September 24, 2018

The Blessings of a Brush With Death

Editor’s note: On Nov. 17, the Journal ran a story about the Nov. 3 car accident that almost claimed the life of beloved local teacher and performer Marcus J Freed. Now, 6 1/2 months later, the British-born actor, educator and author tells his story.

I was less than 60 minutes from death. Lights were flashing. Monitors were bleeping. Medics were doing everything they could to save my life.

Last November, my walk to a Shabbat dinner did not go as planned. While crossing Olympic Boulevard, I was hit by a white Lexus and thrown onto its hood. I fell to the ground and the next thing I knew, I was getting up with blood on the side of my face.

“I thought you were dead, for sure,” an onlooker said.

Four of us gathered on the pavement: me, the driver and two witnesses. I was in shock and asked to be taken to my friend Metuka’s house. The Lexus driver was a blond 20-something named Jonathan. Of course, I should have asked for his contact details but I was suffering a major brain hemorrhage — the kind that kills you if you don’t get to a hospital within two hours — and I wasn’t thinking straight. I gave him my business card and asked him to follow up, but I never heard from him again.

Artist sketch of the hit-and-run driver and a white Lexus similar to the car from the accident.

Within 30 minutes I was unconscious.

“Marcus, you are in Cedars-Sinai hospital,” a female voice said. I looked up and several faces surrounded me. “We have to cut off your shirt.”

This concerned me. “It’s a floral print shirt from a shop in London called Marks & Spencer’s,” I explained. “Would you mind carefully taking it off, please?”

“We can’t do that. You are wearing a neck brace. We are not allowed to move you.”

“OK.” I was disappointed because it was a lovely shirt, but they had a good point.

“Marcus, your brain is bleeding and we are preparing you for brain surgery.”

“Really? When can you get me in?” Maybe they had a spare appointment in the next few days?

“Right now,” she shot back. “Or you might die.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Thank you for everything you are doing. I’m going to close my eyes for a bit. Hope it goes well. See you on the other side.” Never let it be said that the English stop being polite under pressure.

“I focused on handing my soul over to God. ‘B’Yado Afkid Ruchi’ (Into your hands I entrust my spirit) is the final line of ‘Adon Olam.’ That was the only thing that was in my control. The choice was fear or faith, and I chose faith.” — Marcus J Freed

My mind immediately turned to my spiritual training. This was a potential moment of death and I was ready. The most important thing to do was to elevate my thoughts. If I got upset, scared or tried to hang onto life, there was a danger that my soul could get stuck between worlds as a wandering spirit or ghost. I focused on the one thing I could control: trusting God.

I saw two squares of light, one white and one gold. This was a near-death experience. I felt the white light represented my coming back to Earth and reawakening in the “Marcus body”; the gold light was my gateway to the next plane of consciousness. I had a brief flash that my parents would suffer some trauma if I passed on, but they would recover. I focused on handing my soul over to God. “B’Yado Afkid Ruchi”  (Into your hands I entrust my spirit) is the final line of “Adon Olam.” That was the only thing that was in my control. The choice was fear or faith, and I chose faith.

What happened next was extraordinary. My parents immediately flew to Los Angeles. I was besieged with visitors in the intensive care unit. Four days later, my brain hemorrhaged again and I underwent a second surgery. My friend Audrey Jacobs pulled together a miraculous crowdfunding campaign. The reach was astonishing. It felt like I had died, visited my memorial service, seen who had attended and heard what they had said. My heart cracked open with love.

Six months later, the brain injury has healed but my physical recovery is slow. I use a wheelchair for longer walks on Shabbat. Because the Lexus driver never followed up and the Los Angeles Police Department closed the case, I hired a forensic artist and had composite sketches done. I filmed the witnesses and made an online campaign video. Some English celebrities in Los Angeles, including James Corden, retweeted the video.

Was this event a tragedy or a blessing?

The rabbis teach us that everything is ultimately a blessing, even if that blessing is not instantly revealed. I believe it. This life-changing event has revealed tremendous love from family and friends, and deepened my love for so many people.

Being forced to slow down has made me focus on repairing the areas of my life where I was underperforming. This recovery period has given me time for internal work, to see where I can improve as a human being.

