Shai’s story began in the army, where he served in an elite anti-terrorist unit in the Nachal Brigade. In late September 2002, Shai’s unit was part of a raid on Hamas headquarters in Shechem’s infamous casbah uncovering a treasure trove of information regarding terrorist activities, including planned attacks against Israel. In the midst of their mission, the unit came under fire from snipers located in a nearby building. Shai was hit first and slumped to the ground. His best friend in the unit, Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss, rushed to his side but was tragically killed in the process.
Shai was rushed to a field hospital in Shavei Shomron, and then to Tel Hashomer. The bullet had lodged near his spine and he underwent emergency surgery.
Just before going into the operating room, Shai scribbled on a piece of paper, “My friend Ari was killed; please make sure I get to his funeral.” Surgeons removed Shai’s kidney and saved his life but they could not remove the bullet or repair the damage to his nervous system. After 48 hours, the doctors announced that Shai would live, but he would never walk again.
Lesser people might have succumbed to depression, or resignation, but Shai refused to do so. He had always been an athlete, excelling in handball and one of his first questions to his therapist was whether he would have to forego all sports. “Not if you don’t want to,” he was told, “you and only you will determine what you can do from now on.”
That was all Shai needed to hear. He spent four months in intensive rehab at Tel Hashomer, working out strenuously with weights, strengthening his upper body and learning how to ride and glide in his wheelchair. Most of all, he maintained a hopeful attitude and positive disposition, impressing his doctors and anyone who came to see him.
Shai decided there would be no boundaries in his life. A year after the shooting, he married his girlfriend Tamar, the equally strong-willed kibbutz native who had helped nurse him back to health and encouraged his will to excel. At his wedding, Shai stunned the guests by “walking” down the aisle in specially-constructed, battery-operated leg braces. When the last blessings were recited, Tamar held on to his arm as he “lifted” his right foot and broke the glass.
After their wedding, Shai and Tamar left for 3 months touring New Zealand and Australia. “Every soldier has a post-army tiyul (trek),” said Shai, “and I won’t be cheated out of mine!” They hiked the mountains, snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, and even rode bikes. “That trip proved to Shai beyond a doubt that he could go anywhere and do anything he set out to do,” said Tamar.
Shai became a regular at the Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv initially playing tennis and badminton until he decided to focus on basketball. Shai was one of forty three athletes representing Israel at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. He was one of 12 players in Israel’s wheelchair-basketball delegation, selected from among the more than 200 players who compete at Bet HaLochem facilities around the country. Shai was named the outstanding player in his Herzliyah squad, earning him a spot in the national team, the first Israeli team to qualify for the Paralympics in sixteen years.