week, each one on a different couch, and she said, ‘what emptiness, we’ve never sat down like this before the holidays. We were always busy with preparations and the kids were involved in everything. And now we’re sitting here doing nothing. What cessation.’”
What do you tell her in those moments?
“I try to turn the crying into a smile, I ask her to remember how beautiful they were.”
What will you do on Yom Kippur?
“I’ll be with my wife and daughter in New Jersey and pray there with the Syrian-Jewish community. I really wanted to go to Israel before the holidays, to go hug the gravestones, but my wife and daughter need me. We’ve become a new family, just three souls, and we need each other.”
Will your prayers this year be different?
“Totally. I’m a surrendered man. I’ve completely humbled myself to my creator. A person needs to understand they don’t determine anything here. Just look at what happened to my family. We don’t determine anything. Deep inside, everyone understands it. It’s not by happenstance that, on Yom Kippur, secular people also come to the synagogue, in fabric shoes, wearing white, fasting and praying. When I talk to people and explain to them what happened to me and what I do to cope, I see they start to understand and it helps them. It gives me true joy because I know exactly what my destiny is now.”
Do you sometimes ask yourself what would have happened if you were home that night, if you could have saved the kids?
"No. You don’t ask what would have been. There’s no if and if. The Almighty wanted my children next to him and he gave me a new job in life. It was the will of the Almighty. It is as simple as that.”