I thought about Shlomo and this story often as my life turned over, as my world ended
As told to Ariella Schiller
e called him Uncle Shlomo. To the rest of the world, he was known as Shlomo Zakheim, pioneering Hatzolah activist and fount of chesed. Uncle Shlomo hated the spotlight, and wouldn’t have appreciated the articles and accolades that spread his myriad acts of kindness after his death. But it was a story his wife, Aunt Faigy, and his son retold that really stayed with me.
During their first few years of marriage, Shlomo, not yet the philanthropic giant he would one day be, was presented with a business opportunity. “This was going to be it,” Faigy said. “We were going to strike it big on this deal, we were going to achieve financial success; we were young and excited. And then Shlomo decided to ask a rav for a brachah. Cryptically, he was told to drop out of any business deals. And he listened, Shlomo. Dropped out of the deal of a lifetime. Years later we found out that the deal was corrupt, but that was much, much later. In the meantime, there was just us, struggling, trying to stay strong.”
I thought about Shlomo and this story often as my life turned over, as my world ended.
June had come at last; summer was upon us, and Camp Mommy was in full swing. My three little ones were the perfect ages for kiddie pools and finger painting, and we were going to fill the weeks with fun activities. But a lingering lethargy seemed to have taken hold of my usual verve. Succos arrived, and I still felt heavy and tired, nothing like my energetic self. “Shaul,” I told my husband, “I think I need to see a doctor.”
“You’re expecting,” was the quick diagnosis. “Now the question is: How far along are you?”
I blinked in shock. It couldn’t be! Baby Meira was only 11 months! My life was just falling into routine. But as shocked as I was, I was also excited at the thought of a sibling for Meira to mother, to stick her pudgy fingers into. I sat back eagerly as the doctor turned the heart monitor on. Two minutes passed, then five. I stared at the doctor as his brow furrowed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. My other three pregnancies and births had been breezes, with nary a worry or complication.
“Listen,” he said as he turned the volume up on the heart monitor. I closed my eyes and listened intently.
“It sounds strange,” I said.
“It does. Go to the ultrasound center. Tell them it’s an emergency.”
Heart racing, I called my husband, gave him a quick report and hurried to the center. Once again, I watched the technician’s brow furrow.
“What, what is it? And how far along am I?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
She looked at me, and I don’t know if it was pity or cruelty that made her break protocol. “It looks like you’re around 18 weeks, but it does not look like a good baby,” she said.
The room was silent. What do you say?
“I’m calling a doctor in to take a look,” the technician told my frozen self.
The doctor looked at the screen and then turned toward me. “Mrs. Klein, you have very low amniotic fluid, barely any,” he stated flatly. “When did you start feeling symptoms of labor?”
Symptoms of labor? I had just found out I was expecting!
He told me to head to the emergency room and get further checked out.
I somehow shared with my husband the disturbing news and proceeded to Hadassah Medical Center, Mount Scopus. He met me there, and soon we were sitting in front of the department chief, Professor Simcha Yagel. He looked at us seriously.
“Due to the lack of amniotic fluid,” he explained, “it’s most likely that the baby’s lungs didn’t develop, in which case, they’re just two rocks in his chest right now. He’s getting oxygen through the umbilical cord, but chances are that the second the cord is cut, he’ll die.”
I stared at this man as he calmly outlined the birth and consequent death of my unborn child. “Also, due to the lack of fluid, we have very little contrast on the screen and can barely see the baby. But on the rare chance he lives, he will most probably be deformed, missing limbs and mobility. He’s being crushed in the womb as he can’t swim around or stretch, and on the off chance he lives, his arms and legs will permanently stay that way.
“This baby won’t survive, Rachayli. You can try to hold on to the pregnancy, but it will end, one way or another.”
While I sat there struck dumb, Shaul cleared his throat. “Professor… is there any hope?”
“I’ve seen nissim in my career,” was his answer. My child’s survival would take a neis.
In a daze we listened as the doctor recommended extensive testing — genetic, 3-D imaging, and others — to ascertain what had happened to the amniotic fluid and if the baby possessed any genetic disorders. From there, he said, we could discuss halachic options with our rav, whom he’d worked with before on other cases.
