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Unity in a Time of Distress

With a resounding “Amen,” a crowd of more than 500 people at once affirmed its faith in God and expressed a heartfelt prayer for Max Profeta, a fellow YU student, to merit a full and lasting recovery from his illness. For the first time in several minutes, many in the crowd ceased their prayerful swaying and relaxed their furrowed brows. As the crowd began to shuffle out of the beit midrash, a lone voice, pure in tone yet powerful in volume, pierced through the crowd. The singing started slowly, but in a matter of seconds the words of Acheinu, a song professing Jewish unity, engulfed the entire crowd.

Unity, the all-elusive concept that involves the subordination of small differences for a larger goal, was present in those few precious minutes in the Glueck beit midrash. At 12:45 pm on an average school day, more than 500 students, teachers, and faculty members carved a small portion of time out of their schedules to coalesce into a unified group. To characterize this unity as a spontaneous phenomenon would be a misnomer. To an extent, the unity could be attributed to the larger Jewish community, the YU administration, the hard work of the mashgichim, or the student councils. But the story of the day really belongs to the collective work of student leaders, administrators, and faculty members across multiple campuses mobilizing together to recognize the distress of a member of their community.

On Wednesday September 10, 2014, amid national preparations to commemorate the victims of a tragedy that took place 13 years prior, Max Profeta received news of personal tragedy.  Several days of headaches, stomach pain, and overall physical discomfort compelled Max to visit the Mt. Sinai Hospital for testing. After a complete blood count came back with certain abnormalities, his father, a doctor in Indianapolis, suspected that he had a form of viral meningitis - a monster in its own right. But after further testing, Max and his family received the earth-shattering news that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the blood. Rabbi Jonathan Shippel, director of the James Striar School (JSS) in which Max is enrolled, described that he and the rest of the JSS faculty and students were “totally shocked” to hear the news.

On Thursday morning, Rabbi Shippel addressed the members of JSS as a group, sharing the news that most had already heard about. Senior Leo Korman, president of the Sy Syms Student Council and student of JSS, reported that “everyone was a mess that morning - the faculty, the students - no one knew what to do with themselves.” Yet despite the overwhelming nature of the news, the unanimous consensus among the students was that they had to do something extraordinary for Max.

Alec Feintuch, a JSS student who had his own bout with cancer four years ago, addressed the students. Because of his connections to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Feintuch suggested that the students form “Team Max” for the upcoming Light The Night Walk, a walk that helps promote awareness of blood cancers as well as raise money for research and support of patients and their families. Yitz Edry, also a JSS student, spearheaded the initiative by being the team’s captain. As of this writing, the page for Team Max shows that an amount upwards of $3,000 was donated in Max’s honor. In an interview a few days after the walk, Rabbi Shippel was proud of the energy with which the students worked to make t-shirts  with the logo “Team Max” after shiur.

Leo Korman also addressed the students that morning. He spoke about his own encounter with cancer, his father having battled the disease several years ago. He stressed the importance of embracing Max as part of the community, visiting him in the hospital, and praying on his behalf. Indeed, the students heeded Korman’s words. According to Rabbi Shippel, the students made sure that from the moment Max was transferred to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, he didn’t spend a moment alone.

Korman’s first thought was to run a campaign for “Swab a Cheek, Save a Life.” Although Korman didn’t know if Max would need a marrow donation, he thought the situation presented a great opportunity to raise awareness for the campaign and get people registered as potential bone marrow donors. Students can expect to see “Swab a Cheek” stations throughout campus after returning from the Rosh HaShana break.

But Korman wasn’t satisfied with that campaign. He “wanted to make sure we did something for Max before Rosh HaShana - something big.” After some brainstorming and an email sent to the student council presidents by a student who chose to remain anonymous, the presidents decided that a Tehillim Rally would be the perfect initiative to show support for the Profeta family. In Korman’s words, “One of the most important things to stress… is that [they’re] not alone throughout all of this.”

Finding a time to hold this event proved challenging. The presidents understood the need to find a time that suited the maximum number of students. They came up with a time that would suit the different schedules of all four Jewish studies programs. After making a few phone calls, Rabbi Penner, Dean of RIETS, agreed to contact the necessary parties to end the Wednesday classes of JSS, IBC, and SBMP 15 minutes early so as to allow students to attend, while MYP shiurim would begin just a few minutes late to accommodate. In this way, the entire undergraduate body on the men’s campus would be able to attend without scheduling conflicts.

On Tuesday afternoon, the family offered their consent for the event to take place. Immediately, the student councils sprang into action. Jacob Bernstein, president of Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) explained “all offices worked with unprecedented speed to make sure that the event could take place on such short notice.” While Events and the Office of Student Life (OSL) worked to approve the location of the event, an email and signs advertising the event were prepared. Although the OSL usually closes at 5 pm, they agreed to stay open late to print out signs to advertise for the event. Bernstein also noted that the mashgichim were particularly helpful in making announcements in the batei midrash to encourage students to attend.

