THE COMPLETED EXPANSION OF Ohel Yaacob Congregation, LAWRENCE AVENUE SYNAGOGUE

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THE JEWISH WORLD UNITES FOR A YOUNG MOTHER

By: Barbara Bensoussan



Miriam Chammah, a”h, wasn’t expected to survive.  But by adding mitzvot, the community added months to her life

                As parents, we’re always trying to protect our children from harm:  We buckle their seat belts, insist on bike helmets, make sure they get enough vitamins.

                And yet sometimes things happen anyway, things that no one could predict or prevent.

                That is what happened to our 28-year-old daughter, Miriam Chammah, a”h, who went into a coma during childbirth when an embolism shut down her lungs and heart.  I don’t wish any parent or spouse to have to go through the ordeal we experienced that night, as a team of surgeons at Maimonides worked for four hours to stabilize her while her husband Gabi and I waited tearfully in the hallway not knowing if she’d survive or not.

                Miriam, a.k.a. Mimi, was the last person you’d expect to become sick.  She was the most warm, vibrant person imaginable.  She was everyone’s best friend and confidant; she had a canny wisdom about human relationships and would always keep a secret.  She was everyone’s favorite Morah – first at the Yam Hatorah preschool, and later the Little Blossoms playgroup – because she loved every child as if he were her own, and had a magic touch with them.  She loved bringing people together and was a consummate hostess; in fact, she began posting her culinary creations on Instagram because, with characteristic generosity, she simply wanted to share her best ideas and inspirations.  She quickly amassed 1,500 followers without even trying. 

                She was an eshet hayil in a very contemporary way. By that I mean that her heart and soul were squarely centered on her home, family and hinuch.  She never aspired to anything else.  But within that sphere she shone, with 21st century flair, and not because she was competitive or driven, but because her passion was for children and creating a beautiful home.

                Extremely clever and creative, she was one of the masterminds behind the Sephardic Challah Bake of 2015 and an active member of Moms On A Mitzvah.  She always had ideas for new inventions to make moms’ lives easier, and was fearless about trying a complicated recipe or teaching herself to refinish furniture. In high school, she took a course in hair styling, and people often asked her to apply her golden hands to their wigs and makeup.

                Mimi was also, in a discreet way, a tremendous baalat hesed.  She ran errands for the Mitzvah Man, was always cooking meals for friends who gave birth, organized bridal showers for friends and family, took her children to the Ahi Ezer residence to visit senior citizens.  When a friend was out of town, she quietly took over visiting her friend’s relative in Menorah nursing home. There, she decided the residents needed something to make them smile, so she contacted a party planner and created an “A Night in Aleppo” evening, complete with Arabic music and refreshments.  Ever since, SBH has continued making the party once a year in Miriam’s stead.

                Mimi was big-hearted and generous.  She once told me she never worried about money, even though she sometimes ran herself into debt; she had a rock-hard conviction Hashem would see her through.  She was scrupulous about taking ma’aser, and always ready to share her money, her home, her time.

                But for all this hesed and commitment to mitzvot, Mimi wasn’t a holier-than-thou type of person.  Within the bounds of tzniut, she had bold, stylish tastes and was always well-dressed and made up.  She had a take-charge, assertive personality that made people feel secure she’d stand up for them.  You could rely on her to be honest:  If you asked her opinion about a dress that looked awful on you, she’d tactfully suggest that maybe a different color or cut would suit you better. She was a great imitator and could be hysterically funny - we still laugh at her lines.

Community Crisis

                Miriam was the last person anyone would have expected to end up in an ICU bed, connected to a respirator and countless other tubes.  The first week in Maimonides was a nightmare.  Her life hung in the balance, and the doctors made dire predictions about her ability to function even if she were to recover and wake up from her coma.  We found ourselves living in a drawn-out suspense movie, frozen with fear over an unknown outcome.

