‘I Make the Glass Half Full’

U.S.-Israeli Family Clings to Hope for Soldier Son Severely Wounded in West Bank Attack

Instead of hosting a somber bedside vigil, the Felber family is determined to stay upbeat about youngest son Netanel’s chances of surviving after being shot in the head in the West Bank in December

Netanel Felber posing for a photograph with his mother, Judi Felber.
Courtesy of Judi Felber

The waiting area outside 21-year-old Netanel Felber’s room at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital is bustling with a constant stream of visitors bringing food and the sounds of animated conversation, even laughter.  

The cheerful scene is far from the somber bedside vigil one might imagine for a severely wounded soldier.

But it is precisely the atmosphere that Netanel’s mother, Judi Felber, has established. This small, wiry woman greets every visitor with a wide smile and a big hug, and she laid down the rules and behavioral code early on: No weeping or despair allowed; upbeat, can-do attitudes encouraged.

Over a month after Netanel was shot in the head by a Palestinian assailant in an attack that killed two of his fellow infantry soldiers, American-born Judi Felber, 53, spends nearly all her time at the hospital where her son has lain unconscious since mid-December. She is allowed to see him for about eight hours a day, during visiting hours.

Optimism was the choice Judi made soon after learning about what had happened to her youngest son. And while Netanel remains alive and has the possibility of recovering, she requires those with her at the hospital to follow her lead.

“I have to make the glass half full. I found that if I can act that way, then other people feel really positive – and that’s good, so when there are days that I am feeling really bad, they can pull me up,” she says.  

Netanel Felber in uniform. He is serving in the Israel Defense Forces' ultra-Orthodox unit, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.
Courtesy of Judi Felber

Physicians differ with their prognoses about the long-term effects of her son’s head injuries, but Judi Felber only talks “to the ones who have hope.”

Sitting next to her, her sister-in-law Rachel Felber Berman is one of a series of relatives who have  come from the United States to offer support. Felber Berman, from McLean, Virginia, tends to practical matters – taking the food from visitors and putting it in an already bursting refrigerator, and delivering the family’s laundry to a friend who has been bringing it to a local laundromat – which, when it learned who it was for, offered its services free of charge.

Prophetic words

When  she first sent Netanel off to do his near-three years of mandatory army service in 2017, Felber wrote a blog post sharing the unique trepidation of a mother who had brought her family to Israel from the United States a decade earlier. “It’s scary to let my little fledgling fly away to the great unknown, with dangers I can’t understand,” she wrote. “But, I am also so proud that my son will grow into a man with a purpose bigger than himself, with values of altruism and sacrifice for one’s people. Although I will be so proud when he comes home wearing his new uniform, the mom in me will always have a knot in the pit of my gut until I see him.”

On December 13, those fears were realized.

“Be careful what you write, it might come back to haunt you,” Judi Felber says now with a wry laugh.

Netanel Felber was shot in the head while waiting at a bus stop outside the Givat Assaf settlement. According to the Israeli army, the gunman – allegedly a  member of a Hamas terror cell in the West Bank – drove up to the stop, got out and opened fire with an automatic weapon, killing two soldiers in Felber’s unit, Yuval Mor Yosef, 20,  and Yossi Cohen, 19, and wounding Felber and a female civilian, Shira Sabag. The attacker stole one of the soldier’s weapons and fled the scene, later abandoning his car in nearby Ramallah.

For weeks Israel conducted a massive manhunt for the perpetrator. It took nearly a month, but on January 8 Israeli forces arrested Assam Barghouti.

The suspect, who had been released from an Israeli prison in April 2017 after serving an 11-year sentence, is also suspected of having taken part in another drive-by shooting attack, on December 9. That one injured seven Israelis and killed the baby son of a pregnant victim.

Yossi Cohen and Yovel Mor Yosef, who were killed in the shooting attack at Givat Assaf in the West Bank on December 13, 2018.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

All of the events of the past month – the manhunt and subsequent arrest, the funerals of Netanel’s comrades-in-arms, and the rest of the news in Israel – has all been a blur for the Felbers. They remain at the hospital, focused only on Netanel’s condition.

At first, he was not expected to survive. Immediately after being brought to the hospital at Ein Karem, Netanel underwent complicated emergency neurosurgery, as a last-ditch effort to save him. But he survived the surgery and stabilized. He was sedated and put on a respirator, and continues to defy those initial odds.

He breathes on his own for short periods of time and the family has celebrated even the smallest signs of progress. For instance, there was the time he moved his right arm on a side that doctors had initially predicted would be paralyzed. Later, he opened one eye. His pulse, his mother says, responds to changes in the room: voices, sounds and music. Some of his friends have stood around his bed and sung to him, “though it is hard for them to see him that way,” Judi admits. She moves his muscles every day, she says, flexing and pointing his feet “so he can stand” later.

