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Haunting memories of the tragic Hillel bus accident

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Seven memorials made of metal symbolizing trees stand in an area of the bais medrash (study room) in the Lawrence building that houses the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway lower school.

In the corner, affixed to the wall is another part of the memorial. This one lists seven names: Jonathan Elstein, 13, of Far Rockaway; Bonnie Eisenberg, 11, Belle Harbor; Lisa Gerstman, 11, Valley Stream; Nancy Jacobson 11, Woodmere; Spencer Jaffe, 12, Lawrence; Randee Lewis, 13, Woodmere; and Randi Press, 11, Cedarhurst.

On July 15, 1970 a bus carrying campers, counselors and other staff from Hillel Country Day School summer camp and a bus driver rolled over a 50-foot embankment in eastern Pennsylvania — those seven young people were killed and 52 were injured — in some cases severely. While the aftermath was painful the immediate outpouring of sympathy brought two regions separated by roughly 120 miles together for a brief time.

It was supposed to be a two-day trip to the Amish region and three towns, including a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory. Hillel was a Jewish day school in Lawrence that eight years later would merge with the Hebrew Institute of Long Island in Far Rockaway to form HAFTR. The bus was a motor coach. It left Lawrence that Wednesday morning.

“There was a problem with the bus that morning,” said Joyce Liebeskind, 68, then junior camp counselor Joyce Canvasser. “The trip was a couple of hours; it was raining lightly. It was the perfect storm; the tires were bald.”

“The bus had bald tires, it was raining, the bus went around a curve it tumbled down the embankment,” said Joanne Ingerman, 61, then 11-year-old camper Joanne Sherman in the Apollo group. “Some passengers were ejected through the windows.”

“After the bus plunged down the embankment, rolling over a number of times, ejecting and then landing on some of its passengers, passing motorists stopped on the highway, many just to look,” said Mindy Haar, 62, then camper Mindy Myers. “Truck drivers, however, were the immediate responders. Running down to the bus and trying to help as many of us as possible. Though there was a risk of the bus catching fire, they seemed not to hesitate with their impromptu rescue, getting there in a crucial 10 minutes before professional help arrived.”

The day night before the trip, Leesa Schafer nearly 12 then said her sister, Jill, had a premonition that the bus was going to crash. “My mother made her get on the bus,” Leesa, 62, said, adding that her three closest friends were Gerstman, Jacobson and Lewis. After a rest stop, Gerstman asked Schafer to switch seats, putting Gerstman by the window.

“I was sitting in the middle of the bus with two girls, one I believe was on my lap,” Liebeskind said. “I started to fall asleep. I was called by another child on the driver’s side in the front of the bus. I flew through the window.”

“We were actually tumbling down the mountainside,” Ingerman said, “I spent the entire summer in the hospital. Had a fractured left ankle, bone through the skin. Had an infection because of the dirt, [the doctors] could not set [my] fractured right arm.”

“I fell to the bottom of the embankment, saw the bus fall on my arms and my head was still out from under the bus, I was the last person to be rescued,” Liebeskind said. “After the bus crash, freon from the bus’s AC flew in my face and I passed out for a while. When I came to the pain I can’t describe for you. I felt movement and extra pressure. They jacked up the bus and pulled from my arms. I had compound fractures, wounds on my arms, my legs were mashed.”

“Somehow I became wedged between my seat and the wall of the bus, laying sideways in a pool of glass, having trouble breathing,” Haar said. “ I remember the truck driver’s face as he told me he’d get me out, I’d be OK and then with his fellow drivers got tools and unbolted the seat of the bus. I was in critical condition and in intensive care but fully conscious and aware. As those of us who were hospitalized heard about the deaths of our fellow campers, no matter how serious our injuries, we knew we were the lucky ones.”

The communities came together

The bus accident occurred in New Smithville 10 miles west of Allentown. Most of the injured, including Ingerman, were taken to Allentown General Hospital, and others to Sacred Heart Hospital now St. Luke’s Sacred Heart Campus, also in Allentown) and Osteopathic Hospital (now UPMC Pinnacle Community Osteopathic in Harrisburg). “The Jewish community of Allentown housed my parents and provided kosher food,” she said.

Altruistic spirit went into overdrive a decade earlier than the debut of the famous state advertising slogan, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” The plaque that celebrates the appreciation of those Hillel families remains affixed to a wall in Allentown’s Temple Beth El synagogue.

“Temple Beth El and the entire Jewish community came together,” said Diane Silverman, 87, an Allentown resident who did much of the food shopping for those meals. “The Orthodox needed kosher food. The people started to cook kosher meals. Little by little as those parents came we served more and more meals. People from every walk of life came to the temple to help.”