Despite an important meeting taking place later that night, the student councils found time to work out a format for the event. All in attendance would spend the first ten minutes reciting selected passages from Psalms so that collectively, the crowd would finish all of Psalms several times. In preparation for that first segment, four hundred copies of individual Psalms were printed out for the attendees.  Ariel Adler, a junior in Yeshiva College, arrived at the rally five minutes late and “couldn’t find a paper in sight.”

Ten minutes into the rally, after students had a chance to recite their designated Psalm several times, Rabbi Shippel addressed the crowd. In a subsequent interview, Rabbi Shippel noted that “the rally was not a time to give a long drasha (sermon). I just had one thing to say. I wanted to thank everyone for coming. I spoke to Max earlier that morning and asked him what I should speak about. He said to say one thing: ‘Thank you.’” In reality, Rabbi Shippel did more than just thank everyone for coming. Recognizing that the majority of the crowd didn’t know Max personally, he painted a stunning image of Max’s character and personality. He spoke of his background as a non-observant Jew and his decision to come to Yeshiva University to learn more about Judaism.

Indeed, many people felt inspired by the turnout of students who largely didn’t know Max. Menachum Polack, a first year student in Syms School of Business, expressed his incredulity at the gathering for a largely unknown member of the YU community. “Seeing hundreds of students ranging from all four morning programs along with rabbeim, faculty, and administration praying fervently for a boy who most of them had never met before was truly an amazing experience.” Commenting on the fact that most students didn’t know Max, Bernstein noted, “All that mattered was that he’s an integral part of our community.”

If the gathering for an anonymous student on the Wilf Campus was impressive, then the gathering on the women’s campus in midtown was all the more so. Amanda Esraeilian, president of Torah Activities Council (TAC), described that the women had a parallel event in the 7th floor beit midrash. “We decided to have the event at 12:45 in conjunction with the men.” Despite the fact that many students were sitting in class at the time, Amanda estimated that around 100 women showed up to pray for Max’s well-being.

In addition to those who showed up in the beit midrash, Amanda noted that students had received an email from the Beren Campus Student Councils encouraging them to recite a short prayer for Max while they were in class. “A few girls actually sent me pictures of themselves reciting tehillim from various parts of the Beren Campus.” Similar to the men’s gathering, those present heard two of Max’s friends speak of his loving personality and character.

Unlike the women’s gathering, the men boasted one particular guest: Dr. Profeta, Max’s father. Although Dr. Profeta wasn’t originally included in the program, he agreed to speak at Rabbi Shippel’s request. After taking the podium, Dr. Profeta cleared his throat and began speaking in a deep voice that sounded hesitant, perhaps even a bit nervous.  “I thought I knew God - but I didn’t know God. I thought I knew Judaism - but I didn’t know Judaism. Seeing all of you here and the overwhelming support that we’ve felt…” Pausing just long enough to take a deep, shuddering breath, Dr. Profeta continued: “until today I didn’t know what it means to be a Jew.” In the prolonged silence that ensued, a quick scan of the room would reveal a variety of emotional reactions: some were sobbing, some holding back tears, yet others simply stunned to by the weight of his words.

Subsequent to the rally, Dr. Profeta met with President Richard Joel to offer his profuse thanks for building an institution that could foster such a strong sense of community. Although President Joel deflected the praise at the time, he admitted in an interview several days later that he felt a tremendous sense of pride from the outpouring of love. He referenced his inaugural speech where he posited the need to create a strong sense of community both within and beyond the walls of YU. In his words, “A culture of caring must be the hallmark of Yeshiva.”

A culture of caring was what motivated student leaders spanning two campuses to work tirelessly to see an event come to fruition in just 24 hours. A culture of caring accounted for interdepartmental bureaucracy melting away in the face of a student who needed the support of the YU community. And a culture of caring compelled more than 600 people across Manhattan to gather for a prayer powerful enough to reach Heaven’s gates.

So, when those who had gathered responded with an impassioned “Amen” to the mishebeirach, a prayer for Max’s good health, Rabbi Shippel started to sing. As he later described, he “felt an energy in the room. It just seemed the appropriate thing to do.” Seconds later, the singing spread virally through both floors of the Glueck beit midrash. Brows once again furrowed, the prayers once again ensued: “The people of Israel are brothers- whether mired in pain or bondage… May God have mercy on them and remove them from pain to abundance, from darkness to light, and from oppression to redemption.”

YC senior Adir Feifel, head Resident Advisor in Rubin Hall, was particularly moved by the rally. Adir felt that this was “probably the most powerful experience [he’s] had since arriving at YU more than two years ago.” Feifel mentioned that he was quite happy to have contributed in a small way in planning the event.

Dr. Profeta was moved beyond words. Referring to Max’s father, Korman remarked, “You could see in his eyes that he took away hope and strength.”

Through the efforts of student leaders, administrators, and a visionary president, a group of Jews from all walks of life gathered together to show support for a student, simply because he was part of the community.

As a collective YU community, we wish Max, Moshe Avraham ben Mina Masha Chaya, a full and lasting recovery from his illness. As Max continues to remain a part of our community, despite his medical struggles, he will remain in our thoughts and prayers.