Numb and exhausted, I went home. It sounds terrible, but I didn’t want to be the mother of a deformed child, didn’t want my life to take that drastic turn. Hashem, I davened, you know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not cut out for that life.
he tests were scheduled to begin Monday. On Sunday Shaul had an appointment to see Rav Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak to ask for a brachah. Our rav, Rabbi Shmuel Weiner, accompanied him; together they wrote a letter for Rav Chaim, explaining that I was experiencing a pregnancy with major complications and that we needed a brachah. On the doorstep of the Kanievsky home, Rabbi Weiner turned to Shaul. “I should have told you this before we drove all the way here,” he said, “but Rav Chaim might make certain demands of you. It’s better not to go in than to disregard his instructions.” Shaul was apprehensive, but he agreed, and in they went.
Rav Chaim took the piece of paper, read it carefully, and then looked up.
He gave no brachah. Instead he said the following words: “Don’t listen to the doctors. Everything will be okay. Just don’t go for any tests. And you must, must daven.”
My husband looked down at the paper. It made no mention of tests. He looked up at Rav Chaim again. “Should I do anything in particular?” he asked, remembering Rabbi Weiner’s words.
“Daven as much as you can,” Rav Chaim said. “Everything will be okay.”
My husband skipped to the car, sang his way home, and danced through the door. Brimming with joy, he told me what had occurred in Bnei Brak. But instead of sharing the joy, my heart fell to the floor.
No tests? My father is a doctor. All my sisters are nurses, my brother is in medical school. My family believes in medicine. We respect medicine. We defer to doctors. Don’t do any of the tests? Don’t follow the direction of an esteemed professor? Sit back and do nothing? I broke down.
“Shaul,” I said, desperate tears sliding down my face, “we can’t not do the tests. We have to do everything in our power to help our child. What about hishtadlus? What if there are in-utero surgeries to be done? What if they can save him? Rav Chaim spoke to you for five minutes. Maybe he didn’t understand what you meant. He’s not a doctor!”
Shaul looked at me, bewildered. “But Rav Chaim said everything will be okay!”
I felt like a terrible person, like my emunas chachamim only went so far.
Rabbi Weiner gently explained that we needed to realize that “okay” in Rav Chaim’s vocabulary might have a different meaning than our translation of the word. And then he added hesitantly that it wasn’t a simple thing not to listen to Rav Chaim.
sat down in my laundry room that night, trying to get things done, but the tears wouldn’t end. Suddenly the story of Uncle Shlomo and his business deal came to mind. His rav had given him advice that seemed to make no sense, yet he’d followed that counsel no matter how illogical it had seemed.
“Shlomo,” I whispered, “how did you do it? Where did you get that strength to blindly follow our gedolim? This is my child’s life and my health at stake. I’m scared.”
I kept “speaking” to Shlomo until I felt like I had something to hold on to. “Help me build that strength, show me how to do this,” I said. Finally, with shaking hands, I picked up the phone and canceled all my scheduled appointments.
Everyone who heard what I’d done thought I had lost my mind. More disturbing than their disapproval was my own feeling that I was letting my child down. I’d had the opportunity to help him and instead I was sitting back and doing nothing. Well, not nothing. I was davening — davening and trying to come to terms with the fact that I was carrying a child who would probably die the moment he took his first breath, if not before.
My little sister called me later that week, as I was still struggling to face my reality. By day I was Mommy to three rambunctious toddlers and by night, I opened up the box of fears I kept at bay during the day and let them all roam free.
“You must listen to this shiur from Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein,” she said. I was wary; there’s a significant age gap between us and I wasn’t sure that what inspired her would have any effect on me. Nevertheless, I clicked the TorahAnytime.com link.
Rabbi Wallerstein was speaking at an A Time event. He was elaborating on the fact that Hashem has a Master Plan, something we all believe in and try to keep in mind during our darkest hours. “But the thing to remember,” he said, “is that just because you know that there’s a Plan doesn’t mean you are not in pain. Being in pain doesn’t mean that you don’t have emunah; it’s not a contradiction.”
That was just the validation I needed right then. I was in pain. And on top of the pain, I was struggling immensely with my emunas chachamim. But I still believed in a Master Plan.
Every week I went for a sonogram to make sure the baby hadn’t already died. Each visit brought its own plethora of joyous news: There’s something wrong with his brain, we found a flaw in his heart, we see arms but we can’t see any fingers. One fun fact that really frightened me was when a doctor reiterated Professor Yagel’s warning that due to the lack of fluid, the baby couldn’t move, and if he’d live, his limbs would be petrified into a permanent curled position.