Silverman was shopping one day with her son Steve who was then 4. “He was putting food in the cart and said, ‘this is for the children.’” She remembers “how beautifully the community came together,” and recalled a long ago trip to New Orleans when she said she was from Allentown and another woman gasped. They spoke and the woman said her daughter was injured in the accident and remembered how “nice and kind” everyone was.

“We made meals and took them to the synagogue, I did mine at home,” said Manya Stein, 82, who lives in Bethlehem, six miles from Allentown. “The community was there for them. It was so many years ago. We took care of as much as we could do. The community here always comes together.”

“I remember a great many mortalities, casualties,” said Ethel Melamut, 87, an Allentown resident. “The people came into Temple Beth El, it had a kosher kitchen. The women cooked ad prepared food and members of the community housed the people.”

Max Wagner, then president of the Hillel school, said he has vivid memories of what happened after learning of the accident. He, his wife, Audrey and now nephew by marriage, Ben Brafman, drove to Allentown as his niece, Lynda Bienenfeld, was injured.

Her pelvis and several vertebrae were shattered, Lynda, 68, also remembered that her glasses were broken in the crash. “The wonderful people in Allentown,” she said, learned who her optometrist was in Lawrence and had a replacement pair the next day. Her fiancé, Ben Brafman, came with only the clothes he was wearing. “The kind people bought him a set of clothes,” she said. “They made sure we had kosher food and snacks, and arranged a place for Shabbos services.”

A heart wrenching mix-up occurred at Sacred Heart Hospital, Schafer said. Officials told her parents she had died thinking she was Lisa Gertsman. Then they saw Schafer’s nameplate neckless. “I had survivor’s guilt for [nearly] 20 years, Schafer said. “In 1981, I wrote a screenplay ‘Nerve Endings’ dealing with my survivor’s guilt. It helped put life into perspective and I could get on with my life the best I can for her (Gertsman).”

Remembering that the Allentown Jewish community “opened their hearts and their homes for the Hillel families,” Wagner recounted that Hillel families purchased three kidney dialysis machines (very new technology then) one for each hospital and few months later after the last patient was discharged he, Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman (founder of Hillel and Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence) and a few other community members presented the machines and honored the local law enforcement officers and elected officials that offered their help through the ordeal.

What was lost, what was gained

Shalom Maidenbaum lost his pal. “Spencer was my best friend we played together every day, he two blocks from me,” said Maidenbaum, 62, who grew up in and still lives in Lawrence. “It was horrible, I was all of 12 years old. We played ball and watched the Little League teams when we couldn’t play.”

Originally from Dayton, Maidenbaum said Jaffe, “was always smiling, very charming,” “he had this out of town friendly quality compared to New York,” and many people thought of Jaffe as their best friend.

Saying this is a “very hard topic” to speak on, Maidenbaum said he did not go on the trip as he was in Israel at the time. “Any child dying is a huge loss,” he said. “This was a neighborhood tragedy. It changed everything. There was never a trip again that parents didn’t check the bus tires.”

Risë Kaufmann, née Davidoff, was 10 and her father, Gilbert, was on the Hillel board. “I remember my dad coming home and whispering to my mother, we didn’t learn what happened right away,” she said. “I remember it was very sad. Big trips I never wanted to do. It took a long time.”

Maidenbaum said with many of the surviving children severely injured accommodations were made so they could learn from home, including setting up television monitors years before home computers became ubiquitous.

Schafer remembered the amount of cards she received and at Sacred Heart Hospital became friendly with three nuns she invited to and attended her bas mitzvah at Temple Hillel. “I got cards from people I didn’t even know,” she said. “I believe that prayer does help and working together to help each other. Some things in life you don’t forget.”

Haar said that she has celebrated every birthday since then “with so much appreciation of the privilege of continually being blessed with additional years.” “I think of the immense grief seven families have to this day in losing a child with so much potential life ahead of them,” she said, adding that safety improvements such as installing seat belts on buses and putting grooves on roadways came about in part because of this accident.

Attending school was a chore Ingerman said as the Hillel building was not handicapped accessible and she time spent time going up and down the stairs on her “tush.” After several surgeries and what passed for physical therapy then she recovered. “I always wanted to be an athlete and at 51 I first figure skated and been doing so for 10 years now,” Ingerman said.

For Liebeskind the memories remain at the surface. When watching the Netflix series “The Crown” an episode recalled the 1966 Welsh mining accident that caused the death of 144 people, including 116 children, she recoiled. “It was very upsetting to me, touching a cord,” she said. “I live with it. I was on the bus. It is still painful. Every July 15, I go into mourning.”

Risë Kaufmann contributed to this story.