Inspiring Jewish Women
Miri Ehrental is Lighting the Independence Day Torch
One of the torchbearers on the upcoming Israeli Independence Day will be Miri Ehrental, founder of Zichron Menachem, an organization that assists families of children with cancer. In an emotional interview, Miri tells about the closure of the circle, 27 years after they lost their sick son. "We realized that until then we recieved help from others, and now we must go over to the other side, to be those who give help"
"The truth is that at the first moment I was sure that someone was fooling me," Miri says with a smile, "and then I understood that they really chose me to represent the religious and ultra-Orthodox sector, and I was very moved. I feel it’s a great merit, specifically from where I stand running an organization that helps children with cancer; I see so much great kindness in observant Jews that it’s simply impossible to describe it in words. I encounter so many women who organize meals for families that have a sick child or watch the children. I see volunteers driving sick children to hospitals every day, people that organize programs and many other types of volunteers. I can personally list dozens of religious activists and laymen, who if you wake them in the middle of the night they will come in minutes to provide help. My lighting the torch is my opportunity to say: 'Who is like Your people Israel.' "
"Our surrounding friends gave us a huge hug"
Miri talks of what happened 42 years ago, when her eldest son fell ill with leukemia. "We were a young couple, about twenty-five, when we learned that Menachem, only a one-year-old baby, had leukemia,” she says. "It wasn’t easy to have this thing fall on us, certainly not at the beginning of life. I was already pregnant with my second child at the time, and it came quite suddenly, but we quickly realized the most important thing we can do is help Menachem through these difficult times. That was possible, and that’s what we did.”
But besides coping with the disease, was another troubling problem. “My husband and I, are both very sociable and it was hard for us because our friends distanced themselves from us. People closest to us crossed the street to avoid us. No one would ever mention the word cancer. We felt it was as if we were lepers! But when we initiated the conversation, our surrounding friends came closer to us and we saw that everyone was indeed with us and gave us a huge hug.”
How did you feel that hug?
Miri says she has no words to express all the kindness of her surrounding friends. “For example, we have very close friends, Rabbi Eliyahu and Edna Heisherick of Bayit Vegan. All the years that Menachem was sick, for 14 and a half years, they visited every Shabbat. They would come hear how Menachem was doing and encourage us.”
"There were also many yeshiva students from the Bayit Vegan neighborhood, where we live, especially from Yeshiva Ateret Yisrael, who stood by our side the whole time to help us through this difficult period. These things gave us a lot of strength.”
Miri says that Menachem himself helped them cope. "The illness returned over and over again, but Menachem never asked why... He would get chemotherapy treatments and then ask to go back to the Talmud Torah, and he went... As a mother I felt “it wasn’t logical, he needs to rest”. And my husband insisted:' Menahem is right, he needs to get back to routine. I asked: 'And if he vomits?' And my husband replied, 'if he vomits, then he’ll clean himself.’ Indeed, Menachem would go to Talmud Torah and when in school, he would not only learn, but he would be a panther. He had uncommon strength.
"Menachem was hospitalized a lot," Miri continues, "during a certain period he was in solitary confinement for eight months, meaning that only one person could enter his room, either a father or a mother, in a hospital gown with a mask on my face, after washing my hands with a special disinfectant. When I caught a cold I could not go in at all."
"In fact, Menahem was alone in the isolation room of Hadassah Ein Kerem for a long time, but never for a moment did he feel lonely. Countless people came to visit him, standing on the other side of the glass and communicating with him. He could hear all the guests and they could hear him, and who didn’t come? Seminar girls would play pantomime and games for him, yeshiva students came and danced in front of the room, people came and made up riddles. All the children in the ward clustered around the glass, so they also participated, it was really exciting.”
“Rabbis would also come visit and encourage him. Rabbi Chaim Wolkin, the spiritual director of Ateret Yisrael, moved to Beit Vegan; he did not previously know Menachem and he suddenly came. Menachem was never alone.”
"Even as parents so many friends and acquaintances came to visit us, and when Menachem slept, they would sit with us, right up to the middle of the night supporting and encouraging us. This heightened my sense of mutual responsibility and sharing the burden of others. These things are so important you can’t estimate their value.”
We decided to move to being supporters of others
As Miri recalls, Menachem was sick on and off. She explains, "He had remissions and recurrences, the disease would disappear and then come back again. After the fourth time they thought to do a bone marrow transplant, which was not common practice in those days. Menachem was only the 123rd patient to go through it so there was almost no experience to fall back on, but we decided to go for it. The bone marrow and tissue of our third son matched 100% to Menachem, so he donated it and it seemed to have taken excellently. But then he had a fifth relapse and we already knew that this was his death sentence...Menachem received the maximum chemotherapy and radiation, but we knew it would eventually happen. It took six months. The illness returned on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and on the eve of Pesach, the night of checking for Chametz, he died.”
