Rabbi Yehuda Simes, a beloved educator in Ottawa’s Jewish community, died of pneumonia on February 7 at Queensway Carleton Hospital. He was 49.
Rabbi Simes had been an immensely popular Judaic studies teacher at the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) and at Torah High – an institution he co-founded – when a tragic highway accident on June 20, 2010 near Orleans, N.Y., left him a quadriplegic.
Undeterred by his new reality, Rabbi Simes created a website, “Rolling Rabbi” – https://rollingrabbi.wordpress.com – where he blogged about his life and delivered insights about Torah and Judaism that inspired readers in Ottawa and around the world.
Just 10 months after the accident – after three months in intensive care and six months in a rehabilitation hospital before returning home to his wife and children – Rabbi Simes surprised students at OJCS when he visited the school and delivered a speech.
At the school, Rabbi Simes was temporarily amongst the people whose lives he brightened with every lesson he taught and who brought him so much joy. He would return to OJCS and Torah High to teach as often as he could in what would be unforgettable moments for his students who would hang on every word.
In the years since the accident, Rabbi Simes also visited Montreal, Toronto, New York and even Israel to speak with and inspire young people.
Bram Bregman, as then NCSY director, co-founded Torah High with Rabbi Simes in 2006 and spoke at his funeral service, held in the evening on February 7, at Congregation Beit Tikvah.
Bregman attributed the growth and success of Torah High to Rabbi Simes’ tremendous teaching abilities and his down-to-earth nature, which touched the lives of everyone who attended his classes.
“Rabbi Simes believed that you don’t deserve respect as a teacher, but that you must earn it. He treated every student with respect, and would take a real interest in their life by asking genuine questions, and valuing what they said. He built relationships with his students, and he and [wife] Shaindel would have entire classes over to their house for a Yom Tov or Shabbos meal; and they often invited parents to come as well,” Bregman said.
Bregman said he was moved by how Rabbi Simes coped with his personal tragedy and by his kindness, undying optimism and immensely positive outlook on life.
“He didn’t ask ‘Why did this happen to me?’ but, rather, ‘What does God want of me now?’ He would convey that God does not send a struggle without the tools to overcome them. This was Rabbi Simes,” he said.
Rabbi Howard Finkelstein of Congregation Beit Tikvah, director of Judaic Studies at OJCS, and a long-time friend of Rabbi Simes, said his relationship with Rabbi Simes was “so much deeper than the ordinary rabbi-congregant relationship” and that he had “true admiration for who he was and what he did.
“When he could no longer communicate through word of mouth, he used his eyes and his smile and they were communicating a love of Torah and a love of Yiddishkeit.
“He didn’t have to say anything; he just had to be there. He was living
Torah. You don’t need words, you just need actions, and this is a person who was living actions. Just his very essence of being there was an inspiration to people.”
I was one of Rabbi Simes’ students at OJCS both before and after the accident left him paralyzed.
While he may have been in a wheelchair, he was still Rabbi Simes. There was virtually no difference in his essence before or after the tragedy. Nothing, not even a life-altering highway accident, could take away his love, respect and adoration for God, his family, his students and the Jewish people as a whole.
Rabbi Simes always had a contagious optimism and indescribable joie de vivre, truly cherishing every moment.
While Rabbi Simes may be gone, he will be remembered by the thousands whose lives he touched, including mine.
Rabbi Simes is survived by his wife, Shaindel Simes, who is also an educator, and by their nine children. His burial took place in New York.