                She had given birth on Friday night. Motzaei Shabbat was the first night of Hanukah. Despite family commitments, the community came running to our side every night.  The family room on the eighth floor was packed every evening with caring people who wanted to help.  Meals appeared magically, alongside huge trays of donuts. SBH arranged care for Miriam’s children.  Community doctors stopped in regularly to check up on her care and give guidance.  Rabbis came by to offer support, perform pidyon nefesh, and to pray. The Stoliner Rebbe stopped by her room one night; we met the Nickolsberger Rebbe in the lobby one night and received a beracha.

                When Miriam’s brain scans showed swelling and potential damage, community rabbis and askanim urged us to transfer her to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, known for top neurological treatment.  This involved no small amount of administrative and insurance gymnastics, but the community came to our aid to make it happen.  She was moved the following Friday night by an impressively professional transport team, and once arrived, immediately connected to a forest of electrodes and life support.

                Despite the professionalism, Mimi didn’t do well in the cold, clinical world of Columbia.  Her kidneys began to fail, and the staff couldn’t get the dialysis to work without wreaking havoc on her blood pressure.  They believed her brain was greatly damaged by the lack of oxygen during her resuscitation.  Two young interns called in the family for a meeting, and announced, “We see no brain function, and according to New York State law, we have to cease life support after 24 hours.”

                For the second time in two weeks, we sat in shock as we were told her life was for all intents over.  We were equally shocked by the attitude of the hospital.  Fortunately, Rabbis Yitzhak Mohadeb and Gad Bouskila had run to Manhattan to join us, and together with our son-in-law Rahamim Nahem we called Chayim Aruchim, the branch of Agudath Israel specializing in end-of-life issues.  Their askanit Mrs. Leah Horowitz took the reins and succeeded in convincing Columbia - with a lot of arm-twisting - to keep our daughter on life support until she could be transferred the following day to Monmouth South Hospital in Lakewood.

                By Monday morning Miriam - now Miriam Chaya - was transferred to Monmouth South.  Within 24 hours she looked much better.  Furthermore, when the staff put her on dialysis, she responded just fine - and didn’t need it ever again.

                In the warm Jewish environment of Lakewood, Miriam Chaya made slow but steady progress.  Her swelling slowly subsided, so as the months went by she again looked like her beautiful self.  While there were always the glitches associated with long term care - infections, blood pressure dips and spikes, etc.—overall her condition improved.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, this “completely comatose” patient began moving her legs and arms.  But that resulted from the other side to this story.

A Spiritual Movement

                Throughout this entire ordeal, our family clung to the belief that doctors are skilled but not all-knowing, and Hashem can turn situations around in miraculous ways.  My husband immersed himself in sefarim on emunah andbitachon, and we spent many hours grappling with how to handle the situation spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.  We prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best.  We were determined to fight Miriam’s condition with every weapon known to man:  traditional medicine, less-traditional medicine (thank you, Dr. Sandy Rhodes), and spiritualkoach, always retaining the awareness that none of these will succeed unless Hashem has thus decreed.

                Miriam’s husband, Gabi, was a true gibor during these months, despite his pain.  He had to cope with the demands of caring for his children, making a living, and giving Torah classes, but still spent innumerable hours praying, learning, and running to onegadol after another for berachot.  Our other children stretched their tight schedules to spend as much time as they could with her.

                In the ensuing weeks, we saw the Jewish community in its finest hour.  Syrians, Moroccans, Ashkenazim, and every other community united, and together with Hashem, carried us every step of the way, cushioning an excruciating journey.  The Jewish community didn’t only extend endless hesed; everyone prayed and took on kabbalot to beseech Hashem to bring her back.  The result was that, lying motionless on a hospital bed, Miriam effected more change in the community than many rabbis accomplish with years of speeches. 

  Miriam Chaya bat Bracha became a global movement, a crusade with a momentum of its own.   It seemed people all over the world - America, South America, Europe, Eretz Yisrael, Morocco - were just waiting for the right impetus to do a little more, to make changes in their lives.  Miriam became the spark that lit their fire, endowing them with the willpower or courage they’d lacked on their own to take things on and push themselves to higher spiritual levels. 

