Parents of Yosef Shapiro Maintained Faith in the Shadow of Fear

yosef shapiro
Yosef Shapiro and his father at home Sunday. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

Rabbi Simcha Dovid and Mrs. Basya Shapiro, parents of 7-year-old Yosef, the most famous boy in New York last week Wednesday when he went missing in Canarsie Park for about six hours, spoke with Hamodia on Sunday about that tense time, and the joy in being reunited with their son, alive and well.

As I enter the Shapiros’ Flatbush home, Yosef regards me with some suspicion and turns away. But his parents assure me this is not atypical; he is shy by nature, they say, and he has in fact been acting normally, just as if this story never happened.

But it did happen, for them — and for hundreds of others who volunteered in the search, and the many more who davened for Yosef’s safe return.

Here is the parents’ story in their own words.

Hamodia: First of all, how’s everybody doing?

Rabbi Shapiro: Baruch Hashem, everyone’s doing very, very well. Chasdei Hashem, in addition to Yosef being found safe and unharmed, he’s emotionally and mentally fine, 100%. Baruch Hashem he is very happy, he’s sleeping in his own bed with the lights off, and everything else as always — playing, eating, drinking, like nothing ever happened.

Tell us about when you first got the call Wednesday that Yosef was missing.

Rabbi Shapiro: It was about 4:25 or 4:30 p.m. I got a call from the head of Noam Day Camp, Mr. Chaim Schilit, popularly known as “the Captain.”

As I understand it, they knew that Yosef was playing with his friend at least until around 3:00. Then they made a roundup to go on the buses around 3:15 or so, and they saw that he was missing. They checked all the buses to make sure he hadn’t gotten onto the wrong bus.

The staff at first didn’t want to leave the park, because Yosef was missing. But then they realized it didn’t make sense to keep all the children in the park. So the head staff and some others stayed, and the rest of the staff went back with the children to the camp. Then the children got on the buses to go home, and the staff went back to the park to search for Yosef.

My next son, Aharon, is in the same day camp, and he and Yosef come and go on the same bus. They called me before the buses arrived home to let me know that Yosef was missing.

Was this a special trip the camp had gone on?

Rabbi Shapiro: No, twice every week they go for a “swim and park” trip. It’s not always to this park, but they have been to this park a number of times.

Once they realized Yosef was missing, they contacted Flatbush Shomrim and the NYPD, and they started searching.

My wife and I were both home when we got the call. At first I didn’t really understand what was happening. This is already the end of the second year that my child has gone to the same day camp. They do this sort of trip twice a week. He’s not a wandering boy. And they just went to play in the park; they didn’t go on a hike. I kept thinking, “How was he lost, what’s going on, it doesn’t make sense.”

But this was the fact.

After I hung up with “the Captain,” I was hesitant to even tell my wife. How would she feel? The child’s missing, what’s the next step?

So you were just hoping he would be found quickly and there was no reason to alarm her?

Rabbi Shapiro: Right. I knew the search was on, so I was hoping that b’ezras Hashem I’d get a call in a few minutes that he was found.

But I felt that as a father, I had to do whatever hishtadlus I could.

I happen to be pretty close with Reb Josh Mehlman of the FJCC. I knew the NYPD was on the case, but I figured I’d call Josh, and have him be mezarez them a little bit.

I called him up and it was my luck that at that moment he was in a meeting with NYPD Deputy Inspector Richie Taylor, and they were mezarez a lot of different parts of the NYPD. I also have a cousin named Yosef Aryeh Rosenthal, he used to be in Canarsie Hatzalah, now he’s in Flatbush Hatzalah. So I knew he was familiar with the area, and I called him. He was in Lakewood, but he immediately made phone calls on our behalf.

It was around 4:50 that I told my wife the news. The authorities needed to find out some information, like what Yosef was wearing that day, so I had to tell her.

I don’t know where she had the strength from. My wife knows what’s going on in the world. But Baruch Hashem, the Eibeshter gave her the koach and the siyata diShmaya, and of course she started saying Tehillim.

