Fifteen years ago, Frank Levy rushed to George Runkles’ hospital room, bracing himself for the inevitable. But he wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet.
Levy, 89, of Parkville, who is widowed and has one daughter of his own, Deborah Lynn, considered Runkles a son. He took him in as a troubled teenager and raised him as if he were his own child. He is doing the same for one of Runkles’ sons.
Though Levy can’t recall the exact date — pointing to his head and saying, “I’m losing it” — he’ll never forget the hopeless feeling that swept over him when he heard the news.
Earlier that night, Runkles was on the dimly lit corner of Harford Road and North Avenue in East Baltimore trying to buy marijuana. The three men he met for the transaction brutally beat him and left him for dead.
He didn’t get up. He didn’t respond. He was out cold. Someone called 911. Someone from Runkles’ immediate family called Levy.
“When he was younger, some people told me to give up on George. They told me he was no good and would never be any good,” Levy said, widening his eyes with a look of scorn on his face. “Just like I didn’t then, I wasn’t going to give up on this kid. Love is the key.”
At first, Levy was nervous. Later, he was terrified. Some doubt had crept in.
The beating left Runkles, who was 30 at the time, in a coma, with a traumatic brain injury. The prognosis was grim.
Runkles, who Levy playfully nicknamed “Skippy” as a kid, was fighting for his life.
Doctors and nurses told Levy that Runkles would not wake up for months, if ever. Once Runkles did wake, they said, he’d have the mental capacity of a young child and require around-the-clock assistance.
Nothing more could be done. All Levy could do was wait and hope for the best. Undeterred, he continued to shower Runkles with the same affection and care he had for years, spending every second he could at the hospital.
Going Back to Synagogue
A few days after the incident, Levy received a visit at his upholstery company, the now-defunct Chesapeake Upholstery Co., from Arnold Begleiter, with whom he had conducted business for years. The two had developed a genuine sense of friendship.
On this particular visit, Begleiter felt God was calling. He saw Levy, slumped in his chair, with a distraught look on his face. He asked Levy what was wrong and was shocked to learn what had happened to Runkles.
Begleiter, who is Orthodox, knew Levy was Jewish, though the two had hardly ever spoken about religion.
“I said, ‘Frank, you’re a Levy. Levy in the Jewish religion is a very high-ranking position,’” Begleiter recalled.
So Begleiter, 71, proposed an idea after seeking advice from Yisroel Reznitsky, executive director at Torah Institute of Baltimore, and other local Jewish leaders on how to help Levy cope. He asked Levy to join him for High Holiday services at Bnai Jacob Congregation (now Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation) to pray for Runkles.
“I told him, ‘You have to go to synagogue and talk to God yourself, because [Runkles] means so much to you. You can’t have other people pray for him. You have to do it. Nobody is going to do it for you,’” Begleiter said.
Levy figured he had nothing to lose and took Begleiter up on the offer.
“I remember Frank simply saying to me, ‘Great. Let’s do it,’” Begleiter said.
They met for Rosh Hashanah services. The date was Sept. 6, 2002.
The only question was if there would be an open seat on such short notice. Begleiter had gotten the OK from clergy members running the services that Levy could attend, even if he had to sit in the back. As fate would it have, though, there was one vacant seat, right next to Begleiter, of course.
“I stopped and was like, ‘Whoa,’” Begleiter said with a chewed-up cigar dangling from his mouth. “That was something special. Who would have thought? I mean, really?”
Levy had not stepped foot in a congregation in more than 60 years, since becoming a bar mitzvah at Har Zion Synagogue, which closed in West Baltimore in the mid-1950s.
He did have some doubts about returning. For one thing, he couldn’t read Hebrew anymore.
“God’s honest truth, I had no idea,” Levy said, his right hand raised.
He wondered if God would hear him, to which Begleiter, standing over 6 feet tall with a stocky build and deep voice, responded, “Frank, God hears English, too. Just talk to him.”
Power of Prayer
Despite being somewhat frail, with his voice hoarse from years of smoking, Levy always maintained high spirits.