  I hesitate to start listing all the prayer gatherings, Tehillim groups, learning groups and so on that were organized as azechut for Miriam Chaya’s refuah, because I would surely leave something out.  There were minyanim of men who stayed up all night—not once, but many times—to learn and pray on her behalf.  Groups of people organized buses and went to kivrei tzaddikim in Queens and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel.   Our friend Sara Lea Landa took out ads in all the Jewish newspapers and websites asking women to light candles early and read Perek 41 in Tehillim.

                Early on, Miriam’s friend and fellow Mom On A Mitzvah Linda Sadacka mobilized the group to organize an asifah in her zechut.  Rabbi Wallerstein spoke about Yosef Hatzaddik, saying if we wanted Hashem to reverse nature for us, and cure Miriam Chaya, we’d have to overcome our own natures as Yosef did, and make shalom with others.  After the asifah, we heard many moving stories of people who restored shalom, sometimes after many years.  Rabbi Wallerstein spoke again before Pesach, at a Lakewood asifah organized by Miriam Sharabani, focusing on our morning berachot and how they should help us appreciate being able to wake up and function normally.

                Moms On A Mitzvah did yet anotherasifah, with Rabbis Yedid and Goldwasser as the speakers.  Then there were other women’s gatherings:  scores of hafrashat challah groups, Tehillim groups, shiurim.  There were women’s gatherings in Lakewood, Deal, and Brooklyn to promote tzniut, during which inspiring speakers would be followed by hairdressers volunteering to trim wigs and hair for free.  I still have a photo of a folding chair surrounded by clumps of shorn hair.

                Time and time again, we felt overcome with astonishment and gratitude as we heard of all the things being done on behalf of our daughter—from the man who agreed to start putting on tefillin to the woman who threw out her pants.  Mrs. Sara Halperin, whose husband started the colorful Asher Yatzer cards, printed cards up in Sephardi nusach in Miriam’s name.  Lisa Marciano distributed 250 lace headscarves with Perek 41 to all the women at her son’s wedding, asking them to cover their heads while lighting candles.  Mi k’amcha Yisrael!

We, the family, received beautiful homemade Shabbat meals when we stayed in the Bikur Holim house; often we had no idea who’d sent them.  People brought me books onemunah and lunches on weekdays.  We can’t imagine how we can possibly pay all this back, or even pay it forward!  One thing is sure:  We learned a tremendous amount about ahavat Yisrael, and what Jewish people are capable of.  It was a lesson to us to be more giving people, to be more forthcoming and aggressive when people we know are in need.  Our new role models are the bighearted community members who ran to our aid.

                While Miriam was in Lakewood, she was never abandoned.  Our consuegra, Elyse Kairey, became the general, marshaling legions of volunteers who offered to spend shifts at Miriam’s bedside, day and night (special thanks to those who slept over!).  I never knew who or what I might find when I came to Miriam’s room:  a Tehillim group, aberachot party, a kumsitz (Yaakov Shwekey came one night to sing), ashiur.  Shabbat afternoons always brought a joyful gathering of people – her “regulars” plus others – just the type of get-together Miriam loved.  “We love coming to her room,” people would tell me. “There’s such a special feeling here that draws us back again and again.”  

I myself made scads of new friends—the silver lining to our otherwise gloomy cloud. I’d tell my sleeping daughter, “Mimi, you have to wake up, you have hundreds of new friends to meet!  We’ll have to book MetLife Stadium for your seudat hodaah!” 

Turnaround

                One outstanding initiative was a trip to Eastern Europe and Eretz Yisrael, organized by Rabbi Mohadeb.  An entire minyan of men from the community took a week off, in February, to tour kivrei tzaddikim.  They landed in Kiev in the snow, made l’chayims with whiskey to warm up after tromping through Ukrainian cemeteries.  They went to Tzfat, then Jerusalem, praying all night at David Hamelech’s tomb.

