Amichai Schindler lost his hands, but not his faith
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
INthe small shul inside Sheba Hospital’s rehabilitation wing sits a man whose hands have been blown off, and he and his chavrusa meet every day to study Maseches Yadayim.
To write these words about a grievously wounded man would — in any other context — be cheap melodrama. But not when it comes to Amichai Schindler. The starkness of that outline seems the only way to do justice to this father-of-six’s story.
On Simchas Torah morning, Hamas terrorists blasted their way into Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz on the Gaza border. They blew open the door to the bomb shelter where Amichai and his family were hiding. The explosion threw him clear across the room where he lay for the next two hours, his life ebbing away.
When Amichai woke up ten days later, he found that his smashed face had been rebuilt, but that his hands were gone forever.
And yet within days of beginning to breathe on his own again, the kollel graduate and social worker was back in the beis medrash — first figuratively, and then literally.
In parallel with the pain-racked regimen of operations and physical therapy, he began an intense program of spiritual therapy, from three minyanim a day to in-depth Torah learning — beginning with an unusual choice for a severely wounded terror survivor.
“Rav Chaim Kanievsky told someone who lost his arms to learn Maseches Yadayim,” says Amichai of the highly technical tractate that deals with halachic purity, not anatomy, “so I decided to do the same.”
The utter genuineness of those words — as if the most natural response to losing one’s arms is to channel the pain into an out-of-the-way part of the Mishnah — is what sets Amichai, and his story, apart.
In a hospital full of people courageously dealing with lost limbs and shattered bodies, Amichai Schindler and his calm, faith-filled optimism have become a magnet. His room in the IDF rehabilitation center plays host to a revolving cast of guests, from chassidic rebbes to celebrities. They’re all drawn by word of the heroism playing out in Room 14.
“It’s scarcely of our generation, like something out of a Tales of Tzaddikim,” says Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, head of Ayelet Hashachar, an outreach organization. Rabbi Ra’anan is the original founder of the shul in Schindler’s kibbutz, and during the last two months he’s spent countless hours at the latter’s bedside. “Here’s a man who has only one finger and yet his concern now is how to use it to light the Chanukah candles.”
If you spend a few minutes at Amichai Schindler’s side, though, you’ll quickly learn that his personal story is only one part of a wider miracle — that of his kibbutz’s survival.
Located on the tri-border of Israel, Gaza, and Egypt, Kerem Shalom ought to have suffered the same gruesome fate as other frontline kibbutzim like Be’eri and Nachal Oz, which were utterly destroyed, and whose residents were massacred or carted off to captivity.
Yet despite being breached in three places by a heavily armed Hamas force numbering in the hundreds, only two residents of the kibbutz fell. They were Amichai’s friends and members of the Kitat Konenut, the village’s own rapid-response team, who went to the aid of the besieged Schindler family.
Over the course of six hours, the hopelessly outgunned team held off the marauders virtually unaided. By the end of the battle — which the IDF belatedly joined — the only house in Kerem Shalom to be touched was the Schindler homestead, at the kibbutz’s edge.
Standing outside the bullet-pocked front of the house six weeks later, his armored jeep idling in the background, rapid-response team head Eliyah Ben-Shimol shakes his head, still unable to digest the scale of what happened on the grassy area around him.
“We were 11 men, with just six rifle magazines each to defend against a massive force armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, and yet this is the only house that they breached,” he says, reaching for a metaphor that is both convenient and utterly fitting.
“The survival of Amichai, his family, and the rest of Kerem Shalom is nothing short of a Chanukah miracle. It’s a latter-day story of the many falling into the hands of the few.”
Faith on the Frontiers
If you had driven down the Gaza border on Chol Hamoed Succos this year, you’d have discovered a region in which a thriving agricultural economy became host to a surprising resurgence of tradition.
The kibbutzim of the area — many of them founded by the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement — are historic institutions. Their founders had been the poster children of labor Zionism: tanned farmer-soldiers, defending Israel’s frontiers with the hoe and the rifle.