So he talked. He prayed. He waited for a sign, an answer, something to let him know that God was listening.
As soon as the congregation started to daven, Levy, eyes fixed on the bimah, hands clasped, felt tears streaming down his face. The reality of the situation hit him hard.
“I tell you that I made the right decision to come and pray. Oh yes, you better believe it,” Levy said, pointing his right index finger straight ahead and nodding his head to Begleiter in a show of respect. “What a story.”
After services concluded and the two said their goodbyes until Yom Kippur, Begleiter told Levy to call him “if anything were to happen.”
And then, a little more than a week later, something did happen. Runkles squeezed Levy’s hands and quietly whispered the words “Pop Pop.”
Runkles had emerged from his coma.
“It was truly a miracle,” Levy said. “I mean, I went to synagogue to pray, and he wakes up just like that. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
Fifteen years later, Begleiter and Levy remained at a loss for words as they sat together to tell the story. They simply chalk it up to divine intervention.
“How else do you explain it?” Begleiter said, looking at Levy, who responded with a half-shrug and a smile.
“It worked,” Levy said. “What else can we say? You really have to believe in what it is that you’re praying for.”
The road to recovery was long and hard for Runkles, but Levy was there to provide financial and emotional support every step of the way. It was an act of tzedakah, or, as Begleiter put it, “Frank, what you did was a true mitzvah of giving.”
And had it not been for Levy, Runkles said, “There is no way I would have made it through that period.”
“Any boy can make a baby, but it takes a man to raise a child and turn that child into a man,” Runkles added. “The money, oh Jesus, he’d give away his last penny to help someone, even if it meant hurting himself. Everything he can do to help other people, that’s what he’s always been about doing.”
First at Northwest Hospital and later at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Runkles had to relearn just about everything. He underwent intense physical and mental therapy for about a year. He had to relearn motor skills and relied on mostly crutches and a wheelchair to get around.
Progress was slow but steady — exceptional, in fact, for a man whose doctors said might not make it.
“He sure showed those doctors,” Levy said with pride. “Nothing was going to stop Skippy. He’s as bright a boy as you’ll ever meet, I’ll tell you that.”
Shortly after completing his grueling therapy, Runkles went on to earn his high school equivalency certificate, or GED. Runkles said doctors told him that “all I would ever do for a living is wash cars,” which motivated him. He persevered, and now he now works as an emergency medical technician.
“I proved them wrong,” Runkles said.
Now 45, Runkles doesn’t spend a lot time of time dwelling on the past, in part because he is focused on raising five children with his wife in Florida.
But despite being separated by nearly 1,000 miles, Runkles and Levy remain in constant contact, talking on the phone at least once a day.
“I told him that he better not stop going to synagogue, because he can’t be playing any games with God,” said Runkles, who is Christian. “We may pray differently, but we all believe in the same God.”
A Lasting Bond
To this day, Levy and Begleiter maintain an inseparable relationship during the High Holidays.
Each year, a few weeks ahead of services, Begleiter knows he can count on receiving a phone call from Levy asking when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall on the calendar.
On Wednesday evening, they rung in the Jewish New Year at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, formerly known as the Liberty Jewish Center, with friends, family and clergy members. The pair will also be at MMAE, where they have spent the last seven High Holidays, when Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Sept. 29.
In the local Jewish community, their story has become the stuff of legend, one that is bound to start a conversation with anyone they meet.
Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, national director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, met Levy while attending High Holiday services several years ago. He said he was inspired to hear Levy had turned to God and never gave up hope.
“That was very courageous for him to do, especially after being in a place that was unfamiliar to him,” Lowenbraun said. “His faith showed. He went the extra mile to do what he knew in his heart was right. I do believe the prayers made a difference. Incredible story. Great story.”
Lowenbraun said Levy is living proof that it is never too late to reconnect with Judaism through the power of prayer.
And, for the remainder of his life, Levy doesn’t see that changing.
“I still have purpose,” Levy said, laughing. “This continues to keep me going. If it wasn’t for something like this, I don’t know if I’d still be around.”