“It was the hardest Shabbat I’ve ever had,” said former Toronto resident Robert Gasner Saturday night from his home in Ashkelon, Israel as he recovers from his injuries following a rocket attack on his street earlier this week.
Gasner, 63, sustained a scorched hand, cuts to his face and arm, and a strained voice in the moments after the rocket hit, but it wasn’t from the attack itself.
It was when he rushed to the house next door that had been hit, and rescued a family of six from the burning building.
Son of prominent Jewish Canadian family
The barrage of rockets from Gaza Wednesday on Ashkelon should have been intercepted by the local Iron Dome battery, but published reports say there was a temporary malfunction, leading to at least two Israeli deaths and many injuries.
“The rocket attacks are absolutely unbelievable,” Gasner said in an interview with The CJN Daily podcast. “Two days ago there were 50. I was in the bomb shelter 50 times.”
Gasner and his family moved to Israel a decade ago. His roots in Canada’s Jewish community are deep: his grandfather Meyer Gasner founded several important Jewish community institutions including Toronto’s Shaarei Tefillah and Shaarei Shomayim synagogues. His mother, Cynthia Gasner, was on the board of Baycrest, and wrote for the Canadian Jewish News.
Robert and his wife had moved to the Afridar neighbourhood of Ashkelon just a couple of months ago, after living in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.
Knocked off the wall
When the rocket attacks began that night Gasner was alone at home. He’d sent his wife to stay with their daughter in another part of Israel, to help take care of a sick grandchild.
“I said to her ‘What if something happens?’ Who’s going to be here to help other people?’”
Little did he know he would have that chance so quickly.
Gasner was in the shelter of his home when the rocket hit the house next door.
“It’s not a full bomb shelter but it’s below ground so it’s better than a bomb shelter and it shook me,” Gasner recalled. “I was right against the wall in the corner and it knocked me off the wall six inches.”
Afterwards, he ran outside and saw what he described as “this huge fireball” at the neighbour’s house.
The automatic gate to the neighbour’s driveway was locked. Gasner yanked the metal and kicked the stone wall until the gate popped open, smashing into his face, and elbow.
Picked up the children
Despite the ball of fire, he saw an opening.
“I said ‘OK here’s your chance’, and ran into the house,” Gasner continued, adding that the rocket had hit only one half of the house, leaving the mother and five children paralysed with shock. Two of the children were lying on the floor.
“So I started screaming ‘Let’s go!’”, Gasner said. “I picked up one of the kids, and grabbed the other by the hand, and started screaming again.”
They all ran out of the house, while the fire “sounded like a freight train.”
Emergency crews arrived within minutes.
“I’m lucky I was there because there was an opportunity to help some people,” Gasner said of his neighbours, who he did not know, except to greet them on Shabbat.
“How they weren’t killed is a total surprise to me,” he said.
After spending the night being treated for his injuries at Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon, a shaken Gasner returned home. He wasn’t sure where his neighbours had been taken.
He was overjoyed Thursday morning when they came to see him to thank him, and he learned they were all fine.
“They came over and introduced themselves, and there were smiles, and [happiness], and it was a really great scene,” Gasner said. He was deeply touched to meet the little boy he had carried out, Rephael David, 5.
“And then he came over and wrapped his arms around my legs, and I melted,” Gasner said, noting the boy is the same age as one of his own grandchildren. “I went inside and cried.”
Downplaying the bravery he showed, Gasner joked that he always runs his finger through the flame of the Havdalah candle on Saturday nights, and never gets burned.
As for the ongoing violence that has rained rockets onto many parts of southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv area over the weekend, Gasner said he was more worried about the ethnic street attacks and even reports of lynching by both Jews and Arabs in Israeli cities where people of the two religions have coexisted relatively peacefully.
“Neighbours who know each other by name are destroying each other’s synagogues and mosques? That’s much worse, because all of a sudden we’ve gone from a nation of law abiding [citizens] to a nation of wild people.”
While Gasner’s Canadian friends Steve and Alison Epstein, who are also originally from Toronto, urged him to come stay with them in their nearby Afridar apartment, he declined their offer.
“This is where I belong,” he told The CJN Daily, referring to his decision to make aliyah to Israel years ago. “I’m not afraid.”