Back in the 1950s, the Gaza border was an especially dangerous place to be. Egypt — then the Strip’s overlord — regularly sent fedayeen guerillas to infiltrate the new country, and Israel in turn retaliated with commando raids into Gaza.
In fact, it was in Kibbutz Nachal Oz — one of the hardest hit sites on October 7 — that Moshe Dayan gave a speech in 1956 that was seen as definitive in Israeli history. Responding to the murder of the kibbutz’s security officer, Ro’ee Rotberg, who had been killed, mutilated, and dragged back to Gaza by Palestinian marauders, Dayan talked of the need to live with one hand on the plow and one on the trigger.
“We are the generation of settlers,” he said, “and without a steel helmet and the maw of a gun, we won’t be able to plant a tree or build a house.”
But by the 1990s, the pioneering spirit of the Israeli left was a thing of the past. Amid the sandy soil of the Gaza Envelope region, the kibbutzim were slowly graying. The young generation swapped cherry tomatoes for computer code and headed for Tel Aviv, to build a liberal, tech-oriented start-up scene. Proximity to the Gaza Strip and constant mortar attacks as a fact of life made the area unattractive.
At the same time, the kibbutzim’s once-deep-seated antipathy for religion was waning as Israel evolved, and so into the void left by the generational shift, Jewish tradition started to find a cautious welcome.
In Kerem Shalom, the older, secular residents were joined by a “gar’in Torani,” a cohort of young families from the national-religious sector. Part of a wave of similar initiatives across secular parts of Israel, intended to shore up an area’s Jewish character, Kerem Shalom’s gar’in was also strategic, to reinforce a flagging frontier outpost. Relations between the kibbutz’s old guard and new religious residents, who were from Eilon Moreh, a yishuv in the Shomron, proved harmonious. Along with a fierce frontiersman spirit, the newcomers brought with them the high standards of Torah learning of the burgeoning chardal — or chareidi-national — movement that has become prominent in recent years.
That was how Amichai and Avital Schindler found themselves within a literal stone’s throw of Gaza five years ago. Their modest bungalow overlooked a grassy area, at the end of which stood high concrete blast walls, with colorful murals symbolizing peace — a nod to the left-leaning dreams of the kibbutz’s older inhabitants.
Fast-forward, and by Simchas Torah 2023, the Schindlers, blessed with six children, were living an intense and rich spiritual life in the shadow of Hamas-run Gaza. Amichai — practicing as a social worker — continued to spend significant time learning in his old kollel in nearby Naveh, a village founded by those uprooted from their homes in 2005’s Gaza Disengagement. He also served as gabbai at Kerem Shalom’s shul, founded by Ayelet Hashachar’s Rabbi Ra’anan, although the two didn’t know each other.
It was a good life: one of pioneering and spiritual ambitions for the future, such as finally buying a pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. And then came Simchas Torah.
Barbarians at the Gate
Like Jews all over the world, who celebrated Yom Tov blissfully unaware of the impending tragedy, the small Torah community of Kerem Shalom went to sleep after a night of spirited dancing around the kibbutz’s shul, the small size of the crowd no dampener on the celebration of the Torah.
Even their exposed position on the fence was no more a worry than usual; like the dull throb of a wounded limb, it was an irritant that was simply factored into the background of life on Israel’s most dangerous border.
“Violent Palestinian demonstrations at the fence began on the second day of Rosh Hashanah,” says Eliyah Ben-Shimol, the kibbutz’s security chief. “The demonstrations lasted two and a half weeks, but the IDF’s red lights didn’t turn on. Today we know that these demonstrations were part of a plan to lull the army into complacency ahead of the attack. On the Friday before Simchas Torah, the brigadier in charge of the area sat in my succah and told me that his family was coming for the chag. Clearly, he had no sign of an impending assault, certainly not one of this magnitude.”
