Monday morning, March 17, dawned with what every parent dreads: a message for Reed Altholz and Elyse Litt of Clark that their 20-year-old son Jake, studying for a semester in Australia, had been in a car accident.
“We got through to the hospital and they told us he was in a medically induced coma and there was some brain swelling,” Altholz recalled. Jake also had broken bones in his face.
It was the longest day of their lives, Altholz said, but by that evening — Tuesday morning Australian time — they were told that Jake was conscious, and they were able to speak to him. When they spoke again on Tuesday local time, he was in more pain, “probably because he was on less anesthetic,” but appeared to be doing well.
It took till Wednesday evening to get visas and tickets and put everything in order, and at last, on Saturday morning, they were able to see their son for themselves and confirm the good news. George Koulakis, who had been coordinating much of the support surrounding him, recorded the reunion and posted it on Facebook, showing the long, long hugs — with Elyse and Reed taking care to avoid the battered right side of their son’s face.
Jake, a junior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., near Boston, majoring in Near Eastern and Judaic studies, had arrived in Australia about five weeks before, and was loving the experience. His parents said they weren’t happy about his going so far away but had no choice with their “intrepid” son.
“If he’d been in Boston, we could have been with him within a few hours, but he’s on the other side of the world,” Altholz said.
Jake is in Townsville, a small coastal city two-and-a-half hours by air north of Sydney. Their initial estimate for two tickets was $5,000, and — aside from at least two weeks missed work time for Altholz, who is an attorney — they would face hotel, car rental, and other costs. That is when the Jewish community stepped in — at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative synagogue in Clark where they are longtime members; at Brandeis; and at the Chabad center in Townsville, where Jake had celebrated Purim the night before the accident — and with support from an on-line network of real and virtual friends.
The Jewish “network” was activated almost at once. Apparently, the Chabad members took turns spending time at Jake’s bedside. A Jewish eye doctor in Sydney heard about him through friends, and called her contacts in Townsville to check up on the young American.
Litt is a teacher of Israeli dance, something Jake and her husband have done with her. She runs classes she calls “exercise with ruach.” On Monday night, the couple couldn’t go to the class they usually attend together, but the dance community — in a sense — came to them. Fellow dancer Mason Resnick of Highland Park set up an appeal on GiveForward.com. Within a day, over 500 donations had come in, more than doubling the initial goal of $10,000. A percentage goes to the site; the rest goes to the family.
Cantor Stephen Stern, religious leader at Beth O’r/Beth Torah, where Litt leads a dance class and Altholz has served on the board and various committees, initially set up a fund there too.
“The response was wonderful, and it’s a testament to Jake and his parents,” Stern said, adding that he’s known Jake “since he was very little. He’s so friendly and full of life and energy; he’s loved by everyone.”
Altholz said, “The outpouring of love and affection has stunned us. It’s been humbling. I’m a lawyer — and it’s left me speechless.”
Added Litt: “The Jewish community has been absolutely astounding. The Israeli dance community has responded worldwide, and Chabad has been incredible.” She attributed much of that to Jake, whom she described as “very special.”
Given that he grew up playing three or four sports per season, Jake had been surprisingly injury-free until now, his father said. His only injuries had been a broken tooth in elementary school, and a thumb he jammed playing Frisbee at Brandeis. On the other hand, Altholz added, “I knew we were dealing with a very active kid when he was one, when we found him on top of the fridge.”
His parents said he chose to go to Australia to study because he had already been to Israel four times on his own. “He said he knows he’ll go there again,” Altholz said. For his semester abroad, “he said he’d like to go somewhere he didn’t expect to go back to again.”
On March 24, Jake had Koulakis video a thank-you from him, in his hospital bed, “up and about” and awaiting reconstructive surgery. “Sorry I’m not as pretty as usual,” he said, “but I just want to thank all of you for the immense love and support and prayers and messages pouring in from all over the world.”