They returned on a Monday.  Monday night, a group of women doing a berachot party in Miriam’s room were convinced they saw her move a leg. 

Tuesday morning, the sixtieth day after the trauma, my sister-in-law Freddy Kadoch, who organizes kosher tours in Morocco, was with a group visiting the kever of the tzaddik Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan.  She sent me photos of her husband praying there; I opened them on my phone as I sat on the bus going down to Lakewood.  An hour later the phone rang.  It was Sue, a lady we’d met in the Bikur Holim house, who’d decided to visit Miriam’s room.  “Barbara!” she cried.  “Your daughter is moving!  I saw her legs move!”

                It seemed a miracle!  After months of seeing Miriam lying immobile - a response!  I saw it with my own eyes when I arrived.  Over the next months, we tried to strengthen her responses by moving her limbs.  The responses become stronger over the weeks; at times it even seemed she responded to our voices.  Might she really wake up, as we all dreamed she would?

                Despite this breakthrough, we had our emotional ups and downs.  Any turn for the worse left us depressed, and while we hoped she’d wake up, we sometimes asked ourselves how long it would take, and how long we’d have to continue this new lifestyle of running back and forth constantly between Brooklyn and Lakewood. 

We prayed so hard to see a Purim miracle that it was a letdown to see Purim come and go with no awakening.  We dreaded spending Pesach without her.  Then Hashem sent us a message to keep us hopeful:  When Mimi’s husband Gabi called Verizon to suspend her phone service, he began explaining that his wife was in a coma and unable to use her phone.  He expected to have to go into detail, but the rep said, “Oh, sir, I know all about it!  My best friend had the same thing 20 minutes after having a baby, and six months later she woke up and left the hospital two days later!”

                What were the odds of landing on such a rep, when childbirth embolisms are a one-in-80,000 occurrence?  We felt convinced Hashem was sending us a sign:  If that woman woke up, Miriam Chaya would wake up too!  Now, in retrospect, perhaps He just wanted us to go into Pesach in a hopeful frame of mind.  Because even with that encouragement, it was extremely painful to make the Seder with one family member so conspicuously absent.

                After Pesach, unfortunately, things began to decline.  Miriam contracted a couple of infections, one of which proved to be sepsis.  We spent a little over a week moving from one terrifying situation to another, watching her blood pressure plunge and her temperature rise.  We sat glued to the monitors, as if by watching them we could will the numbers to change.

                On Miriam’s final morning, Hashem granted us the time to run to her side.  The entire family, with the exception of one sister who’d returned to Eretz Yisrael after Pesach, managed to be at the hospital with her in her last hours.  She faded peacefully, holding our hands.  It was the kind of death that befits a tzaddik, the pulling of a hair from milk...

                It was, in many ways, a hesed from Hashem—or at least that is how we must think of it.  Miriam didn’t appear to suffer.  Hashem spared us the ordeal of having to live for years with a family member in coma.  If she couldn’t wake up 100% functional, we’re sure she would never, ever have wanted to be a burden to her family.  Hashem gave us just enough hope along the way that our spirits didn’t fall completely.

                We are now past the shiva and still getting over the shock; for a long time, we really thought she might return to us, that all thosetefilot and kabbalot would effect a miracle.  But we are convinced they did not go to waste. 

The miracle that happened was in our community.  We changed, we grew, we were transformed.  Miriam ascended toshamayim with suitcases full of everyone’s mitzvot

Don’t stop, our dear fellow community members!  Because of her, we all pushed ourselves to new, higher levels.  If we let ourselves slide back, what use was all her suffering and the suffering of those who love her?  As Rav Avraham Schorr, shlit”a, said at her levayah, let’s continue keep sending her packages to shamayim.  Let’s continue to grow togetherl’iluy nishamata.