One of the things that helped me to be more relaxed was that we all believe that everything is from Heaven, 100%. We still can’t put ourselves in a makom sakana. But I knew that if you send a child to a safe, reliable day camp, where they learn Torah in the morning, and in the afternoon they go out and do different things, I did my hishtadlus, and everything is bashert min haShamayim, and the Eibeshter is a shomer Yisrael.

The Captain then called me and said the police need Yosef’s clothing for the dogs.

Just that morning my wife had washed all of Yosef’s laundry. But it was mamish bashert that only his pajama pants, as well as his sheet and pillowcase, had not been washed. He also hadn’t taken his briefcase to camp that day, so we gave them that.

The Captain came to my house and picked up the stuff, which he brought to the park.

I kept asking the authorities if the parents should go to the scene. We were afraid of leaving our other children and making them frightened.

Eventually a Shomrim member said that they wanted my wife to come to the scene. She went there with a sefer Tehillim, in the car of a Shomrim member, with lights and sirens. I stayed home with the kids.

yosef shapiro
Organizational leaders and first responders at the Achiezer command center. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

When did you arrive in the park?

Mrs. Shapiro: It was before 6:00. I don’t remember the time exactly.

Some police officials started to ask me some basic information – name, address, phone number, etc. They asked if I had ID, I said no, all I had brought with me was a Tehillim, a water bottle, and my cellphone that had a dead battery.

They asked me what happened, and I said I didn’t know what happened. All I knew was that I put him on the bus at 8:50 and I hadn’t seen him since then.

I was in the Shomrim member’s car for a while. I was basically just saying Tehillim.

Eventually they moved me to the Achiezer mobile command center. I recognized Rabbi Baruch Ber Bender, the head of Achiezer – he’s my husband’s first cousin. He said, “Hi, I’m Boruch Ber Bender.” I said, “Do you know who I am?” He said no. I said, “I’m Simcha Dovid Shapiro’s wife.” He didn’t recognize me. And he didn’t know the missing boy was his cousin’s son until he met me.

I was in that Achiezer Command Center for a while. They later moved me to a Hatzalah bus.

What were you doing all this time the search was ongoing?

Mrs. Shapiro: I was saying Tehillim just about the entire time.

My phone was dead anyway. I’m not a big cellphone person, but I did want a way to have contact with the outside world. I have this real old-fashioned phone, but somebody found a charger and charged it and eventually brought it back to me.

Were the two of you in touch a lot during this time?

Rabbi Shapiro: I did call my wife a number of times, but her phone wasn’t working. But Baruch Ber Bender was in touch with me and said he was with my wife, and the Shomrim had someone here in our house the entire time.

The NYPD also came here a number of times and did a heavy search of the house and Yeshiva Chasan Sofer, which is the day camp’s building. The NYPD and camp staff also rechecked all the buses several times.

You were home with your kids the entire time. Did they know what was going on?

Rabbi Shapiro: I ka”h have 10 children. The oldest one, Baruch Hashem, is a relaxed type. Obviously she was nervous like any sibling would be, but she was acting very calm and relaxed.

The next three children are away in sleepaway camp, and Achiezer contacted me to find out the names of the kids and their camps. They wanted to call the camps to make sure that the kids find out in a responsible way. The story was out in the media already.

Mrs. Shapiro: They had asked me if they could post a reward for the missing child. I said, “But then everyone’s going to know.” I was naïve; I didn’t realize everybody knew already! That’s when I said, “But what about my kids in camp?” and then they said they would call my husband to discuss arrangements for telling the kids.

Rabbi Shapiro: They felt that the siblings in camp should be told with the father on the phone.

At that time it was in the media already. But a lot of camps are in bubbles; the kids don’t have access to media. And they watched carefully that the children should not find anything out.

To make a long story short, Baruch Hashem all three children in sleepaway camp did not find out about anything until after Yosef was found happy and healthy.

