When the first bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Bruce Mendelsohn was partying in an office overlooking Boylston Street. The blast knocked him off of his seat.
“Get everybody away from the window,” Bruce yelled to his brother, who had finished the marathon about an hour earlier. “There might be a secondary.”
Then the second bomb went off.
Bruce, 44, is my second cousin, and in the hours and days after the April 15 attack in Boston, he became the go-to guy for news outlets trying to make sense of the incident. He was both uninjured and articulate in describing the aftermath of the explosions. The fact that he’s a PR professional with an active Twitter account certainly helped reporters find him.
But the most significant reason Bruce was key to stories in The New York Times and on CNN, ABC and other outlets around the world — doing what he calls “therapy-by-media” — is because he ran down the stairs and into the street, toward the smoke, toward the injured.
Even before many first responders could arrive at the scene, Bruce had helped reunite a distraught — but unhurt — mother with her son, who also survived. He helped an EMT roll a seriously wounded woman from on top of another victim. And using a T-shirt, he tied a tourniquet around a college student’s leg, which, her doctors later told her, probably save her life.
“I don’t know what my thought process was,” Bruce told me by phone a little more than a week after the attack, which left three dead and injured more than 260.
Bruce told me he couldn’t really explain why he ran toward the carnage, which he described on Twitter that day as “like a scene from Tel Aviv or Pakistan or Baghdad, not Boston.”
“I guess it had something to do with the way I was brought up,” he said.
I’ve known Bruce all my life. At Passover seders and various family gatherings, Bruce and his two brothers always seemed to be laughing and having an even better time than anyone else. I usually try to find a seat on their side of the table.
But Bruce has never been a particularly observant Jew. His day school career ended before I was born, cut short when his school asked him to leave. At my bar mitzvah, just a few months after he completed three years in the U.S. Army, Bruce sported a camouflage kippah that looked like it had seen only occasional use. And when I got married, his wife jokingly told my wife that our wedding was livelier than the WASPy ones she was used to.
So I was somewhat surprised when Bruce confided that he had been thinking about the Jewish context of what he did during the 12 minutes he spent on Boylston Street that Monday before police told him and other unofficial responders to leave.
“I didn’t do it as a Jew, but if I look back at it, I think there was something implicit in my faith that said to me, when people need help, you help them,” he said.
When I reached him on his cell phone on April 23, Bruce had just left Tufts Medical Center, where he was visiting Victoria McGrath, the 20-year-old Northeastern University student whose wounded leg he treated. He’d come at the invitation of the “Today” show, which had reunited him and McGrath for the show — along with firefighter Jimmy Plourde, who carried McGrath to safety; Tyler Dodd, who helped calm her while she was being treated in a medical tent on the scene; and former Navy medic Alicia Shambo, who rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital.
“The doctor told me, if you hadn’t have done that, then I would have died,” McGrath told Bruce, as NBC’s cameras rolled. “You saved my life. Otherwise, I would have bled out, ’cause it hit the artery.”
If the marathon bombings changed McGrath’s life — she might walk again without a limp, according to the NBC report — they also changed Bruce’s. He says he now becomes emotional at unpredictable times, and he feels very angry when he thinks about the terrorists who carried out the attack.
But also, in a strange way, Bruce said, the experience has also given him a deeper understanding of himself — as a person, as a human being and as a Jew.
“As Jews, we talk a lot and we study a lot about pikuach nefesh,” Bruce told me, using the Hebrew term for the rabbinic imperative that permits a person to violate almost any Jewish law in order to save a person’s life. “I can hold my own in a conversation about Jewish liturgy, but I think there’s a difference between Judaism in theory and Judaism in action.”
What is Judaism in action?
“The guys in Israel who go in after bombings and clean up the friggin’ messes” are one example, Bruce said.
Bruce may continue to sometimes take a pass on synagogue services, as he has in the past. But as Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish thought at New York educational institution Mechon Hadar, wrote in a post for Tablet the day after the attack, running down the stairs when most everyone is, quite rationally, heading the other way, represents the best of Jewish practice.
“You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from,” Held wrote. “You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.”
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