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Meet the Tzaddik

Jacob L. Freedman

“Aren’t there meds that can get him back to yeshivah?”

Wednesday, January 09, 2019




espite Tzion’s severe limitations, and challenges, he always has a smile for me.

He lives with his elderly father on the third floor of an apartment near my office. Like many old homes in Jerusalem, the apartment is part of the family’s identity: Tzion’s father, I would learn, had been raised within its four walls, and Tzion himself had been born there when the ambulance got stuck in Jerusalem traffic and didn’t arrive in time.

I first met Tzion while I was walking to my office one day, when his father waved me down because he needed help “moving something,” he told me. That “something” was Tzion’s wheelchair, which — along with Tzion himself — weighed much more than his elderly father was able to negotiate down the two narrow flights of stairs out to the sidewalk. The person who’d been helping him until now was no longer available.

With a huge, childlike grin on his face, Tzion introduced himself. “I’m Tzion, I’m a tzaddik like Rav Tzion Bracha,” he said with the slurred and dysarthric speech of someone who has a significant neurological disability. “You know him?”

Of course, I didn’t know him personally as he’d been niftar for a number of years, but I’d certainly heard of the great Syrian-born tzaddik and mekubal who — once he came to Eretz Yisrael as a teen — didn’t budge from the holy batei medrash of Jerusalem or the presence of his rebbi, Rav Mordechai Sharaby ztz”l.

Tzion continued chatting as his father and I began to move his wheelchair out of their apartment. “Same name,” he said. “Like Rav Tzion Bracha. My father knew him.”

Tzion smiled as we began to move him down the stairs. He offered me an explanation of his current situation in his halting speech: “Rode my bike, no helmet. Car drove onto the sidewalk.”

“Oy vey,” I said as we reached the building’s front door and waited for the van that would take Tzion to a day program for adults with traumatic brain injuries.

“Hashem loves me,” Tzion said as he waved to me when the van pulled up. “I’m also a big tzaddik, just like Rav Tzion Bracha!”

And so it is every time I have the zechus to help Tzion. He doesn’t remember that we’ve had this conversation a hundred times already. Tzion will introduce himself, speak of his namesake, and let me know about the terrible accident, how someone careened his car onto the sidewalk while he was riding his bike without a helmet.

On one of those mornings after helping maneuver Tzion down the stairs, I had an appointment with Rabbi Kantrowitz who, unlike Tzion, didn’t smile at all when he saw me.

Rabbi Kantrowitz’s son Yirmy had struggled massively within the yeshivah system. His story began with “reading problems” and it was frankly shocking that he wasn’t diagnosed with a severe case of dyslexia until he was 15. Until then, he’d tried every medication for ADHD in the books, in addition to homeopathic remedies, biofeedback, acupuncture, and other sure-to-help offerings. But of course, none of these treatments worked because Yirmy didn’t have ADHD in the first place.

But the pressure to succeed in yeshivah was overwhelming and Yirmy finally broke when his family couldn’t accept that he was unable to shteig like the rest of his brothers. He dropped out of yeshivah and wound up on the street, until a tzaddik in the guise of an auto repair shop owner found him and was willing to take him on as an apprentice.

It turned out that Yirmy was gifted in the garage and found the success he’d never dreamed of. In less than a year, he had become the shop’s top mechanic, finally building up the self-esteem he desperately needed after years of utter failure in yeshivah. Feeling better about himself, Yirmy was davening again, eating kosher food, and wearing a kippah. While he wasn’t on the same path as his older brothers, Yirmy was once again a shomer Shabbos Yid and earning an honest living.

Yirmy’s father had brought him to me to again have him evaluated for ADHD. With psychological testing clearly documenting extreme dyslexia and an objective lack of ADHD, it was pretty clear that he was going to walk away from the appointment disappointed.

Still, I met Yirmy, heard his story, and told him frankly that he should be proud of the life he was building for himself. Baruch Hashem, Yirmy heard me loud and clear and shook my hand graciously. His father was not so easily won over.

“There must be something else we can do,” Rabbi Kantrowitz said. “There is absolutely no reason that it should be this way.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him to clarify.

“I mean, why can’t this kid pick up a Gemara like a normal Yid?”

“Your son can’t read, Rabbi Kantrowitz. Baruch Hashem he’s coming back to Yiddishkeit. Let’s not rush him into something that will break him all over again.”

But Rabbi Kantrowitz wouldn’t let go, and booked another appointment. “I don’t get it, Dr. Freedman. Isn’t there another medication that can get him back to yeshivah?”

Rabbi Kantrowitz simply couldn’t hear that his son’s destiny seemed to be outside the beis medrash. With time, iron-will determination, and some cutting-edge therapy, it was entirely possible that Yirmy would return to shiurim and a level of learning, but the kid simply wasn’t built for the beis medrash and Rabbi Kantrowitz was unable to integrate this.

When he called to book another session to try and convince me his son still needed a treatment for ADHD — meaning, some magic medication that would enable him to return to yeshivah — I told him honestly that I didn’t feel right taking money for another session that would end in another stalemate.

And then suddenly, I remembered how my rav, Rabbi Naftoly Bier of the Boston Kollel, would always encourage frustrated parents going through challenges with their children to visit sick kids on the oncology ward at Boston Children’s Hospital. He felt it would help them keep things in perspective and help them be more grateful for and understanding of their own children.

I called Rabbi Kantrowitz back, but this time I told him to meet me outside the building.

“Should we go inside?” he asked.

“Let’s take a little walk first,” I answered. “No charge.”

Rabbi Kantrowitz reluctantly agreed and followed me silently as we walked a few blocks down the street. Tzion’s father was exactly where I expected to find him, waiting on the steps outside his building in search of someone to help him bring his son down the stairs.

“What exactly are we doing here?” Rabbi Kantrowitz asked me as we walked up the stairs.

“You’re going to meet a tzaddik who will make you more grateful for your son Yirmy.” “You’re taking me to meet a tzaddik?” Rabbi Kantrowitz wondered. He seemed intrigued.

I figured I’d let Tzion do the talking, which he was happy to do as we entered the apartment. Tzion was smiling and waving, as he proceeded to introduce himself. “I’m Tzion. I’m a tzaddik like Rav Tzion Bracha!”

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 743. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem.  Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website

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