3-year-old cancer warrior cared for by community
By Deb Silverthorn
Monsey, New York, natives Esther and Yehuda Ahronov moved to Dallas in 2019, spurred by the area’s reputation of a warm and involved Jewish community. They never imagined how intimately they’d rely on that reputation for goodness. The couple and their son Joseph, “JoJo,” a cancer warrior of six months, has been enveloped with care and concern. On Monday, April 17, JoJo, his parents and many who have come to treasure the little hero celebrated his third birthday.
“Every day this community has stood by us — pretty much newcomers — without a blink and without missing a beat,” said Yehuda. He said he and his wife have been overcome by the community’s generosity since their son’s diagnosis with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL).
“Our family is on the East Coast. While they rotate visits, the sense of mishpacha (family) from people, some we’ve never met? It’s remarkable. I hope no one has to go through what we do to know how special a place this is,” he added.
On Nov. 4, less than an hour before Shabbat began, the observant family got the call that changed their lives. Earlier that week they’d taken JoJo to the doctor after they noticed at home, and his teachers and Director Rivkie Block at Chabad of Plano’s Gan Gani Preschool had observed, that the typically active and cheerful little boy’s mood had changed. He mostly just wanted to sit quietly.
The family was told that it was critical the child be taken to Medical City Children’s Hospital for further testing. In the less than 30 minutes the parents took to pack a bag, Jewish Learning Center’s (JLC) Hudy Abrams arrived with Shabbat dinner and more for them to have.
“We brought toys for JoJo and reading material and food for all of them, hoping it would only be the weekend and he’d be home and okay. This family’s faith and dedication is astounding. To see help from everywhere makes your heart proud to be a Jew,” Hudy said.
Within 48 hours, the diagnosis had changed the family’s lives.
“We started chemotherapy and steroids on Monday morning and just before Hanukkah, he was in remission. Right now, the disease is undetected, but chemo and follow-up continues so that it won’t return,” said Esther.
In the last six months, the Ahronovs went from appreciating their community to cherishing their community. From neighbors and those at Gan Gani, people at work, the JLC and Chabad of Dallas where they pray, to names they don’t know and anonymous caring souls — they’ve been touched.
JLC’s Rabbi Shlomo Abrams says support has come from every corner of the community, with needs the family didn’t know they had being met.
“The Ahronovs themselves each have a huge heart and this help is just a reflection of that. Since they moved here, Yehuda has been our official greeter to anyone coming to daven,” said Rabbi Abrams, who hosted an evening to say Tehillim, with more than 150 people from almost every shul of every branch and from each of the area’s Jewish day schools. Hundreds have continued to pray for JoJo and his family, the full book of Psalms reportedly read, in-person and through a WhatsApp chat, nearly 200 times and counting.
Hudy Abrams and Dallas Bikur Cholim’s Yitty Denciger, with dozens participating, created a meal train so extensive that the Ahronovs can count on one hand how many meals they’ve had to manage themselves. Others delivered treats to JoJo’s nurses to give them strength.
“Helping never seems to be more than a small gesture to the person doing, but to the recipient it’s vital and a relief of a burden. Things were chaotic for this family and so many have shopped, paid for groceries, made meals and delivered with smiles and prayers,” said Denciger.
Hudy and Aliza Goldstein brought Chai Lifeline support to the Ahronovs. The organization’s mission is to meet the social, emotional and practical needs of children, families and communities impacted by illness, trauma or loss. It has helped the family in numerous ways including hosting them, and families from around the country in similar dire straits, at a Shabbaton in the Catskills — a weekend to breathe, exhale, commiserate and feel less alone. At JoJo’s party, Buzz Lightyear made an appearance under the auspices of the agency.
“This is why we moved here. This power of community is amazing,” said Erica Kopmar, who with her family recently relocated to Dallas from Los Angeles, also because of its growing Jewish community reputation. The family volunteered for Chai Lifeline in California and was contacted by Chai Lifeline Southeast Region to connect with the Ahronovs. “Chai Lifeline allows for hands-on mitzvah moments. Through this chesed our own children learn empathy and our whole family is touched,” Kopmar added.
A letter from Kopmar to fellow Ann and Nate Levine Academy parents and other Jewish friends spread like wildfire. Eighteen families participated in Chai Lifeline’s Chanukah Angels program by donating a hospital bag full of crafts, games and books. There were gifts for each of the eight nights, a ride-on car and more, plus even more for his birthday.
Chana Ben Abraham, NCSY Dallas City director and dean of Jewish innovation and engagement at Ann and Nate Levine Academy, recruited young people to spend time with JoJo. The round robin of teen buddies hasn’t slowed; they can often be found easing the parents’ load by entertaining the little one.
“He’s so cute, how could we not want to be here? He loves to eat ice cream and play with bubbles,” said Daniella Gorny. With Tessa Kraus standing by, the two have made Monday afternoons their time with JoJo. “His favorite game is hide-and-seek and he always hides in the closet giggling so hard. He’s the best,” Gorny said.
Amid doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, chemotherapy and other treatments, Esther has taken a year’s leave from her job as an accountant at Ernst and Young and Yehuda has put his work — previously as a commercial paint project manager, now as a licensed real estate agent — on hold. To help the family, a Chesed Fund campaign reached 1,500 donors before it closed, rallying to help with medical and living expenses.
A “Gems for Joseph” mitzvah campaign was created, hundreds of people committing to mitzvahs each day, from saying the “Modeh Ani” prayer upon arising to making up with a friend, all in the merit of JoJo’s recovery.
JoJo’s doctors say his diagnosis has a curable rate of 90% to 99%. He still has until January 2025 to receive treatments and monthly checkups, and plans are for him to return to his friends and teachers at Chabad of Plano’s Gan Gani.
“From our HOA (homeowners association) and neighbors of the secular community to the Jewish nation all-around and in our own backyard that touches us daily, we thank Hashem we landed here,” Yehuda said.