At that point I didn’t know what to daven for. Do I daven that my child will be born with deformities and somehow I’ll be able to cope? Daven for my own child to die, to be freed from a severely disabled existance, to free me from this ordeal? Or can I daven for a neis?
I was told that I could, because we weren’t doing any imaging tests and things were still unknown; as long as an issue remains in the realm of the concealed, you can ask even for nature to reverse itself without it being considered a request for a miracle. So that was it. I davened for a neis every moment I had.
And through these hellish weeks, I kept thinking about Uncle Shlomo. I had long conversations with him in my head, the man who gave so much to Camp Simcha, to Hatzolah, before illness took him away too soon. “Uncle Shlomo, give me your koach,” I’d say. “Daven to Hashem from your seat in Shamayim.” I took great comfort in these talks, strange as it sounds.
Then one Friday night in mid-December, as we hosted friends for the seudah, I started feeling ominous sensations. I called Shaul aside. “I’m losing the baby,” I told him quietly. “This is it.”
We decided to put the kids to bed, finish the seudah, and then call the ambulance. If the baby was already dead, there was no need to rush.
At Hadassah Ein Kerem, the doctors looked at me gravely. “You have PPROM (premature preterm rupture of the membranes). Are you sure you want this pregnancy?” they asked incredulously.
“We’re having this child.” We remained steadfast despite the pressure.
“Then we can’t let you leave here until you give birth.”
I was 26 weeks pregnant, with an entire family at home. “Um, how long do you think that will be?” I asked.
“No more than a week or two,” they said confidently.
Two turned into five. My husband took care of our kids, worked full-time, came to spend hours with me in the hospital. My family was falling apart, and I was stuck in a hospital room, surrounded by the same four walls day in, day out. I felt as if I were going insane.
My mother offered to fly over from the US, but I asked her to wait until after the planned caesarean delivery, so my community took the role of my family. The Machal/ Maalot Dafna community kept me going: They visited, brought treats, sent Shabbos food, took my kids to the park daily, and so much more. While my life unraveled, they were my rock.
This prolonged stay was wonderful for the baby, though. The doctors couldn’t believe it. They kept asking me if I was having contractions; I kept assuring them I wasn’t. With the passing weeks, life in the hospital became routine. Steroid shots, monitoring every four hours, ultrasounds every Tuesday, doctors on their rounds, and all the while, I davened, as per Rav Chaim’s instructions. And when things got too bad, when yet another doctor explained how my child was a time bomb just waiting to die, how he might not have toes or a nose or lungs, I reached out to Uncle Shlomo.
One day a pediatric surgeon stopped into my room to brief me about the delivery. “The rest of the team will be there for you,” she said. “I will be there for the baby. I’ll do my best to vent him, but as you know, there might be no time. You need to be prepared that it might be a silent birth.”
It was a lot of talk of death and debilitation and deformities. “Shlomo,” I prayed, “I can’t do this. Please, daven for me. I know what they say can happen, and medically should, but help me daven for a neis. I need this neis. I need it!”
t 32 weeks, I experienced heavy contractions. This was really it. The doctors prepped me for surgery. “But Shaul’s not here,” I yelped. The doctors looked at me like I was crazy. “We have no time,” they said.
I was trembling so much, the anaesthesiologist was scared she’d paralyze me. I turned to a quiet place in my head. “Shlomo, it’s happening,” I said. “It’s just you and me, Shaul’s not here. Right now. Daven please. Daven. This neis is going to happen!” And then I davened, with every ounce of concentration I could muster. The doors opened, and Shaul sat down next to me. Mid-procedure, I felt a huge weight fall off of me. We davened together. After what felt like a while I opened my eyes.
“I thought it would be much shorter,” I said weakly to a nurse. “How much longer will it be?”
She looked at me in the silence of the room. “What do you mean? It’s finished.”
A crushing blackness, a heaviness like I’d never felt before, rolled over me. No. This couldn’t be it. Impossible. After all those weeks of pushing forward, of staying positive, of davening, of isolation, of all those tears and fears and hopes and prayers, the story couldn’t end here. Not here, with a cold metal table and empty arms. It didn’t make sense. Where was my neis?
It couldn’t end like this, it just couldn’t.
The nurses thought I’d lost my mind. “But you’ve been prepped for this moment for the past five weeks,” they seemed to say.
