The Legacy of Alter Chanoch Jeger, a”h
Two months ago, I spent Shabbos with my friend Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg and his family in Cedarhurst. We were joined by the Ginzburgs’ daughter Ilana and son-in-law Yudi Jeger, and their children Alter Hanoch Henoch, 2 1/2, and Shua, ten months.
I had previously read about Alter Hanoch in a powerful article by his grandfather entitled, “It’s not supposed to be like this,” written in response to requests addressed to Rabbi Ginzburg for help in understanding horrible tragedies, especially those involving children. The power of the piece derives from Rabbi Ginzburg’s revelation in the last paragraph that he is writing while sitting in the intensive care unit by the bed of his infant grandson Alter Hanoch, who contracted meningitis within twenty-four hours of birth and has no hope of developing normally.
During my Shabbos in Cedarhurst, Alter Hanoch was attached to an elaborate machine, which rang intermittently. I did not see him open his eyes once. Yudi and Ilana went about attending to Alter Hanoch in a totally matter-of-fact fashion, without any sense of being burdened and no trace of a feeling that they had been dealt the short stick in life. Just a normal kollel couple: he an outstanding member of the semicha chabura in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim; she a newly minted masters in special education about to start work.
What I observed that Shabbos was the slightest tip of the iceberg. Alter Hanoch spent most of his life in and out of hospitals, including one stay of seven weeks in a pediatric intensive care unit. During Alter Hanoch’s last hospital stay, Reb Aryeh Zev asked the doctor whether he thought he would survive. The doctor hesitated before answering, “I’ve been in pediatric intensive care for forty years, and only five times have I pronounced a child to have only a short while to live and been wrong. Three of those times have been with this boy.” Those instances of beating the odds had a lot to do with the unstinting dedication of Alter Hanoch’s parents and grandparents.
After the previously mentioned seven-week stay in the ICU, some of those close to Ilana and Yudi, concerned about the toll on them of repeated lengthy hospital stays, advised them to find an institution that could care for Alter Chanoch. Ilana, who I last met as a bubbly, Miss Popularity seminary girl, rejected the suggestion out of hand. “HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave us this child in this condition. We don’t know for how long. But our job is to make sure that he is comfortable and has everything he needs. And we are not giving that job over to anyone else.”
Yudi and Ilana’s attitude and dedication proved a great Kiddush Hashem. A hundred staff members from the hospital where Alter Chanoch spent much of his life attended his levaya last week. One Jewish doctor, who is married to a non-Jewish woman, told Rabbi Ginzburg, “I met your kids twenty-five years too late. If I had met them then, I might be an Orthodox Jew today.”
As Yudi wheeled Alter Hanoch into the hospital for the last time, Alter Hanoch suddenly looked at his father and gave him the biggest “smile” he could. Yudi was so moved that he immediately took out his cellphone and snapped a photo to send to Ilana. That smile expressed two things. First, love to his parents for the love they had showered on him. And second, satisfaction in having completed his mission in life flawlessly.
Alter Chanoch’s influence will continue to be felt in his parents’ lives and those of his brother Shua and all the siblings to come. He revealed to his parents kochos hanefesh they could not possibly have known they possess, but which will continue to serve them in everything they subsequently do in life.
Originally published in Mishpacha, November 9.