At 6:30 on Simchas Torah morning, the battle for Kerem Shalom began. Amid a massive barrage of rockets and mortars that raked Gaza area kibbutzim and army bases that would be crucial for the area’s defense, Hamas terrorists breached the border fence and headed for the yishuvim to start their murderous rampage.
“Although red alerts are fairly common in the area, by the third alert I knew that something unusual was happening,” says Ben Shimol. “I issued a notice to the residents to enter their emergency rooms, and to our rapid-response team to get their equipment. We had four soldiers of the Nahal brigade stationed in the kibbutz, and so I also asked them to come to the meeting point at the center of the village.”
At that stage, all Ben Shimol knew was that there had been a terrorist incursion into Israel, but he didn’t know where. Even the IDF war room responsible for the region was blind, unaware of unfolding events and unable to give the isolated defenders any guidance.
It wasn’t long before the defense chief knew more, though. Minutes later, Ben Shimol received a call from someone who lived near the settlement’s perimeter wall. He’d heard voices in Arabic and saw terrorists standing on the towering defensive wall. Ben Shimol got there quickly with the soldiers and took on the terrorists, killing them.
One of the soldiers who was wounded in the encounter was evacuated, and the others remained to guard the area, while the rest of the defense team spread out at strategic locations across Kerem Shalom.
The respite proved brief. Within a few minutes, the defenders heard the distinct note of Kalashnikov fire, and began engaging another seven attackers attempting to breach the first line of houses.
Besides the tragic outcome, one of the eerie things about the battle for the Gaza area kibbutzim is the way that real-time footage enables one to follow the unfolding carnage as if you were there. It was one of the first livestreamed wars. Equipped with body cams, whose footage was recovered by the IDF, the Hamas killers documented their triumphs, their cries of blood-lust and Allahu Akbar, the gun battles with the defenders, and often — their own deaths.
That footage gives some sense of Ben Shimol’s building fear as the scale of the attack became clear.
“We deployed around the houses while exchanging fire with six terrorists, until we eliminated them. The seventh got away, but the members of the emergency squad who remained in the center of the settlement eliminated him. At this stage we began to understand that this was a big event and that there would be no help from the army.”
For years, the IDF’s security concept for the area had put decreasing emphasis on the local defense teams, and so the latter had been starved of weapons, training and resources. The belief was that the army’s security blanket was so effective, that at the most, the locals would only need to hold off attackers for a few minutes.
But as Ben Shimol heard over the radio that the IDF regional command center was under attack, he understood that Kerem Shalom was on its own.
The attacks intensified. There was the sound of gunfire in the area of the chicken coops at the kibbutz’s edge, and when the team deployed to face the new threat, Ben Shimron saw on the security camera that a group of terrorists were preparing to break into the settlement. At the same time, exchanges of fire began at different points on the defensive wall, and a lookout identified terrorists on motorcycles who had reached the kibbutz’s back gate.
In danger of being overwhelmed by sheer numbers, the defense chief called the local army command post again to demand help. This time it was forthcoming: Ben Shimron was told that a helicopter gunship was on its way.
Like the US Cavalry riding to the rescue, the air force pilot — a reservist identified only as Major L. — whose voice appeared over the communications net, was just in time. From his bird’s-eye view of the battlefield, he told Ben Shimol that he could only see one of two Hamas men around the solar panels outside the kibbutz fence, not the masses he’d been warned about.
“Just fire on them — you’ll see,” Ben Shimol urged him.
The pilot opened fire at the solar array, and broke out in startled exclamation.
“There are 50 of them!” he said.
Loaded with anti-tank missiles and a nose-mounted chain gun, the Apache gunship was equipped to take on large numbers of the terrorists, and the pilot began to hunt down terrorists, clearing the field beneath him. Those who evaded him fled back to the Gaza Strip and some made it to the other side of the kibbutz.
