My incredible journey to discover life: Orly Vaknin


On 31 July 2002 Orly Vaknin was among those seriously wounded in the terrorist attack that took place in the heart of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Nine years later, in July 2011, she was the keynote speaker at the annual ceremony that honors the memory of the nine students and staff members killed in the attack.

Orly Vaknin on her wedding day"I'll start by saying that when the University first asked me to speak “on behalf of the injured,” I was terrified by the thought of standing in front of the bereaved families. Knowing that each person and their means of coping is a world unto its own. To speak “on behalf of the injured” is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task. All I can do is tell the story from my own perspective.

31.7.2002, Frank Sinatra, the cafeteria, the Hebrew University

I am here for the first time in my life. This is the first time I'm standing in this venerable place called the university. I am Orly Vaknin from the Katamonim [in Jerusalem]. The disadvantaged neighborhood. Daughter of Ruth and Shalom Vaknin — hardworking people who devoted themselves to my and my younger brother Uriel's' education. So that we can have a different life; a life of possibilities. Education and knowledge are possibilities. They are the possibility to choose.

And so I decided to study education.

A summer's afternoon. I find the Student Aid office. Everyone is in the cafeteria at lunch. The clerk tells me to take a manila envelope and mail in my application. But I need to speak to someone, preferably the head of the unit. I wait outside the cafeteria.

Hours later I wake up in bed. The brown envelope is at my side. “That’s our envelope, right?” a hoarse voice asks from the other bed in the room. She introduces herself: “I'm Ora Shair, head of the Student Aid office.” Casually, totally oblivious to her physical condition and bandaged head. She continues: “As it happens, I am looking for student terror victims eligible for scholarships. You should stop by the office.” What? What's she talking about? We're in hospital — wounded. Doesn't she realize? Maybe, I think, she is an angel.

As it turns out she was, indeed, an angel. One of the many I was to encounter on my journey in this amazing place and ever since that cursed day. A day when everything went silent in a moment. Completely silent. No movement, no voice. No breath. No life. This was the starting point of my incredible journey to discover life.

In short, my life changed after the terror attack. The before-Orly was energetic and curious, constantly motivated to learn and grow, a fighter, a straight-A student, an instructor in the infantry. Up until that day, the day that I became a shadow of my former self, immersed in fear and anxiety, nightmares, sleepless nights.

And the overwhelming sense of guilt — why? why am I alive? why aren’t others? I would beat myself up for not helping the wounded enough, for going into shock, for continuing to live my life while others don’t.

Throughout all this the University supported me. The Student Aid office was my anchor. It gave me a reason to wake up in the morning, even without me realizing. A reason to attend another lesson at the University, and with it another lesson in life. The emotional and financial support was the oxygen keeping me alive. And I too had a job — to learn how to accept, to learn to ask for help when I needed it. And I got lots. Always bright smiles. Warm embraces. And a lot of love.

Since then, I have graduated with honors. I went on to study acting. Last year I married my dear husband Sa’ar Zohar who is here today. I am currently studying holistic therapy.

I want to thank the University’s supporters. Thank you for your love and for your support.

I am proud to be a graduate of the Hebrew University, a university that is world renowned. And I can testify as to why it deserves this reputation. It's because of the people here. Every single one of you. In the Student Aid office — Ora, in the Student Accommodation office – Hofi, Tami, and all those I cannot mention since time is short.

Thank you!"