One hundred percent recovery is possible; to get back to where I was before and surpass it with new improvements. It’s like an upgrade.d

I am slowly getting back my work as an actor and business coach. My accident was a God-given gift that has made me focus on why I am here on the planet.

“Man’s days are numbered,” Job said, and I am more aware of that than ever. For years, I suppressed the more controversial stories that I wanted to bring to stage or film, for fear that I would upset people or face rejection, but coming so close to death has reminded me that I only need fear God.

When it comes to speaking deeper truths to motivate my business coaching clients, I have found few things more life-affirming than coming back from near death after a double brain bleed.

My current theory is to “never waste a good accident,” see the good in and appreciate all of these blessings. There won’t be any yogic handstands or surfing or break dancing for a good while yet, and no big parties because public gatherings are still too loud and overstimulating. There will be no driving after dark because lights are still too bright. But there are so many things I can do, and I focus on those instead.

Getting hit by a car was one of the best things that ever happened to me.


Marcus J Freed is an actor and business coach. You can see his “manhunt” video at marcusalive.com.

Letters to the Editor: Demographics, Israeli Supreme Court, Salvador Litvak and Marcus Freed

Demographic Study Would Aid Stories on L.A. Jews

As a former Angeleno and current doctoral candidate studying the American Jewish community, I read with disappointment the framing for the story “Building Boom: Is Jewish L.A. Defying National Demographic Trends?” (Nov. 17). I celebrate that a number of schools and synagogues, including my family’s, are growing, but the article does not tell the full story — the fact of the matter is, it can’t, as no one knows the full story of L.A. Jewry. It has been two decades since the last demographic study, the only way to systematically understand what is happening within the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles. A lot has changed since 1997 — for starters, I’m no longer in fifth grade at the VBS Day School.

In the absence of recent data, it may seem all well and good to focus on national Jewish trends as identified by the Pew Survey in 2013, but I’m sure every Angeleno will agree: L.A. is not like the rest of the country. In the absence of up-to-date estimates of the population, geographic distribution, migration habits, ritual practice, organizational involvement and more, communal institutions are left reacting to perceived trends, rather than planning ahead for growth, stabilization or even decline. Would it not be to the community’s benefit to know the relative proportion of 20-something Jews on the Westside who are Orthodox; young families in the Valley interested in Jewish summer camp; or senior citizens in Santa Monica who need social support? It’s only with a local demographic study that questions like these can be answered, so the truly important one can be asked: How can local Jewish organizations help community members lead meaningful Jewish lives?

Matt Brookner, Brandeis University, Somerville, MA (formerly from Tarzana)


Debating the Israeli Supreme Court

I enjoyed the dueling stories by Shmuel Rosner and Caroline Glick on the Israeli Supreme Court. While posed as a debate, the two authors agree that the court suffers from ideological activism and has outsized power in the absence of a written constitution.

But what both miss is the underlying reason for the court’s current misalignment with Israeli society: the judicial nomination process. Whereas in the United States, the executive branch nominates a candidate and the legislature confirms — ensuring democratic input — in Israel, an independent “judicial selections committee” is responsible for nomination and confirmation. The nine-member committee operates in secret, and while composed of members from all three branches, a majority is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the Israeli public. In fact, the largest bloc on the committee is the Supreme Court justices themselves, allowing the court to essentially self-select its composition, refining its ideological uniformity with each successive iteration.

While we in the U.S. view checks and balances among the branches as a vital democratic feature, Israel has chosen a “hermetic seal” between the branches to ensure a judiciary independent of politics. While a noble sentiment, it essentially cuts off the court from its contemporary society, rendering it less and less relevant — and more and more controversial — to the citizenry. Indeed, in order to be saved, the system must be changed.

Jordan Reimer, Los Angeles


Israel and Ancient Claims to Its Land

Professor Judea Pearl conceded too much to the neo-Philistines, who suddenly discovered in 1967 that they, not we, are “Palestinian” (“The Balfour Declaration at 100 and How It Redefined Indigenous People,” Nov. 10.)