Our next two kids are girls, they were on a late trip with their own day camp. B’Chasdei Hashem they did not know about it until they came home at 10:30, when it was Baruch Hashem a happy time.

My son Aharon is five years old, and very close to Yosef. He was concerned, because he saw that Yosef wasn’t on the bus coming home, and he saw some action going on, but he is a young child, so I am not sure how much he understood.

The youngest ones probably didn’t understand anything.

Mrs. Shapiro: Aharon came home from camp on the bus without Yosef, and saw that Yosef’s linen was stripped. My daughter sat down and explained to him about how the dogs are going to smell his clothing and linen and then find him safe.

What were you doing with the kids in the meantime?

Rabbi Shapiro: My oldest daughter was taking care of the children. She was keeping them relaxed and giving them food. I was saying Tehillim and davening and crying.

There were Shomrim members here the entire time. They were very nice. They asked if we wanted food. I wasn’t exactly in the mood of eating, but they went to a very good fast-food store and bought delicious deli sandwiches. A while later I did get hungry and ate. They brought so many sandwiches, it lasted us a few days.

Meanwhile, what was happening at the scene?

Mrs. Shapiro: At one point the officials brought me back the garbage bag that we had given them with Yosef’s clothing.

I said, “Okay, but where is he?” I kept thinking for sure the dogs were going to find him. They said, “We gave it to the dogs. Now the dogs are going to go sniffing for him.”

But then a long time went by and I realized that obviously the dogs hadn’t found him. And then they took the bag again; they said they wanted the dogs to sniff it again.

Do you remember what time this was?

Mrs. Shapiro: No. Time had no meaning at that point.

Was there any point at which you doubted that the story would have a happy ending?

Mrs. Shapiro: Of course.

Rabbi Shapiro: I knew there were doubts. And I understood that when they had a reward – first $10,000 then $35,000 — and they had boats in the water, and there are homeless people in the park, obviously it’s very dangerous. But at the same time, I had bitachon — the Eibishter is the shomer Yisrael, and we’ll find him.

Can you tell us a little more about any thoughts you had during this time?

Rabbi Shapiro: When it became dark, it got a little a little scary for me.

But there was one thing I couldn’t bear to think about, I was afraid chas veshalom it would be too much for me: what my son was going through. I was davening to Hashem, and I was hoping the Eibeshter would make that he would not be nervous, he would be calm and relaxed.

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Volunteers lining up to participate in the search. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

While you were at the scene, Mrs. Shapiro, in the Achiezer command center and then in the Hatzalah bus, did you realize how many organizations and people were coming to volunteer?

Mrs. Shapiro: They kept telling me. They thought that would reassure me, but it actually made me very nervous because it made me realize how massive and scary it all was. They kept saying, “This organization is here and that one’s here, and they’re coming from here and they’re coming from there.” I appreciated it, but it just escalated the terror of it.

In the beginning I thought like, “Okay, any second they’ll call and say he was found.” But when I heard about all the people and organizations coming, I realized how serious this was and it made me even more nervous.

So now the big moment: Yosef was found around 9:18 p.m. How did you find out? You were on the Hatzalah bus. Did you hear the call coming over the radio?

Mrs. Shapiro: I heard someone’s radio say, “We have the child.” But I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was he okay? Or had they found a body? I didn’t say anything. And then someone, I don’t remember who it was, said to me, “They found him.” I remember I asked Baruch Ber, “Is he alive?” And he replied, “I don’t know.” Then they showed me the picture of them carrying him.

And that’s when you knew he was fine.

Mrs. Shapiro: I knew they were saying he was fine, but I needed to see him for myself.

And how did you find out, Rabbi Shapiro?

Rabbi Shapiro: At the same time, I got a call from Baruch Ber Bender, the Shomrim member in my house got a call on his phone, and Josh Mehlman who was in my house got a call also. I was told they had found a child, but they had to verify that it was Yosef.

