June 3, 2022

Shavuot: A modern Jerusalem story of kindness – opinion

By Barbara Sofer

In the Scroll of Ruth, read and discussed on Shavuot, the heroine happens to glean in the field of relative-by-marriage Boaz, who happens to visit the field on her first day. The question arises, of course, as to the role of chance occurrences in a world in which there is Divine direction. Do you believe in chance? Here, for example, is a modern Jerusalem story recently shared with me. The story In 1982, Sheryl Handelsman, a social worker, had come from New York as a volunteer during the First Lebanon War. She was picking melons in northern fields. Lots of melons. She wasn’t melancholy, but she was nonetheless delighted to spend Shabbat at the home of old family friends in Jerusalem. Another guest, Shraga Solomon, a teacher who had recently moved from Chicago to Jerusalem, also happened to be visiting that Shabbat. Both young guests helped clear the table. Afterward, Sheryl spent increasingly longer weekends off from the melon patch, eventually calling home to say she wanted to extend her trip. “What’s his name?” asked her mother. Six weeks after their chance meeting at the Shabbat table, they were engaged. Sheryl and Shraga had three sons and a daughter. Sheryl was pregnant again when their third son Yedidya, a lively three-year-old, was diagnosed with leukemia. Yedidiya urgently needed a bone marrow transplant. Their daughter, Meira, seven, was a perfect match. She was happy to help her brother, but wondered if just maybe she could get her ears pierced, too, at the same time? Three decades ago, treatment was not as advanced as it is today in Israel. Children’s Hospital in Boston was the recommended choice for Yedidya’s type of leukemia. In their unfamiliar environment, the family received kindness and hospitality from the Boston community, particularly from welcoming hostess Mimi Feuerstein, who lived near the medical center and invited them for frequent Shabbat meals. At one such meal, they met Jonathan Ringo, a Boston University medical student from South Africa, also far from home. At the Shabbat table, Jonathan shared his own story. He, too, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia as a child living near Johannesburg. His parents had also brought him for treatment to Boston. Jonathan’s experience inspired him to study medicine. Jonathan promised to visit little Yedidya in the hospital to cheer him through his treatment. Who could understand what Yedidya was going through better than him? The procedure was rough, with ups and many downs. Jonathan was by Yedidya’s side throughout. He showed up with friends and an armload of presents for Yedidya’s fourth birthday. At last, Yedidya was deemed well enough to return to Israel. He would have more complications over the years, including a kidney transplant, for which Meira, whose bone marrow had replaced his, was again the perfect match. FAST-FORWARD TO 2022. Yedidya is grown up, a Torah scholar with a master’s degree in bibliotherapy, and works as a couples therapist, like his mom, with whom he shares an office in Jerusalem. After dating “more than 30 women, from Beersheba to Afula,” he happened to spend Shabbat with a close friend in Beit El. At the Shabbat table, his friend suggested he meet someone from Beit El friend named Yael. A perfect match. And then, at still another Shabbat dinner table, the host asks Mom Sheryl “how Yedidya is doing these days.” Sheryl quickly summarizes Yedidya’s medical story to refresh their hosts memory before she answers. The hostess is puzzled. “His sounds just like a story I read recently in Baltimore magazine, except that it was about a doctor,” she says. She didn’t remember all the details, but the doctor’s name was “Jonathan something.” There is a hush at the table. Dad Shraga bursts into tears. That Saturday night, Sheryl is eagerly surfing the Internet to find the story of Dr. Jonathan, when it suddenly occurs to her that one of her students in the counseling course she teaches is named Devora Weisbord Ringo. Could it be? She doesn’t know much about Devora, but on the Internet she learns that Devora is married to a doctor and they have six children. Her husband’s name is Jonathan. Jonathan Ringo, a further search reveals, is an obstetrician/ gynecologist, who until recently headed a hospital in Baltimore. Now he and Devora have moved to Israel, where he is running a telemedicine company which supplies Israeli medical expertise to American hospitals. Sheryl sends her surprised student a photo of Jonathan and her son Yedidya in Boston. Same man. Sheryl invites them all to dinner to get reacquainted around her table. “Of course I remembered Yedidya,” Dr. Jonathan Ringo tells me. “I thought of him often over the years and have always wondered what happened to him. It was thrilling to see a grown-up Yedidya, meet his wife and their beautiful daughter,” says Dr. Ringo. Chance or special connectedness? The doctor, now adjusting to being a new immigrant, asks: “Isn’t this what’s called an ‘only in Israel’ story?” “Isn’t this what’s called an ‘only in Israel’ story?” Doctor The time in Boston is blurred for Yedidya Solomon, now 31. “I was very small,” he says. “I remember the general atmosphere, and all these years later still have the photo with Jonathan, who helped us through.” I’m schmoozing on the phone with Yedidya. He has time to spare because he’s home in isolation with COVID-19. When I gasp in alarm – everyone knows that transplant patients are at grave risk from the virus – he reminds me that because he has both the bone marrow and the kidney of his sister, he’s not in danger. How does Yedidya see the felicitous events of his life that have mitigated his life crises? He says: “I have received so much help – physical help and prayers. I can feel how strong the power of prayer and hessed, loving-kindness is. I think of it as a circle of hessed, and I’m happy to be part of that circle.” He will be glad to assist the Ringo family in challenges that come with aliyah. Louis Pasteur said chance favors the prepared mind. Happenstance, it seems, also gets a boost from good deeds and kindness. A good reminder for Shavuot to bolster our own circles of hessed. Chag sameach!