By Rochelle Maruch Miller
In 2011, Pia Levine, a college student from Edison, New Jersey, narrowly survived the bus bombing on March 23, 2011, across the street from the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma). Less than two days later, she completed the Jerusalem Marathon in 2 hours and 10 minutes.
It was the support of OneFamily (www.onefamilytogether.org)—Israel’s only organization solely dedicated to the rehabilitation of victims of terror attacks and their families—with Hashem’s help that got Pia through that first marathon, and every day since.
Since 2011, Pia has received hands-on personal attention and care from members of the OneFamily staff in Israel and New York, including the encouragement to keep running—the only thing that has worked to keep her post-traumatic stress disorder in check. Over the last two years, Pia has finished two additional marathons and two triathlons under the banner of “Team OneFamily.”
Following the Boston Marathon bombing in April, Pia regressed significantly; she felt as though the cure for her PTSD itself was under attack. With the help of OneFamily, Pia trained for the NYC Triathlon, which she competed in this Sunday, July 14, to reclaim her beloved pastime and make sure that “terror doesn’t win.”
Pia, a 21-year-old student at Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University, is a world-class athlete and an inspiration to terror survivors the world over. In this candid interview, she shares her story with the 5TJT.
RMM: Pia, what details do you recall prior to, during, and immediately after the terror attack on March 23?
PL: I recall the terror attack as if it were yesterday. I know exactly where I was sitting, what I was doing and thinking about. I can feel the bus shake and picture the glass shattering and spraying everywhere. I can hear the noise of the explosion and the people screaming. I can relive the events of that day as if they are happening now but it’s extremely difficult to let myself get that deep within the memory. What I don’t remember are the people who surrounded me. I can’t picture the face of the woman who was screaming to the bus driver to open the door so she could exit to supposed safety.
RMM: How did you connect with OneFamily? How has the organization impacted your life?
PL: My connection with OneFamily began the next day when I received a call from Chantal Belzberg (one of the founders of OneFamily). She asked me questions about how I was doing, and when I said I was fine she was able to see right through me. She said she would be coming to take my friend and me to the hospital to be treated. We were diagnosed with PTSD and given a medication to help deal with it. Chantal then dropped us off. The next morning I got up and ran the Jerusalem Half in 2:10 when only hours before I could only picture going outside. As I passed the OneFamily center on the course, I was cheered enthusiastically.
Almost immediately upon my return to New Jersey, I was contacted by Michelle Napell of OneFamily, who has continuously supported me through everything related to the terrorist attack. We joke that she’s my second mother and I, one of her other children. She got me signed up for the NYC Triathlon a few months after I got back. She convinced me to speak publicly in more than one forum, which has been tremendously therapeutic. She also went back to Israel with me for the first anniversary of the attack and ran the marathon with me.
After the Boston bombings, I got an immediate phone call to see how I was doing and, because she could tell I was not doing well, she drove to Manhattan, picked me up, and drove to her house, where her family was more than welcoming and didn’t even talk about what was going on. They kept the TV off any news stations and were amazing at distracting me.
Aside from doing the triathlons (three) for OneFamily, I marched with them in the Celebrate Israel Parade, convincing many of my friends to join as well. The Belzbergs have also been wonderful with checking in on me periodically, inviting me for Shabbat meals for this past Jerusalem Marathon at the end of February. They are incredible people who continuously follow us even when they don’t have to.
On a more professional level, OneFamily facilitates contact with people for me to talk to about the attack, be it a psychologist or someone who went through something similar. They got me involved in the charity team counterpart that has become a tremendous part of my life.
RMM: Who inspired your passion for running?
PL: My first marathon was in dedication to my father, who had passed away less than a year before. That marathon was scheduled for two days after the attack. It was a major driving factor in my decision to still run. Running then became my way of dealing with the trauma because it was the first way I did. When you run, it’s like your problems disappear and the only thing that matters is your sneakers hitting the pavement. It was also my way of showing that I don’t let the terrorist who tried to destroy my life win.
RMM: How were you affected by the horrific events of the Boston Marathon?
PL: I was definitely affected by the Boston Marathon. I use running as a coping mechanism. When my PTSD or anxiety is acting up, I like to go for a run to remind myself that I was able to run that first marathon a day after the terrorist attack I was in, and this thought would give me the strength to get these feelings under control. After the Boston Marathon, it was like my happy place was taken away from me. These brothers had ruined my idea of safety in running by blowing up the finish line. When I heard about the bombings, I tried to be OK. But the thought that the terrorism I had experienced in Israel could come to Boston—what is to say they wouldn’t come to New York and blow up another building like the World Trade Center or the subway system? I became afraid to go outside.
Knowing that one of these terrorists is dead and the other in custody is reassuring because they supposedly had little ties to any terrorist groups that could continue these brothers’ mission, but the idea that anyone could commit such a horrible act is not easy for me to deal with.
RMM: What coping advice do you have for other victims of terror?
PL: It’s hard to give advice to another victim of terror, because each event is different from the next, because every individual is different. When I reflect on March 23, 2011, I don’t think of it as a sad day, but rather a day that I defeated the terrorists’ attempt at hindering my life. However, when other people reflect on the same attack, they might view it as a day of sadness and loss. My message of telling other victims to not let the terrorist win, to continue living life to the fullest, because in a moment everything could change, is a lot easier for me, who was physically unharmed, than for someone who lost a limb or a family member in their attack.
RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?
PL: First, that terrorism can really happen anywhere, to anyone, and it’s important to be educated. Second, that no matter what happens, every person has a reason they’re alive; at any moment it can be taken from you so it’s important to live your life to the fullest and never leave opportunities that pass you by, because you may not have another chance. v