The Shomrim member and Josh got the video of the Hatzalah guys holding him and showed it to me. I said, “This is my child! 100%”

They said Baruch Hashem he is fine and happy.

I of course thanked Hashem. And then I and the Shomrim member and Josh Mehlman danced in the house.

Were you relieved, Mrs. Shapiro, as soon as you heard he was found? Or not until he was brought to you in the Hatzalah bus?

Mrs. Shapiro: When they found him, I was up to the last few kapitlach of sefer Tehillim. So first I finished Tehillim.

I wanted to go out of the ambulance to meet my son as they were bringing him out of the park, but they didn’t let me go.

Now I’m grateful for that — I would have wound up on every video everywhere. But in that moment, I wanted to go get him, I felt he was so scared, because he was with strangers. Even though he was being rescued, how does he know they are rescuing him? None of those people were familiar to him.

So in those few minutes from when you heard he was found and okay, until you were reunited with him, would you say your feeling was more tension than happiness?

Mrs. Shapiro: No, I wouldn’t say that.

First of all, it ended the not knowing, which was the worst part.

I was prepared for a lot of different endings, not necessarily happy ones. At least I knew, he’s coming back. So it was for sure a feeling of relief. But I can’t say I felt like I had him already. I still didn’t have him. It wasn’t complete until he was brought into the ambulance.

Can you tell us what happened when he was brought in?

Mrs. Shapiro: Someone gave Yosef to me. I regret that I didn’t talk to the man and say like “What’s your name?” I didn’t think of it then, but now, I wish I could speak to him and ask him what happened.

I took Yosef and I was holding him. He had a Hatzalah cap and jacket on. He was soaking wet. I was drenched immediately just from holding him.

They wanted to get going to the hospital and strap him in the stretcher. So obviously I couldn’t be holding him then. We took off his wet clothes and wrapped him in towels. Yosef was belted into the stretcher and I was able to hold his hand.

Did you have any conversation with him as soon as he was brought to you?

Mrs. Shapiro: I told him that the whole time he was missing, I was saying Tehillim. I wanted him to know, without being traumatized that we were scared, that we were looking for him and waiting for him. Because I didn’t know what he was thinking.

He didn’t respond, but that’s normal. He is the type who won’t talk even after coming home from a late-night trip. When he’s overwhelmed, he completely shuts down. Not even from a trauma, but just on a regular tiring day. So I wasn’t expecting him to respond or anything. Also, there were a million strangers around. He’s a pretty reserved kid, and that was a very overwhelming situation. He didn’t say much of anything in the Hatzalah.

Rabbi Shapiro: I said the first thing I need to do is call the organizations and thank everyone, but Josh Mehlman said he would do it on my behalf. Then he drove me to Maimonides Hospital.

When we arrived, Yosef was already in the ER. There I met the police, Hatzalah, Baruch Ber Bender, Yankie Meyer, Richie Taylor, Moish Wulliger, the whole crew.

I was very happy to see Yosef, Baruch Hashem. He was a little bit fartumult.

What did you say to him?

Rabbi Shapiro: I don’t remember exactly. He was very, very happy. It was a tremendous simchah.

They checked him out in the hospital, and he was fine 100%. They told me he was not dehydrated.

Mrs. Shapiro: I asked him when was the last time the camp had given him to drink.

He said that after they went swimming, they gave out ices. I asked, “What color?”

“Whatever you want.”

“What did you take?”

“Purple.”

That’s when I knew he was fine — he knew exactly what he was saying.

Rabbi Shapiro: What was amazing is that he remembered everything that happened before and after he went missing. He remembered the boy that he had played ball with. He remembered the color of the ball – it was an American flag ball. And he’ll talk about the gold badge that the high-ranking police officer in the hospital let him hold.

Mrs. Shapiro: A police officer in the hospital let him hold his gold badge, and Yosef was like in seventh heaven.

Rabbi Shapiro: We were discharged about 11:15 or 11:30. Josh Mehlman drove us home and then stayed in the house for a while to see if we needed anything.