First the disclaimer: I hold that those Arabs who stayed in Israel in 1948 earned their Israeli citizenship. They and their descendants richly deserve it.

That said, they are not “equally indigenous.” We have been present in the land of Israel since before recorded history, millennia ago. That is why the Arabs were calling it the “Abode of the Jew” when they first invaded it in 632 C.E. True, most of us were exiled for many centuries, but there was always some Jewish presence. The Arab population, too, dwindled as they destroyed the very soil until it would no longer support them. Most current Arab settlers descended from infiltrators attracted by the new prosperity created by the Zionists.

Louis Richter, Reseda


Torah Portion About Sarah and the Handmaid

Well, that parsha was fun (“Vayera,” Nov. 3).

To David Sacks and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits: A Jewish child would say “Enough with the tests. I get too many of them in school.”

To Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat: Older son, upon viewing his brother when the latter was brought home from the hospital, with the source explained as “Mommy’s belly:” “Put it back.” So sometimes there’s no “anymore” about it.

To Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: The concentric circle model also applies to how one reveals himself to others. There is a core revealed to no one. The innermost circle can be, but need not be, one or more family members. It can be one or more friends. And so forth.

Finally, to Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh: My late father-in-law’s approach to life was very simple: “Whatever I have is the best.” No matter the example, “mine is the best.” Thus, he didn’t worry about competition, and the women you speak of might do well to consider something similar. I might add that it took a while for him to apply his philosophy to his two sons-in-law.

Steve Meyers via email


From Facebook …

Salvador Litvak Column

There is clearly a distinction between young people who make immature decisions whose ramifications are beyond their scope of experience and serial pedophiles/sexual deviants (“I Shot a Sex Offender,” Nov. 17). The stigma of being convicted of a sexual offense seems to have no pyramid of seriousness, and often the term becomes dissolved into an ambiguous term that simply translates to “sicko” or “pervert.” There are literally ex-prostitutes who are registered sex offenders for prostitution too close to a school or playground (even when no children are present). Studies have shown that the wide-stroke brush of “sex offender” for minor offenses is detrimental to the public at large, places tremendous strain on law enforcement, and has not proven to reduce recidivism. Hearing the words “sex offender” places a stereotypical image in the listener’s mind of a sex predator, when the vast majority of those who commit sexual offenses are not registered offenders. I think the videographer’s open-mindedness is in good faith, and that there is much to learn from his efforts.

Brandon Moore

This is why there needs to be clearly defined parameters as to who is and who isn’t a pedophile. Those who engage in pedophilia are highly recidivist in nature. Extensive studies have shown they cannot be weaned out of it. So, this article would suggest that while he might have engaged in what is considered a sexual offense, it wasn’t pedophilia. The idea that G-d forgives the truly penitent, so we should as well … runs against what we believe — that G-d only forgives, once those we’ve transgressed against, forgive.

Batsheva Gladstone


Back and Forth Column

I actually agree with both of them (“Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk.” Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Nov. 10) — but the Orthodox rabbi was correct when he said “Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.” In our own synagogue, we have seen the numbers of millennials dwindling and are not seeing the growth necessary to exist in the near future.

Sherri Chapman


Help for Marcus Freed

Thank you Jewish Journal for covering this story and helping to support Marcus J. Freed! (“A Community Rallies to Help Beloved Teacher,” Nov. 17.)

Audrey Jacobs

Fundraiser Launched For Marcus Freed

Photo from Jewcer.

Say the name “Marcus Freed” and many Jews in Los Angeles and beyond know exactly who he is.

The 42-year-old British-born actor, teacher and author has been living in Los Angeles for several years now. He’s a regular staple at Pico Shul and he’s reinvigorated many Jewish lives by using his artistic talents to allow people to connect with their Judaism.

From his Bibliyoga classes to his Kosher Karma Sutra books, his one man show about King Solomon, his Shabbat services at Pico Shul, his Soul Revival sessions or a myriad of his other Jewish and artistic endeavors, Freed is a much sought after teacher and educator as well as beloved by Jewish communities around the world.

On Nov 3, Freed was on his way home from synagogue near Olympic and Shenandoah/Sherbourne when he was hit by a car traveling at about 10 miles per hour.