In a subsequent radio interview, Major L. shared his shock about the encounter. “What happened at Kerem Shalom was the most significant thing that I did over the course of two days’ fighting,” he said. “Firing at a kibbutz inside the country is something I never imagined that I’d have to do. I was one of the first helicopters airborne, and arrived before 10 a.m. at Kerem Shalom. It was a very complex event. No one understood what was happening, but quickly I realized that it was just a question of visually scanning the area.
“In retrospect, I know that we prevented a mass break-in to the kibbutz. That is why, for me, those minutes were the most defining of the whole battle. In the places we reached, we made a significant move that saved many peoples’ lives. Where we didn’t, the situation was a disaster.”
While the Apache flew off for another 20 hours of continuous combat, rearming in the Negev’s Ramon Base before sortieing out again, the battle for Kerem Shalom was far from over. Once again, the locals were on their own.
Defending the Door
Like Eliyah Ben Shimol, the Schindlers were awakened in shock on Simchas Torah morning by the twin sounds of a heavy rocket barrage accompanied by the disembodied sound of the red alert announcer over the still-dark night air.
“I knew that it was too dangerous to go to shul, so I began to daven at home,” recalls Amichai Schindler. While he remained outside to see what was happening, his wife took the children — ages one to ten — into the safe room to avoid the rocket fire. Although not a member of the security team, Amichai had a gun permit, but for some reason he wasn’t holding it when the terrorists broke into his home.
“That probably saved my life,” he says, “because had I taken on such heavily armed men with my pistol, I would have died. This way, I survived.”
It was sometime mid-morning that the denouement occurred: Amichai Schindler heard voices in Arabic near his house and understood that the worst was about to happen. He called Ben Shimol and retreated into the safe room. Behind him on a bed were his wife Avital and their six children, saying Tehillim and sheltering in fear, while Amichai held the door shut.
As many others discovered on that black day, the reinforced doors were meant to be closed against rocket fire, not locked against intruders.
In panic, he heard the Hamas terrorists in his salon, and then attempting to wrench the door open.
“We’re from Tzahal,” they yelled, trying to convince him to open the door.
But Schindler wasn’t deceived. “I’m armed and I’ll shoot if you come in,” he yelled back, bluffing.
“One’s mind goes into emergency mode in a case like this,” says Amichai. “The only thing going through it was an overwhelming urge to protect my wife and children. I thought that if I could keep the door closed, then we’d be safe, because we never dreamed that they could burn the house down with us inside.”
It was an unequal struggle, given Schindler’s slim frame, even as fear lent him a madman’s strength. But unlike other cases where the attackers forced their way in, these Hamas men had apparently been convinced by Schindler’s blood-curdling yell, and decided to take a different tactic. They regrouped in the salon, and set up a heavy explosive charge to breach the reinforced door.
From the salon windows, the invaders saw armed Israelis in the distance, part of Ben Shimol’s defense team. While some terrorists shot at the rapid-response team, others detonated the charge outside the Schindlers’ refuge, and waited for the smoke to clear.
“There was a big boom, and the room filled with acrid smoke,” Avital Schindler takes up the narrative. “I had a ringing sound in my ears but when the smoke cleared, I saw that Amichai had been blown to the floor, where he lay bleeding. He lay still and I thought that he was dead, but I couldn’t come toward him because the terrorists were just outside about to finish us off.”
Those fears were well-founded. It would have taken just a quick grenade or rapid burst of AK-47 fire to finish the job. But miraculously, the terrorists didn’t come for Avital or the children.
Distracted by the relief force, they instead went to engage Ben Shimol and his men. Two of the latter were Amichai Veitzen and Yedidiah Raziel, friends of Amichai Schindler from yeshivah and chavrusas from kollel. They approached the Schindler house hoping to save their friend’s family, and died in a gunfight with the Hamas terrorists inside.
Veitzen’s WhatsApp messages to his wife over the course of the morning provide a glimpse of faith and courage under fire. “Dance with the kids,” he tells his wife calmly in one voice note. “Daven with them and give them whatever candies that we have in the house. That’s your mission.”
