About five years ago, Aharon Karov found himself fighting for his life after an explosive device in a Gaza Strip house detonated near his head, leaving him unconscious, with shrapnel piercing his entire body.
His role as an officer of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza War ended after only 10 days, but his battle toward recovery was just beginning.
Inspired by the outpouring of support he received from Jews all around the world as he healed, the 27-year-old decided to join Panim el Panim — an Israeli group that works to promote unity between secular and religious Jews. Now touring America as an ambassador for the group, he arrived in Center City on Feb. 24 to share his story through an interpreter to about 25 people gathered at Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Karov’s tale began on Jan. 2, 2009, when he was suddenly called back from army leave to participate in Operation Cast Lead, also known as the Gaza War, just five hours after getting married.
According to army protocol, soldiers on marriage leave are not obligated to return to their units except in a war situation, and Cast Lead was delegated only as an official operation. But after a discussion with his new wife, Tzvia, they agreed he should voluntarily report for duty.
“I was responsible for 30 soldiers, and there was no way I was going to abandon them when they needed me most,” he said.
Just over a week later, Karov was clearing out the second floor of a house in the Gaza Strip when a rigged explosive collapsed the entire building into a pile of rubble. Other soldiers quickly removed him from the ruins and a helicopter brought him to the nearest Israeli hospital. But his situation was dire. A medic on the scene had even reported prematurely that Karov was dead.
Doctors operating on Karov told his parents and new spouse that he had sustained injuries to his entire body, especially to his head, and had only hours left to live. Even if he survived, they said, the best-case scenario was that he would be left in a vegetative state.
Karov defied the odds by surviving the night, and again when he woke up from a coma 15 days later.
“When I say ‘wake up,’ I don’t mean how every person here normally wakes up,” Karov said. “To wake up for me meant to blink an eye, move a hand or a leg. But when something like this happens to you, you realize how important it is to do something so simple like moving your hand.”
After two months of bed rest, Karov began the painstaking process of re-learning how to use his body. He took miniscule strides, walking one step at a time and slowly building up his strength.
As an avid gastronome, he self-deprecatingly recounted his frustration at being forced to eat purees.
“I wanted to eat hamburgers or shwarma, but all I could eat was Gerber,” he joked.
Several months and operations later, Karov returned home, though the rehabilitation process would continue for years. He still struggles to concentrate for long periods and experiences memory lapses.
Still, his recovery was so miraculous that in November 2013, Karov defied the odds yet again by completing the New York City Marathon in a little over four hours — a respectable time for any runner, let alone someone who was declared dead five years before.
“I know the world can’t be perfect for everyone all the time, but my experience taught me an important life lesson,” he said. “If people look at the good things in their lives, however small, they can begin to imagine other areas where they want to improve and make things better.”
With that mantra in mind, Karov has taken on another fight — to help unify the Jewish people as a representative of Panim el Panim. The organization (not to be confused with a leadership program of the same name for American teens) attempts to break down divisions among secular, religious and fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel by encouraging open dialogue over issues such as Jewish identity and values.
Karov, who worked mainly with soldiers before his current speaking tour in the United States, paralleled Panim el Panim to a recent operation to repair lingering injuries on his nose. After the surgery, Karov said, he couldn’t understand why his nose was the only part of his body that wasn’t hurting. The surgeon explained that he had taken skin, bones and nerves from other parts of his body to recreate his nose. Similarly, Karov believes that the Jewish people are all connected one to another.
“When I was injured, Jews from all around the world prayed for my recovery, including Jews from Israel, New York, Philadelphia and France,” said Karov, whose story was widely reported by Israeli media. “That knowledge made me want to help influence the Jewish people to become unified.”
Karov now lives in the West Bank settlement of Ariel with his wife and their two children, and is studying human resources management at the local university.