In shock, Freed asked the driver to take him to his friend Metuka Daisy Lawrence’s house a few streets away. He never asked the driver for his details.

Lawrence told the Journal, “Marcus knocked on the door and said, ‘Hi, I’ve just been hit by a car.’” Despite insisting he felt fine, Lawrence said, “I told him we should get him checked out by a doctor and walked with him the four blocks to his apartment to get his medical card.” But once there, Lawrence suggested they call Hatzolah (the Jewish emergency service). “They were there within 90 seconds,” Lawrence said, “and one of them realized right away that something was wrong.”

Freed was rushed to Cedars Sinai Medical Center and underwent immediate brain surgery to stem bleeding in his brain. By Sunday morning he had been moved out of the ICU into a regular room. But on Tuesday morning he was back in surgery for a second attempt to stop the brain bleed. That surgery went well and if all goes to plan Freed could be out of the ICU within the next 12 hours.

Because Freed has only basic MediCal insurance, his close friend Audrey Jacobs, who is a crowd funder by profession, launched a campaign to raise $250,000 to cover Freed’s extensive medical costs. When Jewcer, the Jewish crowdfunding organization heard about Marcus’s plight they waived all their fees to host his fundraiser on their platform.

“I truly believe in the power of the crowd to fund ideas, to change people’s lives and help others in their time of need and I’m so grateful that Jewcer exists and did this for Marcus,” Jacobs said.

Within 48 hours almost $100,000 had been raised on the site. “That’s because people are truly inspired by who he is,” said Jacobs.

Throughout his ordeal, Freed has remained in great spirits and has been lucid. The nurses have been overwhelmed by how many visitors he’s received.

“It’s truly a miracle that he could have had two brain surgeries and be as lucid and charming as he always is  – joking and sharing his words of Torah – it comes from a real sense of gratitude from God,” Jacobs said.

Lawrence, who has known Freed for years, said of all Freed’s joking, “I told him ‘I know you love to perform, but you need to stop performing for your visitors so you can heal.’”

Following the accident, Freed’s parents – Jill and Barry – flew in from London on a one-way ticket and plan on staying here until Freed is ready to leave the hospital.

Speaking by telephone to the Journal from their son’s apartment – on a rare break from their hospital vigil – the couple said they are overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support.

“I don’t know how we would have got through the last four days without the amazing Pico Shul community and especially Metuka [Lawrence] who was there through the darkest hours,” said Jill.

“She saved his life,” Barry said.

“And the wonderful care he’s receiving at the hospital,” Jill added.

They’re also in awe of how much money has been raised for Freed’s medical bills. “We are very humbled and totally embarrassed,” said Jill. “It’s not our style to ask for anything. My immediate thought was, ‘We’re going to have to sell our home, but as long as [Marcus] lives that was the main thing.’”

Barry choked up speaking of all the donations that have come through the Jewcer site. “We saw donations from everything from $10 to $5,000 but we also saw people that donated $1 and that was the most moving thing for me. People were giving whatever they could.”

Were the Freed’s aware of how much of an impact their son has had on the community?

“No,” said Jill. “However much one loves their children or how proud they are, you don’t expect this.”

The couple was here two years ago for Freed’s 40th birthday and said they met all his friends and realized that he would be fine. “He had a new family here in Los Angeles,” Jill said. “There are so many people I’d like to name: Audrey and Metuka and Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein and Rabbi Levin.”

For now, the Freeds are focusing on one day at a time. “We’re hoping he’ll be out of hospital sooner rather than later,” said Jill. “We just want him settled back home and to put him back in the safe care of his Pico Shul community.”

“Please God, he’ll make a full recovery,” Barry said. “And we want to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts.”

To date, Freed’s prognosis is good but he has a long road ahead and the bills keep piling up. “We haven’t even got the ambulance bill yet,” said Barry.

You can donate to Freed’s recovery fund by going to https://www.jewcer.org/project/marcus-needs-a-miracle/

Lawrence is also asking everyone to pray for Freed. His Hebrew name is Harav Matisyahu Joel Baruch Ben Gitel.

“Pray for his speedy recovery,” said Lawrence. “Prayer really works.”