Later, more urgency is audible in his voice as he urges his wife, “Don’t let them see what’s happening outside the window. We’ll survive — Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker.”
Fight for Life
The burst that killed Veitzen and Raziel was one of the last acts of those Hamas terrorists on earth, because Ben Shimol’s relief force finally arrived.
“The terrorists left the house, probably to burn it,” he says. “At the last moment before they set fire to the house, we managed to eliminate them. Later we found their bag with kidnapping gear, such as handcuffs.”
Inside the blasted strong room, Avital Schindler heard the Ivrit of her neighbors, and at the same time, a groan from her husband, lying mangled on the floor.
“He’s alive!” she shouted. “Quick, take him out!”
Then she turned to her shocked children. “Say Tehillim!” she told them. “Only that can save Abba.”
Amichai was stretchered away as his wife and children rained tearful prayers, not knowing whether their bloodied father would ever come back again. “Be strong,” they yelled to their unconscious father. “We need you.”
They were hustled across the yard to a neighbor. Everywhere, bodies were strewn and cars burned from the impact of the bullets and the grenades that had been fired. The firefight was still ongoing: Amichai’s friend and chavrusa Yair Vizner was peppered by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade (he would end up in the same hospital, where the two continue to learn).
But as Amichai Schindler’s life ebbed away, the war zone surrounding him made evacuation very difficult.
“No rescue helicopter could land, because the small holes at the bottom of the concrete walls all around were like firing ports,” Ben Shimol remembers the desperate scene. “Terrorists were crouching on the ground outside and firing at us constantly. When a medic started to give Amichai first aid, a grenade landed nearby, and we all had to duck for cover, but it didn’t explode. It was only at 12:30 p.m. — after six hours of fighting — that the first tank turned up to engage the Hamas forces still massing outside.”
With the roads out of the kibbutz impassable, it took until Motzaei Yom Tov – six hours later — for the critically wounded man to make it to hospital.
First, he was patched up in a nearby yishuv, where a makeshift field hospital had been set up by local doctors. A tourniquet was placed on his arms below the elbows — saving the arms, and making future use of prosthetics much more feasible.
But for one medic, Eliyah Goldstein, the struggle to save Amichai Schindler became personal. Several hours after the attack, Amichai was gray-faced — on the verge of leaving This World. But when the medic heard the patient’s name, he determined to do everything in his power to save him.
“Amichai Schindler?” he said before the stretcher was airlifted out to Sheba Hospital near Tel Aviv. “I treated his brother after he’d been hit in a terror attack 13 years ago. I couldn’t save him then, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that his mother doesn’t have to grieve again.”
“All He Wants Are Tefillin”
A few days after Simchas Torah, with Amichai Schindler in a coma amid a series of lifesaving operations to rebuild his face and save what was left of his arms, a visitor walked into the Eilat hotel housing evacuees from Gaza-area kibbutzim to offer his help.
As founder of several shuls in the largely secular communities in the region, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, head of the Ayelet Hashachar kiruv organization, was friendly with many locals. It was only natural that when the devastated October 7 survivors were bundled into hotels in the resort, he go to lend a hand.
But as he worked his way around the lobby, drawing up a list of items that the refugees — a mix of secular and religious — were missing, Rabbi Ra’anan had an encounter that even weeks later, he can’t stop repeating.
“Perhaps you can help,” one young religious woman told him. “I want a pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.”
Taken aback by the utterly unexpected request, the rabbi replied that he didn’t even own a pair himself, to which the woman answered with a short outline of her story.
“It’s for my husband. He’s lost both hands and he’s fighting for his life. But I know that if he wakes up, the most meaningful thing that I can give him is something that he’s been dreaming of for years: a pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.”
A week later, Amichai Schindler woke up and his wife’s prediction proved accurate. It was a Friday, almost a week after the attack, and as he was wheeled out of surgery, a group of Vizhnitz chassidim turned up to sing and play music for the patients of the rehabilitation hospital.