“I’m pretty sure he can hear because he reacts,” his mother says. “What he understands, I don’t know. Nobody knows. Sometimes he moves a little bit more when he hears songs that he likes, or the voice of someone he likes – his pulse goes up, his eye opens a little bit more.”

‘Incredible strength’

Together with Judi, the rest of the family take turns in the waiting area: Her husband Joe, a patent attorney, and their two older children, Daniel, 26, and Adina, 24. For now, the Felbers have abandoned the family home an hour away in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, and are staying in two hotel rooms adjacent to the hospital.

Daniel is a student at the Hebrew University and still attends classes. Adina, newly engaged just a week before the shooting, has taken time off from her job as an El Al flight attendant. She was traveling from Hong Kong to Israel when she heard what had happened to her brother, and is worried about the prospect of being far away if his condition takes a sudden turn for the worse.

The entire family has “shown incredible strength in the face of something horrifying,” says Seth Farber, the rabbi of their congregation in Ra’anana and the linchpin in the community delivering their meals, laundry and anything else they need. “People have been incredibly generous and would love to do more – but there’s not much we can do. Every time there’s a little good news, we try to hang on to it,” he says.

The close-knit family immigrated to Israel from the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, when the children were ages 14, 12 and 9, respectively, in 2006. Judi and Joe were not raised Orthodox but grew religious after they were married. Judi came to the marriage with dreams of eventually immigrating to Israel, but it took time to get the rest of the family on board.

Israeli medics attending the scene of the shooting attack at Givat Assaf on December 13, 2018, which left two soldiers dead, Netanel Felber fighting for his life and a civilian woman wounded.
AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Knock at the door

Once they arrived in Ra’anana, the family integrated quickly – especially Netanel, whom acquaintances portray as a quiet but friendly, pious young man with a broad smile like his mother’s.

Judi describes him as “easy-going and happy,” with a love of volunteering. She recalls with pride how, in high school, Netanel and a group of friends created a prayer service in a nearby old-age home, which still meets to this day. In his pre-army yeshiva program, he would go to bakeries at the end of the day and take bread that would otherwise be thrown away and distribute it in poor neighborhoods.

Netanel was about halfway through his army service when the Givat Assaf attack occurred. Though not ultra-Orthodox himself, he was serving in the (Haredi) Netzah Yehuda Battalion because, his mother says, it was a way for his group of close friends from yeshiva to stay together.

“Most soldiers in their free time go out to parties, watch TV or sit around and do nothing – I know I did,” says sister Adina. “But Netanel would always keep a tiny book of some kind of Torah studies, or have YouTube videos with Torah lessons on them or some kind of Judaic thing. I’d say, ‘In your free time don’t you want to sleep, party or just hang out and waste time?’ But he would use every second of it to do or learn something,” she recounts.

Judi and Joe, who both work from home, learned of the attack on the news. They immediately texted Netanel, who serves near the settlement, but got no response. “I didn’t panic at first,” Judi says, “because he was never great about texting.”

“Then,” she adds, “there was a knock at the door.”

Within hours of learning what had happened, 500 people crowded the family’s synagogue in Ra’anana for an impromptu prayer service. On the Shabbat following the shooting, the family formally called on Jews around the world to pray for Netanel’s recovery, and a mass prayer rally was held at the Western Wall on his behalf.

In a Facebook post, Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who also lives in Ra’anana – called the Felbers a “charming, idealistic, Zionist family.” He added that Netanel was “a happy young man with a huge heart … always helping everyone, always doing good. Now it is our turn to try for him.”

For Bennett, head of the newly formed Hayamin Hehadash party, those efforts included calls for more stringent measures against terrorists. Such actions, he said, will “act not just to kill the terrorist mosquitoes, but also to dry up the terrorist swamp.” The parents of the two soldiers killed in the Givat Assaf attack, meanwhile, have been campaigning for legislation that would see terrorists face the death penalty.

Netanel’s dream

Judi Felber, though, has no time for politics. While she is “glad” that the man who allegedly shot her son is “off the streets and not hurting anybody else, the two soldiers are still dead and Netanel is still in this situation.

“It’s not where my head is at,” she continues. “You kill this guy, it’s not going to do anything. It’s not going to make Netanel suffer any less.”

True to her philosophy, she would rather focus on the positive, including the well-wishes she has received from across the world, and the continued support from what she calls her “amazing” community, hospital staff, the army and total strangers.

With a smile, she remembers how a woman brought her cookies and, before they ate, said a blessing over them. The woman, a secular Israeli, admitted she had never said a blessing over food before.

“I said to myself: ‘Netanel, this is your dream,’” Judi recounts. “And it was. My son’s dream was to get people to do more mitzvoth, daven more and learn more Torah. And he is doing it. Not in the way I would like him to be doing it, but it’s happening.”

Netanal Felber. “My son’s dream was to get people to do more mitzvoth, daven more and learn more Torah,” says his mother.
Courtesy of Judi Felber