When we came home, Yosef ate one of the sandwiches that the Shomrim members had bought.

He was so awake. That’s why we think he must have fallen asleep in the park.

We asked him, “Do you want to sleep in Mommy’s bed?” He said no, he wants to sleep in a regular bed.

He woke up the next morning on time. We got breakfast from Toast. He was very excited.

Does he realized what happened – that he went missing and hundreds of people were looking for him?

Rabbi Shapiro: He knows that he was lost and he was found. But more than that, I’m not sure.

Are you going to hide the newspapers this week?

Rabbi Shapiro: I don’t think I will specifically go show it to him. But the question is, am I going to hide it or not? I don’t know.

I think he understands well enough.

And his younger brother Aharon knows he was lost.

How is Yosef doing emotionally?

Rabbi Shapiro: He is Baruch Hashem acting fully regular — mentally, emotionally, physically. He’s not crying. He has no nightmares. Everything is regular, 100%.

Mrs. Shapiro: I asked him if while he was missing he’d heard people calling him. He said he did. I asked if he answered them. He said, “No, I didn’t know them.”

Rabbi Shapiro: Baruch Hashem he does not remember what happened. He remembers playing ball in the park, he remembers eating ices before that. And he remembers everything that happened in the hospital.

We asked him, “Did anyone come close to you?” No. “Did anyone call you over?” No. “Did anyone ask you or do anything and say not to tell anyone?” No.

Based on what he said, nothing bad happened. Obviously, we don’t know what actually did happen.

The night before he had a late night at day camp. When he woke up that morning he was tired and he had a cold. It was a hundred degrees in the park and was very humid. Did he walk off and fall asleep? Was he very hot and passed out? I don’t know. Was he very tired and sleeping until the rain came and woke him up and gave him a chiyus and hydrated him? We have no idea. We didn’t know any details whatsoever.

If he doesn’t remember, it’s much better that way.

I know he is, Baruch Hashem, 100% healthy.

Tell us about what happened Thursday.

Rabbi Shapiro: The captain, Mr. Schilit, called us and said that Thursday was a big camp banquet, and they were making it a seudas hoda’ah.

We came, and it was a tremendous simchah. Everyone was kissing and hugging each other, and we were dancing.

Friday, he went to day camp as always, on the bus. And we got a report from the staff that Baruch Hashem he is acting normally in day camp. They sent us pictures.

And Baruch Hashem we had a beautiful, wonderful Shabbos, no different from usual. He was running, playing, eating. Without knowing the story, you would not realize anything had happened.

He’s just a little upset that some news reports say he is 6 years old. He is actually 7 — he’ll turn 8 in three months!

What about the community’s reaction?

Rabbi Shapiro: Once the news spread that Yosef was missing, around 6:00 or 7:00 Wednesday, there was like a darkness on the block. People were very concerned and saying Tehillim. The non-Jewish people were praying as well. We heard people say they would not go to sleep until we find him.

And Baruch Hashem, when he was found there was a great simchah.

Thursday afternoon, when all the kids came home from day camp, everyone was being mesameach.

Relatives and friends brought him games and toys, and he enjoyed it so much. He Baruch Hashem already has plenty of games and toys, but of course he enjoyed the new ones as well.

 

Are his siblings jealous?

Rabbi Shapiro: The games generally need two, three or four players, and there are so many games, so they can be shared.

I imagine the past few days have been crazy for you with media interviews.

Rabbi Shapiro: We’re not into publicity and media. But we feel that this was a huge kiddush shem Shamayim. And unfortunately, in the secular media, there is a lot of anti-frum sentiment, but this story shows how special the Yidden are. A lot of kiddush shem Shamayim came out, so we felt that we should publicize this.

And because the community helped so much — from the mayor to the NYPD to the Shomrim and the media and everyone else — we felt that we should have hakaras hatov, and help them report on this story’s happy ending.

rborchardt@hamodia.com