I turned to Shaul. He shook his head, eyes huge with sadness.
And then, as we descended into a pit of despair, we heard it.
The tiniest, weakest wail. The cry of a newborn baby. One tiny wail penetrating our bubble of pain.
We looked at each other. “Go,” I said hoarsely. He went.
He came back. “They told me to get away.”
He told me later he approached the mass of doctors and nurses in the other room, jumped on his tiptoes, snatched a picture, and ran away.
We looked at the picture together.
My breath caught.
“It’s a baby,” I whispered. A gorgeous baby with jet black hair and — we zoomed in — ten fingers, ten toes, four limbs, one squished little nose. And tubes. Lots and lots of tubes.
But it was a baby. A whole baby!
fter the surgery, I was kept in the recovery room. I knew nothing except that as of last I’d heard, my baby was alive. In the meanwhile, Rabbi Weiner accompanied Shaul to see the baby in the NICU. The baby had been vented — baruch Hashem, they were able to vent him; his lungs weren’t deformed rocks. He was alive.
That first night in the NICU was touch and go. At first the staff thought he was dying. Then suddenly he took a turn for the better and never looked back.
I couldn’t see him until the next night, couldn’t hold him until he was four days old. Tears streamed down my face as I gently cradled my four-pound son. He was beautiful. He was mine.
Thank You Hashem. Thank You Thank You Thank You.
Every morning when I’d walk into the NICU the nurses were excited to report another miraculous development.
“He has some bleeding in the brain,” we were told during week one of his life. Slowly, the bleeding receded and no intervention was needed.
“He has heart issues.” They cleared on their own, no surgeries necessary.
“His limbs will be frozen forever.” The next day he stretched out his limbs indignantly.
Soon enough, the baby was ready to go home. The head pediatric doctor there said this was the fastest discharge he’d ever done for a baby born with such complications.
When he was six weeks old, he had his bris. Rav Chaim was sandek. He smiled at our miracle baby; it was a brachah of its own. We named him Shlomo Alexander, Shlomo for Uncle Shlomo who kept me going throughout, who boosted my emunas chachamim when my child’s life depended on it, and davened for me from his special place in Shamayim; and Alexander for Shaul’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, a man who possessed great strength and tremendous survival instincts.
He is a survivor, our miracle child.
ack in the hospital for a checkup, we met Professor Yagel walking the halls. He squinted at me. “How are things?” he asked hesitantly.
I showed him my most recent picture of Shlomo. Black hair spilled out from under a hat, fat cheeks jutted out in a toothless smile.
He looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. “Hashem loves you,” he breathed at last. “I’ve seen many pregnancies like yours, and not once has the baby turned out both alive and wholly formed.”
Hashem does love us.
Every time I hold my baby, I feel like Hashem is hugging me. I feel so close to Hashem every time Shlomo cries — he can cry! His lungs work just fine! — even half asleep at 2 a.m.
Hashem often sends His brachos through the medium of a medical shaliach. With our other three beautiful children, that was the route we took. It’s a route we still respect and appreciate. But sometimes, we learned, the shaliach for Hashem’s blessing is the promise of a tzaddik. He has no lack of messengers, after all: some wear white coats and analyze ultrasound screens, while some sit in Bnei Brak amid piles of seforim.
I know our story sounds like one of those impossible fairy tales, like all the facts can’t be accurate. Honestly, if I would have read these words a year ago I’d be thinking the same: Nice story, all tied up in a perfect bow at the end, but hey, that’s not real life. And that’s true — life doesn’t always turn out that way.
But sometimes, just sometimes, Hashem shows us that He’s still here in our shadowed world. He gives us something amazing to hold on to. We fought for it. We fought to hold on, and Hashem performed neis after neis right in front of our eyes.
I agreed to have this personal journey of mine written up because we wanted to publicize the nisayon we went through and the subsequent nissim. When Hashem does something so beyond what anyone could have expected, I think it gives Klal Yisrael hope; a reminder that He hasn’t forgotten us in this galus.
Our lives changed forever the moment Shlomo Alexander entered back in June. We discovered strengths we never knew we had, reservoirs of faith we were sure existed only in storybooks of great gedolim. Yet in the middle of modern Jerusalem, in an era of skeptical millennials and bitter cynicism, we found the bedrock of emunah possessed by every Jew since the days of Avraham Avinu.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 763)
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