Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Hanging on to Hope Through Serious Illness

Hirshel Jaffe
Summer 2005

In 1978, I bounded across the finish line of the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I had marched for civil rights in the 60’s, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and in 1980 visited the hostages held in Iran. I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.  

Just six years later my illusion was shattered as I lay dying of hairy-cell leukemia. Despite three surgeries and chemotherapy, my blood counts were plummeting, the leukemia had almost destroyed my immune system, and my body was ravaged from weeks of high fevers. My last hope was the experimental drug interferon.  

The interferon saved my life. Today my bone marrow shows virtually no traces of cancer. I’m back with my flock, fulfilling the new task God has given me — counseling those who face adversity.  

Helping Through Crisis  

For over 20 years as a rabbi, before my illness, I had helped others through crisis. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them. I felt confused, frightened, and desperate. Who would comfort me?  

My experience with serious illness has made me want to share with you what I’ve learned.  


• Cheer yourself on. Ultimately you must learn to comfort yourself. No matter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.  

Keep up your self-esteem. Be kind to yourself. Hug yourself if you can’t find anybody to hug you. Don’t feel cursed if you have a disease with a foul name. Don’t think of yourself as worthless or worth less because you’ve been stricken. Don’t be passive about your medical treatment or afraid to tell your doctors your needs.  

Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do things. You have value simply because you are, even if you cannot be “productive” in the way to which you were accustomed. Learn to cherish your very existence.  

I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once when I was delirious, I pounded on the bed rails yelling, “Come on, Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran the marathon.  

Conversely, however, don’t make things impossible by believing your attitude is everything. You can’t control everything. Just some things.  


• Set goals for yourself. No matter how small, any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement. Watch your daughters ice-skate, go out with friends, put pictures in an album.  

Writing a book about my illness with my friends, the Rudins, gave me something to live for. I would wearily clutch the manuscript and show it to my nurses. It took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but I know that completing Why Me? Why Anyone? helped keep me alive.  


• Life Projects. Keep up interest in your life projects. If you are able to return to work in some capacity, do it. Even if you have just five good minutes a day, use that time and build on it. If physical limitations prevent you from doing tasks in your usual way, try to devise new ways to do them. Reorganize, delegate, ration your energy sensibly.  

Doing, learning, re-learning will help you to feel alive and regain self-esteem. When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi — go and counsel other patients.” That made me feel important again. My friends fighting cancer and other diseases tell me the same thing: Helping others cope is the one good thing they can do, the one good thing they feel qualified to do, and the one good thing they find real fulfillment in doing.  


• Keep your sense of humor. Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning when the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing the Frankenstein mask my wife, Judi, bought me on Halloween.  


• Be thankful for each day and greet it joyously. Since my brush with death, every moment is special to me. Live life to the fullest, even if it might be for just a short period of time. How long you live is not as important as what you do with your time, or what you are in that time.  

Today I feel I know what’s really important in my life. I’m learning to say “no” to people — I don’t want to fritter away my life letting other people tell me how to live. For me, being with the ones I love is the most important thing. And I make a point of telling these people often how I feel about them “while I still have the chance.”  


• Accept the comfort offered by friends and family. The strong support of all who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are. It’s not a sign of weakness to allow them to do what they can to make things easier for you.  

The Song of Songs says, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart, for love is stronger than death.” This we believe now more than ever.  


•Turn to your faith and religious tradition. Since my illness, I’ve become more open to possibilities about God. Of course, I feel sheepish that I had to get sick before I took this more seriously. I guess we don’t think we need God until we run into trouble.  

My concept of God is now much different. I’ve learned how vulnerable we are, how our lives are in God’s hands. When I was so ill, I discovered a personal God, and I began to ask God to help me and hold me and see me through.  

Your friends, if you are lucky, will stand by you and companion you. But God, even if you are “unlucky,” as writer Walter Wangerin has put it, will surround you.  


• Search for meaning from your adversity. We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience. But I can choose my response to it. I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.  

By facing death I learned how to live. My illness taught me the real meaning of being a rabbi. It’s not who can be the best scholar; it’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I used to be too “hyper,” the running rabbi, breezing by people. Now I take time to talk and listen more deeply. I know what it’s like to hurt. I understand people’s fears, and can now begin to reassure them out of my own struggle and confusion and fear. “God wants heart” is a saying in the Talmud that I now truly understand.  

The True Race  

Will I run another marathon? Sure, I want to, but it doesn’t matter to me how long or how fast I go. Now I’m running the true race — trying to be a good husband and father, and a companion for those who walk the path of serious illness.  

I hope that as you walk this path, you prove a good friend to yourself and allow yourself to lean on the willing arms of family and friends and caregivers. I hope you let God carry you over the rough spots, and stay with you, too.  

And I hope your journey to the edge of life helps you learn secrets of precious love, secrets of precious peace.  


Sources of Additional Help  

Books: Why Me? Why Anyone? by Hirshel Jaffe, James Rudin, and Marcia Rudin, New York, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Love, Medicine, and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel, New York, New York, Harper & Row, 1986. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner, New York, New York, Schocken Books, 1981. The Cancer Patient’s Handbook by Mary-Ellen Siegel, New York, New York, Walker & Co., 1986.  

Videocassette:Hanging on to Hope with Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe, UPC, 120 S. Robinson Ave., Newburgh, NY 12550 ($29.95 postpaid).  

Magazine:Coping—Living With Cancer ($18, bimonthly), Media America, 2019 N. Carathers, Franklin, TN 37064, (615) 790-2400.  

Hotline:Cancer Information Service Hotline, (800) 4 CANCER.  

Organizations:National Hospice Organization, 1901 N. Fort Myer Drive, Suite 307, Arlington, VA 22209, (703) 243-5900. Make Today Count, P.O. Box 6063, Kansas City, KS 66106.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.