Amichai himself drifted back into unconsciousness, but his family’s spirits were lifted. On Sunday, he finally woke up, and within a week, a steady stream of visitors — including prominent rabbanim — began to come.
Some, such as Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, were brought by Rabbi Ra’anan, who discovered that the avreich from Kerem Shalom was a devotee of Rav Zilberstein’s shiurim. When an air raid siren sounded during his visit, the Bnei Brak posek told those present that there was really no need to seek shelter. “We’re in the presence of a tzaddik,” he said of the man lying in bed, next to his new pair of tefillin.
As word got out of the incredible story of the patient in Room 14, the curtained-off cubicle became an unlikely meeting place of different worlds. “We’ve had to coordinate visiting hours so that the Vizhnitzer Rebbe wouldn’t cross paths with a secular singer,” smiles Ariel Schindler, Amichai’s brother.
The secret of Amichai Schindler seems to be a rare combination of optimism, drive, and faith. “There’s no logical explanation for why the terrorists didn’t finish us off,” he says. “It’s just because Hashem decided.”
Having sat by his bedside for many weeks now, his mother Sigalit reflects on his determination to rebuild. “He’s very tenacious,” she says. “Whatever he sets his mind to, he’ll do. But why is he here? In the merit of his children’s Tehillim.”
Two months after he was left to die on the floor of his own safe room, Amichai Schindler returned to his own house. He and his wife gazed in disbelief at the massive rupture in the armored door behind which they had sheltered, and thanked Hashem that — unlike so many others — they had survived.
“I stood there and made a brachah, ‘she’asah li neis bamakom hazeh,’ because what happened to us was above nature. I know that such an escape obligates me in so many ways.”
It’s a feeling that his wife shares as well. “As soon as he woke up, I told Amichai that we had been saved for a purpose,” Avital says. “He doesn’t remember what happened after the blast. But every scenario should have ended in his death. The fact that he survived means that he has a mission in life.”
In the short term, that means getting well again. The surgeries have ended, but physical therapy is the order of the day to regain use of wasted muscles and learn to use both face and arms again.
“Amichai always does what’s necessary without complaining, and now that means rehabilitation,” says Avital Schindler. “Both he and the children need to get used to him being an amputee.
“We need patience and faith. In the shelter, as Amichai was lying there, I told the children that they should imagine what the seudat hoda’ah will look like. Now, incredibly, we can look forward to that day.”
The faith that his wife mentions is something that’s almost palpable about Amichai — and others have noticed.
“On Shabbat I joined my family and the rest of the kibbutz in Eilat. There was a nonreligious man there who said, ‘It’s not fair. You have faith, so everything that happens to you in life is part of a plan. We seculars are stuck. We’re on our own.’ ”
“That’s the message that I’m taking with me,” says Amichai Schindler. “Recuperation is painful and hard, but Hashem gives strength, he gives happiness. We should never be broken by what happens to us, because it’s all from Above.”
The couple plans to return to Kerem Shalom, because of their belief in protecting the borders of the Land. Still unclear is how many will join them, although security chief Eliyah Ben Shimol is optimistic.
This place is nearly untouched, he says, gesturing to the perimeter fence whose breaches have been repaired.
“It depends on whether Hamas is wiped out in Gaza, which will give the residents confidence to come back. In the meantime, we mourn the loss of our dear friends who fell, and absorb the great miracles that we saw. Like a latter-day Chanukah neis, over 200 terrorists were stopped by 11 men.”
As for the Schindler family, he says, their personal miracle was measured in seconds. “Had the Hamas terrorists turned around for an instant and lobbed a grenade into their safe room, they would have been finished.
“From beginning to end it was a miracle — but a bittersweet one,” says Eliyah Ben Shimol. “When I look around Kerem Shalom, my heart simultaneously bleeds and rejoices.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)
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