The story is well-known: On July 9, 35-year-old Rabbi Reuven Bauman was on a Virginia beach, chaperoning day campers. Some of the boys got too close to the water’s choppy edge and were caught off-guard by a giant wave. Seeing the boys struggle to regain their balance in the now-deep water, Reuven immediately threw off his shoes and rushed in to save them.

During those perilous moments, Reuven held the boys tightly, keeping them from slipping out further. A nearby fisherman helped the boys reach shore safely. Yet suddenly, Reuven himself was caught in a treacherous rip tide and swept out to sea; his body was recovered five days later.

From where did Reuven derive this extraordinary sense of courage and self-sacrifice for others?

After speaking with the Bauman family, the rest of the story can now be told.

New York City, 1967. Reuven’s paternal grandfather, Wilhelm Bauman (known fondly as Willy), was a cabinet-maker. While out on a job, Willy’s partner was working in an adjacent room. Suddenly Willy heard a massive explosion. Highly-flammable glue had combusted – consuming the adjacent room in flames.

Disregarding his personal safety, Willy rushed into the dangerous inferno and pulled out his injured partner – likely saving the man's life.

In the process, however, Willy was critically injured with third-degree burns covering much of his body. Doctors did not expect him to live through the night.

Willy stayed in intensive care for many months, and eventually – with the help of an experimental burn unit – returned home to his family. Though his ability to walk was permanently damaged (he often used a wheelchair), Willy lived another 40 productive years.

Rabbi Mark Bauman was 12 years old when his father performed this exceptional deed. Mark is also the father of Reuven Bauman, whose valiant rescue on a Virginia beach echoes his grandfather’s lifesaving deed of 50 years earlier.

“Between my father and my son,” Mark says of the heroic courage transmitted through generations, “it was fire and water.”

At great personal cost, Willy Bauman performed a heroic lifesaving rescue in 1967.

Appreciating Reuven

Reuven Bauman was a beloved teacher of children in Norfolk, Virginia, spending countless hours meticulously preparing class material and developing new methods to teach in a clear, accessible way.

On a personal basis, Reuven was devoted to his students, caring and connecting to each on his level. “The boys loved him,” says Reuven’s father. “The other day a parent came over to me and said: ‘My son dislikes school, but he loved Rabbi Bauman’."

Two days before his death, Reuven accompanied the day camp to an amusement park. He rode on terrifying rollercoasters, feeling it was important to share that experience with the kids. “His commitment to his students was his life’s mission,” said Rabbi Mordechai Loiterman, the principal where Reuven taught. “It wasn’t a job he was doing; this is how he defined himself.”

Last year, Reuven published a children’s book, Yanky’s Amazing Discovery, about a boy who overcomes his struggles. The boy is inspired by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, whose character traits could be emulated by a child on any level.

Says Rabbi Mark Bauman: “Reuven felt it was important to portray our Sages in a way that is relevant and accessible, to encourage young people to aspire to their greatness.”

Reuven also wrote children’s poems about the Jewish holidays, which is being prepared for posthumous publication.

Family and friends describe Reuven as the perfect blend of intellect, humility, dignity, sweetness, humor, and love. Regardless of age, level of observance or background, Reuven respected everyone. When the yeshiva’s non-Jewish cook had a heart attack, Reuven took the initiative to buy a card, have everyone sign it, and bring it to the hospital.

"He always made you feel like a 'somebody'," says Yisrael Schwartz, Reuven’s brother-in-law. “His kindness, his smile, his ability to connect with people. Reuven had a quiet, gentle way of making you feel good about yourself.”

Reuven in his element: teaching a class of seventh graders

Reuven lived and died with Kiddush Hashem – deeds that sanctify God’s Name. His jumping into the dangerous waters to save his students was but an extension of his devotion to always putting others first.

Mordechai Bauman, one of Reuven’s five brothers, cites the Talmudic teaching that if someone desecrates God’s Name in secret, the deed is exposed in public. The same is true of the flipside: If a person sanctifies God’s Name in secret, the deed is rewarded publicly.

“Throughout Reuven’s life, he sanctified God’s Name in a very quiet, unassuming manner,” says Mordechai. “Maybe that is why God gave him the opportunity to complete his mission with an act that would cause a public Kiddush Hashem, one which spread across the globe.”

Reuven with his brother-in-law, Yisrael M. Schwartz

Massive Recovery Effort

When Reuven went missing, people far and wide were amazed at the massive outpouring of assistance, as hundreds of volunteers from organizations in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Georgia rushed to Virginia to join the search. Helicopters and a private airplane were commandeered to search up and down the coast; others came with boats and jet skis. Volunteers in SUVs scanned the terrain with binoculars, while other crews walked miles along the shore in 90-degree heat.

“When the call goes out that someone needs help, you just go without thinking twice,” says Yosef Nissel of Misaskim of Maryland, an organization that helps those dealing with tragedy. Nissel and his team of volunteers drove four hours to Virginia Beach with a boat in tow; upon arrival they chartered a second.

After a day or so of searching, the Coast Guard and other public rescue teams ended their effort, conceding it as futile. Yet the army of Jewish volunteers would not be deterred. Driven by the ever-slim chance of rescuing Reuven they pressed on, committed not to leave until they could at least accord Reuven the honor of a proper burial.

Day after day, working for hours on almost no sleep in sweltering heat, volunteers combed 450 square miles in a coordinated and organized effort. They were assisted by a local expert who calculated tides, currents and wind patterns – devising search grids for land, sea and air.

Meanwhile, thousands around the globe were drawn to this tremendous Kiddush Hashem by praying and performing good deeds on behalf of Reuven.

After a break for Shabbat, the volunteers were back in the ocean Sunday morning before sunrise.

On Sunday, as the midday sun beat upon the exhausted crew, a local fishing captain suggested that volunteers head out a few miles to where the ocean turns clear and has thick patches of seaweed. There, about one mile off the coast near the Virginia-North Carolina border, and six miles from where Reuven was last seen, Nissel’s team spotted his body.

Yosef Nissel, a volunteer from Maryland, discovered Reuven’s body one mile from the shore.

For an entire week, volunteer organizations like Achiezer, Misaskim, Chai Lifeline, Chaverim and Hatzalah were featured on the news – highlighting the tight-knit Jewish community and making a positive impression on everyone involved.

Coast Guard members were especially inspired, given that a few weeks earlier an 8-year-old boy had drowned in similar circumstances, swept away by a powerful rip current. In that instance, authorities gave up the search and simply waited for the body to wash up on shore.

In one particularly dramatic moment, when the Coast Guard diver brought Reuven's body out of the water, he proudly declared, "I am a Jew."

Importantly, Reuven received a proper burial, bringing a measure of relief to the grieving family.

Via conference call, over 40,000 people attended the funeral, where his brother-in-law Yisrael Schwartz declared:

“It as if God was saying to Reuven: You've done all this kindness for others in your quiet, unassuming way. Now I will give you a chance to save a life, and make a tremendous public Kiddush Hashem. The name Reuven Bauman will be known around the world as a man of true Kiddush Hashem. Here you go, Reuven. Take this gift. You deserve it.”

For Reuven Bauman, other people always came first. Now we each have the opportunity to give something back, by helping to care for Reuven’s wife and five young children, with a donation to the Bauman Family Fund.

May the memory of Reuven Tzvi ben Menachem Yitzchak continue to uplift and inspire.

Main photo credit: Adam Singer