“We accompanied Menachem on his final journey, after his fourteen and a half years of struggle. We saw the huge number of people who participated in the funeral and we were astounded! There were thousands of people, just like the funeral of a great Admor or Rabbi. Even though the funeral was on Passover eve, the most stressful time of preparation for the holiday, people left everything and came to accompany him.”
Twenty-seven years have passed since then, and every year Miri says she usually calls on the night of checking for Chametz to the dozens of people who were with them during their tough time. “I tell them that we’re still grateful and that we have much appreciation for them. We talk together and recall all the experiences we went through; some of them very difficult, some of them joyous. There are things that can’t be forgotten, and the many friends and family who were with us all along the way are an inseparable part of that time. "
Four months after Menahem's death, the Ehrental couple announced the establishment of the Zichron Menachem Association for the Support of Families of Children with Cancer.
"We held the concert at the Binyanei Hauma Convention Hall,” Miri says, “in which the greatest singers - Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, Michael Streicher, Mona Rosenblum, etc. all came. It was a kind of closure because these are the singers who used to come often with yeshiva students and sing with Menachem and cheer him up. Composer Rabbi Baruch Chait composed six songs for us. He composed one of the songs on Menachem's birthday. Rabbi Chait asked Menachem to choose a verse and then he would compose a song. Menahem opened the siddur and leafed through it and chose the verse: 'I will not die because I will live.' "Rabbi Chait composed the popular song on the spot and Mordechai Ben David sang it. It was very moving.”
What made you decide to establish Zichron Menachem?
“Separation from someone departed is a difficult thing,” replies Miri, “very difficult. During the entire period Menachem was ill, I didn’t work and I was with him 24 hours a day. Though there were other children in the house everything was centered on him. After he passed away we had 2 choices; We could turn over a new leaf and go back to regular routine or we could use our accumulated experience to contribute to other families who were going through the same things and help them. The truth is that we didn’t at all hesitate. We saw how much help we received from others and how much power it gave us. We understood that now it was our turn to contribute.”
To help, support and cry
If you ask Miri exactly what Zichron Menachem is doing today, she finds it difficult to answer. “We have many areas of activity that cannot be summed up in a few sentences, but I will explain how we work. We meet with the families at the very beginning of the process, and first of all we tell them of our experience, in a simple and non-medical language. "It’s true we lost a child, and this seems threatening, but we emphasize that many years have passed since then, and today the situation is very different." Today, the treatments are much shorter and the recovery rates are much higher. Almost 90% are completely cured and get married and raise families. We tell the families what happens to their relationships, their livelihood, and to the other children in the house. In this way we help them keep on fighting. We provide this service to the entire population; Jews and non-Jews, Christians and Muslims, from the most conservative Haredim to the most secularly non-religious; literally everyone.”
In addition to helping with all that information, Miri notes that they also run a huge center near Shaare Zedek Hospital, on the outskirts of the Bayit Vagan neighborhood. “This is a very special place. In the morning, sick children who can’t study in regular settings come because their immune systems are compromised and they can’t be exposed to infections that may be present in children of their age group. At the center, they have teams of professionals, doctors, teachers, kindergarten teachers and other staff.”
“In the afternoon, sick children whose immune system enables them to be with others, come with their brothers and sisters, do homework and then spread out to various classes such as aerobics, carpentry, electronics, photography, sports and movement, etc. We have five music rooms where every child can learn to play any instrument he could dream of. We have special teachers for every field and also a recording studio. We recently opened an animal therapy group and married Yeshiva students come study with whoever wants. Dinner is also available, and of course we also have a whole set of volunteers that take the children and bring them back, so that the parents only need to shower them at the end of the day and put them to bed.”
At the center, according to Miri, there is also a parent’s support group and there is a unique clinic headed by two great professors - Prof. Eliyahu Freeman and Prof. Reuven Naor, who provide additional consultation with outside the box thinking. “It's just like getting free private doctors and Thank G-d we have already seen miracles here.”
Isn’t it difficult, to deal with so much in pain and illness? What's more, you are a mother who has coped with this and understands too well what the families are going through...
"It's really unbearable," agrees Miri, "the pain is inconceivable. Just recently, I went to console the parents of a girl named Mali Goldman, who died at the age of six after going through a very difficult time and her parents knew that her days were numbered. As a mother I identified with the mother’s pain. After all, my son also passed away at this time, in the month of Nissan. But it is clear to me that G-d gives us special strength, because He wants us to give from that strength to others and that is our job. So I allow myself to cry and feel the pain, but in the end I feel that this is my mission.”